She watched, arms still raised in summons as her people threw off the chains of the earth and took to the sky. Pouring from the barrow, mounted on their favourite horses, they stormed across the night in a moving dark cloud of hounds and falcons. Their cries struck sparks from the stars and fell as lightning bolts, their hounds belling with the cavernous voices of ancient hunger. Her own throat was hoarse with encouragement thrown across the miles but her heart was light as a crow-black feather.
The dark cloud that swallowed the stars wheeled about and swooped across the plain. Around her head the wild hunt flowed, hooves drumming, splitting the clouds and sending torrents of cold rain to batter the earth. She rose, her robes billowing about her, snatched at the bridle of a black mare and swung onto the broad back. Faces proud and cold pressed about her, horses jostled and hounds leapt, impatient to be away.
From the last light of sunset, beneath the otherworldly glitter of the northern lights, the wild hunt rode, and the earth cracked and shattered beneath them. They dragged the curtain of green and rose lights apart and trampled it underfoot, and the Queen of the Night exulted in the destruction. This was her realm; this chaos of death and desolation was the price earth paid for the liberation of her people.
Over grassy plains they rode sowing salt ocean tears. Mountains crumbled in the wind of their passing, the earth shuddered and rivers ran into yawning chasms. The Queen threw back her head and laughed.
But even the longest night must end, and though black clouds clung to the eastern horizon, the stars paled and the deep velvet black of the sky smudged with grey. The Queen hurled her anger at the sun, but could not halt its relentless ascension. The stars flickered and died, horses shied and hounds cringed from the light, and with a single cry of anguish, the wild hunt sought out the last shadows and the deep places to hide. Her black mare reared and bolted after the others but the Queen dragged on the cruel bit and beat her hard on the head, wheeling her about to defy the sun. Her people had sunk back into the earth, but she refused the chains again. The mare screamed one last time as the first golden ray struck her forehead, and plunged with her rider into the morning dark sea.
Thundered threats followed him, bowling like lightning bolts through the cloud tinged with black now like burning paper, but he never lost sight of the white gull.
His powerful wings carried him effortlessly through the cloud-heavy air, and when the gull’s flight dipped and plunged to land on a beach of ochre sand, lapped by thick, silent waves of liquid bronze, he folded his wings and landed right beside it.
Purple hills undulated along the skyline and overhead pink waves of cloud flowed ever inland with a musical rhythm that reminded him of songs heard in childhood.
He can’t reach you here, but he’d like to, the gull said. Up to you whether you stay or take your chances with the tides and try to swim home.
Swim, fly, walk, float, all seemed immaterial to him as he turned about himself, a cat finding a comfortable spot in the sand warm as chestnuts and soft as duck feathers.
He spread his wings and hovered over the ochre sand, tasting the honeyed breeze on his tongue and listening to the music of the cloud waves.
“I think I’ll stay,” he said, and with cries of joy, a hundred white gulls flocked about his head, as a herd of blue horses galloped down from the purple hills to meet him.
Six lines instead of three in this installment.
The fumes of alcohol mingled with the pink clouds of mist and left his head clear but empty—he still had no idea where he was, up or down, dead or alive.
Somewhere, everywhere, coarse laughter reverberated and he remembered the whispering voice, the hand that shoved, and he searched the air for a face—instead he found a gull.
Don’t take any notice of him, the gull said, banking off into the scintillating cloud, just follow me.
“How?” he asked, immediately feeling stupid, but raising hands that dripped molten bronze.
Fly! The voice came back to him, muffled by the mist and fading, but he found himself spreading his bronze-dripping arms that became long, bronze-feathered arms, and beating the misty air in pursuit of the gull.
Liquid bronze and pink cloudy air vibrated with a roar of anger that he knew came from the mocking presence, but before fear could take hold of his wing beats, the gull wheeled about, fixed him with a bright, black eye and winked.
Leara asked for sequels to her story. You can read her first episode here. This is the end of the story as I imagine it.
The golden walls pulsate, their light so bright I almost fail to see the hovels huddled in the golden shadows. Movement, sluggish and weary, among the hovels catches my eye. Human servants of my people, probably. All people have servants. Some have slaves. But I had somehow thought that my people would be different, more enlightened.
