An Excerpt from The Ironwing Affair

[A work in progress.]

In which David keeps a vigil while Sidraytha of the Isles of Wulde seek absolution for an episode of berserker rage…

We climbed into the hills soon after. The tallest shoulders of stone looked over the roundabout, down and past ranks of outcrops and boulders through which the stream tumbled before it flowed into a small lake. By then we’d changed into spare clothes; the condition of those we’d cleaned did not pass muster with Mistress Malley, who took them in hand. We wore our swords and great coats, and I carried a pair of blankets for sitting. These were all the comforts Island tradition allowed. We’d eaten a light supper, but brought no food or water with us. I could feel the eyes of our fellow travelers follow us up the slope. Word had spread; they knew where we went, and they knew why. This was made clear by so many of them making the sign of the Two, as we passed by.

Sid picked a flat boulder perched at the highest point and, as the sun set, we climbed onto it. At that high point we arranged the blankets and stood facing each other. “Our blades will lay between us, unsheathed,” she said, drawing hers. “They must not touch. We will sit back-to-back, and we will not touch or speak or look upon one another until you see the sun rise. When it clears the horizon, you will tell me the vigil has ended.”

“Got it,” I said. I drew my sword, and it caught a gleam of red light from the setting sun. It was completely quiescent in my hand. I could only hope the same was true of Sid’s weapon. We set them down, one after the other, hers pointing south, mine north. Sid turned to face the sunset, and I followed her gaze.

How recently had we watched that fierce, red globe sink into the west, and not long after made love beneath the stars? And now we would keep a vigil beneath those same stars, and my lover sought absolution from deities I didn’t even believe in. The strangeness and frightful beauty of this life I’ve led never ceases to amaze me. I suppose, on balance, that’s a good thing.

As the sun slipped beneath the horizon and the sky darkened overhead, Sid started to sing a hymn in the language of the Islands. I didn’t know the language, then, but the pleading sound of her voice, and the tears I could hear beneath it, were distressing. All the more so, knowing there was nothing I could do. The song went on and on, with short pauses for breath. I didn’t dare so much as take her hand in mine. It wasn’t by instruction that I held back. I just knew it would be the wrong thing to do.

Only a dark band of blue remained above the horizon as the song ended, and Sid indicated that we should sit. I did so, facing east, Sid at my back, both of us wrapped in coats. I settled in for a long night.

It was a very long night indeed.

I’ve kept long watches, in my day, and gone without sleep more times than I care to count. But I’d never done anything quite like this before. Knowing where my friend’s head was at, what she had to be feeling, and yet not really understanding what she was about – I’m a thoroughgoing agnostic in such matters – all sorts of thoughts floated through my mind. The stars slowly turned from east to west over the wide, shadowy landscape around us. The sounds of the camp below died away and there was only the whisper of a light breeze sighing over the rocks, the chatter of the stream bubbling up and pouring over the stones of its narrow bed, and a single loud and persistent cricket that I swore I would one day hunt down and kill.

The air grew chilly, and I pulled the collar of my coat up around my neck. Sid sat behind me, as still as the stone beneath us. My mind wandered, and I found myself reliving snatches of memory. The dragons on the Golden Gate Bridge, the Moj hordes appearing in North Carolina and Texas, and kaiju rising from the sea. I remembered the day the Alvehn came and prevented the flying monkeys from infesting my Earth, while helping us repel the Moj. I remembered fighting in the unit of militia my father formed when then black drakes appeared. I recalled his death, and how by dying he spared so many lives. And then, with the brane rips stabilized by the Alvehn, I joined the United Nations Multiverse Survey and teamed with Alvehn and other sorts of folk to explore and understand the vast range of realities of which my world was just a tiny part. I reviewed a lot of my life, that night, the beauty and love, the rage and grief, and the sheer wonder of the multiverse. It defies my meager skill with words.

Yes, a lot of stories. I’ll tell you more of those stories – someday. For now…

I remained awake and at her back all through her vigil. Instead of falling asleep I seemed to enter a strange sort of mental state that was neither wakeful or unconscious. It was awareness and feeling, only, without thought.  My wandering recollections faded away. I was aware of the long starlit moment that was the night, and of the woman who sat behind me. Acutely aware of Sidraytha. Somehow, though we faced away from each other, I knew she remained awake. Time became a long blurred moment; reality was as crystal clear as the stars overhead.

The sky was growing pale to the east. I watched as the stars faded and the thin, pale crescents of the old Adrathean moons rose ahead of the dawn. Birds called out to each other in shrill, bubbling whistles from the shadowy land around us. The sky grew steadily brighter and more birds joined that dawn chorus. It seemed to take forever, but at last a fiery sliver of light burst over the rim of the world. In a moment it was too bright to look at directly, and in the fullness of time, the sun rose above the horizon. The vigil had ended.

Feeling stiff and a little shaky, I got my knees under me and turned toward Sid. “It’s done,” I said. I looked up into the sky, stretching my back, and saw gryphons circling overhead. They were still watching us. I had no problem with that, not after what had happened.

Sid let go a deep sigh and bent forward a little, then nodded. “It is done,” she agreed, and though she needed no help whatsoever, accepted my hand as I helped her stand.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said with another nod. “It would seem the God and Goddess share your judgement of me, Daffyd.” And she smiled, then stepped forward and kissed me. It was a brief kiss, and after it we just stood there, holding each other for a moment as the day brightened around us.

I saw our companions just as she turned from me, and knew she did so as well when she let out a little gasp of surprise. There, on the rocks below us, with lanterns and candles and green glow lights that all still gleamed or flickered in the shadows cast by the hill, were what appeared to be most of the caravan’s company. Closest were Korl, Tensta, and Trey; arrayed around them were most of the surviving caravan guards. Not far down the hill I saw Grevin, the Prince, and the rest of the players. Master and Mistress Malley stood close together, holding hands. Beyond them, the rocks were liberally sprinkled with people, gazing up at us. All of them looked utterly exhausted.

Our fellow travelers, aware of what Sid needed to do, and why, had chosen to keep the watch with me.

Sid stared out over them for a moment, speechless, then as tears spilled from her eyes she made the sign of the Two over them. After that, she went down on one knee and bowed her head.

I knelt beside her, and did the same.

Posted June 17, 2017 by underdesertstars

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