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Notes of Noy, Notes of Joy

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I found my husband on the fourth day in the goblin realms, seated alone in a large and empty chamber with a silver band around his throat. I held up the torch I carried, and he flinched from the flame, but I wanted to see him clearly.

He looked thin and insubstantial, not like when he was dying in the house in the woods and color had leeched into his cheeks, but as though even the paleness of him was fading away and becoming transparent so the deathly gray shadow I’d been walking through for days showed through behind. Flek had warned me it might be like this. (“I do not know what the goblin realms will be to you,” she had said, twisting her hands together in grief and fear. “But to us, they are like the realms of the dead.”) So I was prepared when he looked up at me with those eyes that had been like knives and found them dull and gray instead, and it did not worry me, not any more than I was already terrified.

I raised my other hand from where it rested on my belt and held it out to him. “I’ve come to take you back to the glass mountain,” I said. “Get up and come with me.”

He stared at me, and a little of the old scorn came back to his eyes. “You are a human,” he said, and where his voice had been high and thin like a fierce mountain wind, now it was like a whisper through reeds. “Who are you?”

Flek had warned me of this, too, and I had thought I was prepared. I was nothing of the kind.

I bit my lip until I tasted blood, and I told myself that I was the lady of the white forest and the mountain of glass, and I was Miryem bat Josef, and I was his wife. But I couldn’t tell him any of that.

Instead I shrugged off the pack I carried on my back and untied the long sword in its sheath. He stirred a little, recognizing it. I told myself I should be glad to see the life come back into him, even a little. I told myself I should be glad he remembered that much. (“Every day he is there,” Flek had told me, “he will lose a little of the memory of his life. And every day he is there, that memory will slip away from us, too, unless we hold onto it.” Even now, I prayed, the Staryk bards stood in the grove of white trees, singing songs that would preserve the memory of their king.)

I laid the sword across his lap, careful to hold the torch as far away from him as I could. “Get up and come with me,” I said again. “We may not have much time.” I had learned the dangers of stopping too long anywhere in those realms.

His hand reached, dreamlike, to close around the white leather scabbard tooled in gold. Still he only stared at me. “And who are you, mortal girl,” he asked, but very slowly, as though he had to fight for the words, “to command me to come with you?”

“It’s not a question of who I am,” I said, “but of who you are.” Then I spoke his name, and I commanded him to come.

I think he would have struck me dead on the spot if he had already not been bound by silver; even then I think he might have tried to break free of the bonds, which after all I had not put on him, if he had not been mostly dead himself. But he was not at his full strength, and that silver collar was bright about his neck, so he followed me.

If it had been wearying to work my way through the winding passages of the goblin depths, come all alone to find him, it was doubly hard now with a Staryk lord trailing all unwilling after me. He moved like one half-asleep through the rough-hewn tunnels, and I had to hold the torch out before me to see with one hand, and keep another hand on my belt, and always be looking behind to be sure he was still there. Always feeling the subtle sense of home that called to me from the mirror I had hung around my neck. And always, without fail, waiting for the faint change in the air—the whisper of a hot breeze against my cheek, the scent of sulfur in my nostrils—that would tell me we were not alone.

He did not speak to me, and I could not bring myself to speak to him. In that much, at least, it was very like the earliest days of our marriage. The thought might have made me laugh, if I’d been in any mood for laughter. Four days hidden from the sun had dulled any impulse to happiness that had been left to me after the first snow had fallen, and I had waited at my parents’ gate, and when at last the Staryk’s sleigh had come my husband had not been in it.

It was too much to walk silently through that dead place, and since I could not talk I began after a while to sing.

“Can you not be silent,” hissed the Staryk.

He had been quiet for so long that I nearly dropped the torch. “This is what wakes you up?” I demanded, amused despite myself. Irritation had made his voice almost strong again.

“I have followed as you commanded me,” he said, glaring—or trying to, with silver eyes turned smoky gray. They did not have the effect on me that they once had. “You need not torment me while we go.”