I approach the gates, and haggard figures emerge from the hovels to watch me. I see the glint of curiosity in their eyes and I smile to myself. If they only knew. The gates spring open before I am close enough to touch them. They know. They sense my presence. I step through, into the great marble-flagged square flanked by guardian statues, that opens the path to the palace. There, at the heart of the city, built from material carried from the stars, lies my destiny. I learned about my heritage, the prophecy and the way it would come about from my foster parents. They told me all they knew before they died. They probably died happy, having fulfilled their part in my story.
No crowds gather to greet me. No soldiers flank the grand avenue in my honour. I shrug inwardly. The city knows. That is what matters. The palace glitters in the sunlight. I can almost hear it singing with happiness. Power surges in my blood, flows with me through the gates that spring open to let me through. The city leaders know I have arrived. I sense their fear trembling in the air. They know their hour has come.
Door after door flies open before me; armed guards melt away in terror. I pause before the last bronze doors, knowing that my destiny lies beyond them. I point, and they burst asunder. The city leaders who held the world in sway, the satraps and sultans, emirs and dukes, barons and tyrants, the corrupt and the tainted who modelled themselves on human despots grovel before me. A single sweep of my hand sends them screaming into an abyss of flame.
I climb the tallest tower, look down on the lands that stretch to the purple mists and beyond. I watch as the humans creep out of their huts and their shacks, the hope in their faces pitiful to see. The prophecy is fulfilled. My foster parents described its final details before I slit their throats. The world is destined to have but one ruler.
The suffering of humanity has only begun.
I decided the story of Else wasn’t over after all.
She ran, the dark poplars swaying and muttering in the wind that had turned chill and raw. The road was familiar though not the road that led from the house in town where Edvard and the child…She gulped back the tears and clenched her teeth on the sob that welled up in her throat. Branches swept low and caught at the hem of her coat. The wind rose higher and plucked at the hood, sending threads of cold to tangle her hair and icy needles to prick her skin.
A flurry of snow blinded her momentarily and she stumbled, falling into the ditch, trapped in a cage of brambles. She lay still, held tight, and the car headlights as they streamed by, picked out nothing in the roadside vegetation.
Her hear beating wildly as she realized how close she had come to discovery, she got to her feet. The brambles had let her go, were now inexplicably behind her, and she was on the edge of a summer field at the other side of the ditch. The knowledge that she was safe hit her as forcefully as the radiant sun. She had passed to the other side of heartache, and in the bird-filled peace, an inner voice told her all she had to do was cross the rainbow to find Edvard again.
This is the last episode in the story that started with At the window.
Edvard gripped her hand hard.
“What’s happening, Else?”
She shook her head in bewilderment. “I don’t know, but it looks warm out there. The baby won’t take any hurt from it.” She turned to him, her eyes wild with hope. “Get him. Quickly.”
“It’s an illusion, Else! It’s not real!”
“I’d rather this illusion than reality. Wouldn’t you? Run, Edvard! I’ll wait here, to make sure it doesn’t…go away.”
He pulled her to him in a kiss that she would feel on her lips forever, and disappeared into the shadowy garden. Else turned her face to the sun and waited. She waited until she heard the shouts, the running footsteps, the child wailing.
When the gunshots rang out followed by the satisfied chatter of triumph, she turned and ran. The waving corn that had swelled like a sea to the horizon had grown into an alley of dark poplars that met overhead and shut out the sky. The faint trail into a golden future was now a broad road vibrating with the sounds of cars and marching boots. She ran, knowing that for her, the path went nowhere, and it would never end.
Episode 4 of the serial.
Whispering and a faint whimpering followed them as they slipped through the door next to the kitchen fireplace. It had once led to the barn, demolished now and replaced by a neat kitchen garden. A glass veranda opened onto the garden, much smarter than the rough old door with its iron bolts and heavy lock.
He turned the key, expecting rust and reluctance, but it turned smoothly with barely a click. After the warmth of the kitchen, the cold hit them, and he put his arm around her shoulders. The garden looked different from the unfamiliar angle, glowing with frost in the winter night as they hurried, keeping to the tree shadows, to the gate that led out into the fields.
“We’ve taken a wrong turn,” he said sharply when the path led only to a thick hedge of dog rose. She pulled him to the right, drawn by a sense of urgency and the whispering in her head.
Pulling back a hazel branch to reveal a gate propped ajar amid a tangle of brambles, she caught her breath. Beyond the gate the path continued, through tall golden stalks of summer wheat.