“I’m not singing to torment you,” I began to say, but the look on his face stopped me. I whirled back around, the hand that had been resting at my belt drawing out the narrow silver dagger as I turned—and at the end of the long stone passage along which we traveled, there stood the form of a tall Staryk lady all in armor, her hands held limp at her sides. I winced, but I let the dagger fall and said, “Leave her.”

My Staryk did not listen but pushed roughly past me to approach her. “Lady,” he said, “how came you to this place?”

She did not speak, and she did not look at him. Her face, with its hard clean lines, must once have held a terrible power and beauty; shades of it were there still, but she had faded not with age but with death and forgetting, and all that remained was thin and insubstantial.

I could have told him to stop trying. “Lady,” he said again, “I am the lord of the mountain of glass. Tell me, if you will—” But then he reached for her, and laid a gloved hand on her sleeve, and I saw his fingers pass through her flesh.

He recoiled at once. I wondered what it felt like to him; surely the creeping cold of death, as we mortals think of it, was different for a Staryk. “She is long dead,” I said, coming up beside him. “I’ve seen others here. There’s nothing left of them. It’s better not to try.”

He whirled on me then, the sluggishness of before forgotten. “Who are you, to tell me what is better? A mortal girl who knows my name?” He came toward me, and I stepped back until my shoulders connected with the stone wall of the tunnel, and there was nowhere else to go. He loomed over me and I remembered how I had feared him at first, how terrible he had seemed as I sat in Oleg’s sleigh holding a purse of six gold coins. I didn’t fear him now, not really; maybe I should have, but when he reached out for me I did not thrust the torch between us but let his hands close on my shoulders.

Dead or not, remembering or not, he was still my husband, and there was no fear in me as he pressed me against the stone and stared into my face. His eyes had cleared; I stared back into them and remembered, wildly inappropriately, our leave-taking the night before he left me at my mother’s house. I flushed with the heat that always baffled and fascinated him; my lips parted.

The turn of my thoughts must have been obvious, because his anger dissolved into complete astonishment, and then his lip curled in utter contempt. He released me with a flick of his wrists, like he was brushing some dirt off his gloves. “Who are you?” he asked again. “Where came you by my sword and by that dagger, and how came you here?”

“I can’t tell you who I am,” I said. “Is it so important? I’ve come to lead you out of the goblin realms and back to your mountain. The longer you are here, the more you’ll forget. And the longer we stay here in the open, the more likely it is something worse than the shades of your long-dead kinfolk will come for us.”

“Forget?” the Staryk repeated. His eyes had begun to cloud over again, and his words came less easily. I wanted to seize him, to shake him until he was mine. “What is it you think I have forgotten?”

“How came you here, winter king?” I asked, and before I could see the blow land I turned and began walking again, past the Staryk lady and her empty face.

(“The goblin realms teemed, once, with life and work,” Flek had told me. “This was many generations ago. They were not always our allies, but neither were they always our enemies. We gave them respect. And then those who traveled there from our lands began to come back confused, unable to tell us what they had seen and done there. And sometimes they returned and we did not know who they were. I think it is like we are to mortals, sometimes, when you do not remember us.” She had drawn a little, sobbing breath. “And gradually we came to understand that in the mines below their cities, the goblins had delved too deep or too fast or too recklessly, and whatever vein of poison they struck there had begun to spread. I don’t know what you will find there,” she had said, meeting my eyes at last. “Sometimes they come out, still, and raid the borders of our lands, and bring one or more of us down with them if they can. But they are changed, and I do not know what their own realm is like.”)

What it was like, I thought, pushing myself on exhausted, was cold, but not the fresh cold of the glass mountain that did me no harm, but a damp, creeping cold that sank into my bones and made the fabric of my dress and stockings and even my warm woolen underthings cling to my skin with an unpleasant clamminess. And it was dark, mostly, but not the dark of my family’s cabin at night, that could be lit with a cheerful fire, but a sucking shadow that pulled at the edges of the light cast by my torch. And it was empty, almost; these tunnels may once have teemed with life, but now I could walk a day without meeting a soul, living or dead.

And when it was not empty, I knew to be afraid.

We came to a turning I did not know, and I pulled out the little mirror from where it lay against my throat. Holding it, looking into the fading light of a sunset in my own world, I felt the call of that world drawing me on, and took the left turning.

“What is that magic?” asked my husband.

“A talisman,” I said shortly. “Something of my home, to draw me there.”

“How did you come by it?”

He sounded suspicious; I wondered if he recognized some pattern of his own workings. I considered telling him the truth, but it lay too close to the truth I must not tell. “I won’t answer that.”

His face tightened. “You will not tell me who you are. You will not tell me how you came here. You will not tell me even this. Why is it I should follow you?”

“Because I know your name,” I snapped at him; and then I thought better of it. “I can tell you this: that when I bargained for admittance here, I agreed that I would not tell you who I am. It’s as much as my life is worth to break that bargain.”

(The gatekeeper of the goblin realms smiled at me. It was not a cruel smile or a kind one; it was only the smile of one who knows their work. “You may enter, and you may even find him before his memories have all turned to dust; but you may not remind him that you turned his silver to gold, or struck down the demon at his gate, or went into his bed. See if he will go with you, mortal child; if the ice-lord who remembers his winter and his pride but not his sunlit wife will follow her direction through the goblin halls.” But the gatekeeper did not know that my husband had given his mortal wife his name along with his hand.)

“Then I will not ask that of you,” the Staryk said, with the air of one granting a favor. “I ask only where you came by that talisman, for I know its workings.”

“I could tell you that,” I said, “but it would hit too near the mark. I don’t want to answer your questions.” I hated that he had to ask them.

“A bargain, then,” he said. “Answer five questions, and you shall be rewarded.”

I started a little, wondering if some memory of our first wedding night still remained to him; but I could not ask that. To hide my reaction, I laughed a little. “What do you have to give me, Staryk?”

“Jewels if you will have them; long life if you wish it; there is treasure and magic to spare in my kingdom, and they shall be yours.”

“I’ll answer anything you like if we do reach your kingdom,” I promised him. “But those things are no good to me here. And now,” I said, before he could speak again, “we will sleep.” The passage had opened up into a wider cavern. The floor was scored deeply with long and jagged troughs, and I wondered what heavy use it had seen in the days when the goblins worked their trade. I led us to the midpoint of one of the cavern walls, where I could see the whole space without difficulty and thought I would be most easily able to sense an intrusion, and shrugged off the pack I carried.

I took out the flask and the loaf Tsop had given me, with such workings in them that they would last a month or more. I drank and ate my fill and handed them to the Staryk. His words and movements had begun to slow again; whatever life I had shocked back into him seemed to be fading, though the clear, cold water of his home seemed to revive him a little. I found myself watching the movement of his throat under the silver collar as he swallowed; and found myself remembering the way his skin tasted under my lips.

As he put down the flask, I saw too late that he was watching me as well. There was no outrage in his eyes now, but calculation. “A bargain,” he said. “For five questions.”

I frowned. “What are you offering now?”

“My body,” he said, as easily as anything. “As you desire it, and as I have nothing else to bargain with in this place. I will lie with you, here and now, if you will give me five answers.”

I stared at him; he was utterly unashamed of the offer, though my own face burned with embarrassment and anger. “You think that is worth five answers?” I asked after a moment; I am not sure I managed to convey the scorn I was hoping for.

“Three, then,” he said at once, and I laughed, tears pricking at my eyes. Without looking at him again, I lay down on the stone floor with my back to the wall and my pack balled up under my head, and I told myself I had to sleep.

Which I did, eventually, and for the first night since I had descended into that place I was troubled by nothing worse than my own thoughts.

******

I was not sure the Staryk would sleep, or if this half-death was close enough to make it unnecessary. When I rose in something like the morning he was seated cross-legged, his back also to the wall, and his eyes half closed. I ate and drank, and when I was ready I leaned over him and shook him until he looked at me. He was fading again, his shoulder almost weightless under my hand, and he did not object to being handled so.

“Get up,” I said angrily, though I wasn’t really angry so much as afraid. When I had prodded him into existence and movement again I took out the mirror, made certain of the way, and set off.

After we had been walking some little time, I remembered his reaction from the day before and began to sing again as we went.

“Is that a charm?”

I glanced over my shoulder at him. He had been following without much prodding, today. I was glad to hear his voice. “Yes.”

He nodded; I could see that this made more sense to him than that I sang to keep myself company. “What for?”

It was an old song my grandmother’s grandmother had taught her. It was about bees alighting on flowers in the garden, about collecting the wax from their hives, about melting it and dipping wicks over and over until they formed long golden tapers that would cast their light over the table. “A charm against the dark,” I said, “and the things that are in it.” I clutched my torch a little tighter.

“Where came you by that torch?” he asked, eyes falling mistrustfully on the flames. They burned just warmer than lukewarm, and they would not go out, even without oil and even when I laid the torch down to sleep.

“I stole it,” I said, “from a band of goblins who had tried to take me in my sleep.” Disbelief narrowed his eyes. I lifted my chin in a direct, challenging look, and said, “I’ve come this far without getting myself killed. I may be mortal, but I’m not defenseless.” He looked to the dagger on which my hand was always resting, and I could see he still did not quite believe me.

Well, no doubt he would have to soon enough.

When my mirror told me it was midday, we reached a wide, tall chamber paved in smooth flagstones, with many branching tunnels marked out with glittering mosaics in characters I could not read. This had clearly been a thoroughfare at one time; I imagined it teeming with life and conversation, and it felt all the more hollow and empty by contrast.

There was a large fountain in the center, beautifully designed in whorls of cold black-veined marble. It was still running.

“I’m going to wash,” I announced. I glanced at him, wondering if he might like to clean himself as well, but he seemed as clean and fresh as when I had found him; preserved, almost, as if neither effort nor uncleanliness could touch him. I shuddered. “Keep watch if you can.”

He turned his back as I began to unlace my dress, not politely, but pointedly. I ignored this.

The water was not as cold as I had expected. I had scrubbed my face and under my arms and was just changing into a new shift when the droplets still clinging to my neck began to feel warm, then almost hot; and under the smell of damp wool I caught a faint whiff of sulfur.

I dropped my pack and fumbled for my dagger. “Your sword!” I gasped, waking the Staryk from whatever half-sleep he had been about to fall into. He looked almost alert, and he grasped the sword as though he remembered its use.

I hoped it would be enough.

They came at us from two sides at once, a small horde of the things that still lived here—if you could call it life. Some carried steel—though they seemed no longer certain what to do with their weapons, and were likelier to claw or bite at you than to swing with a blade—and wore mail of delicately-woven steel and iron links, and their faces ranged from a sickly, pale off-white to charcoal gray.

I saw the flash of silver out of the corner of my eye, but I was too preoccupied with my own struggle to follow my husband’s. I had killed several with my dagger already, but now there were two of them at my back and one at my side, and as I swung around I felt arms come about me from behind and teeth sink into my shoulder through the thin, still-damp shift.

I screamed and seized the goblin by the head, my fingers sliding along the clammy skin until they made firm contact with the age-old armor. And then I gathered all my strength and will, and I pushed, and heat bloomed beneath my touch until it was no longer my own screams echoing through that chamber.

My gift did not work here like it did in the Staryk kingdom, anymore than I could turn silver to gold in my own home. But it did work in a way.

The goblin fell dead at my feet, smoke rising from its flesh as the steel and iron it wore turned molten and liquid yellow—almost the color of gold, in its heat.

It did nothing to stop the others coming; I think they had forgotten the meaning of fear. I killed those, too, one with my blade and the other with my touch, and stood there bleeding from the shoulder in my thin and inadequate shift.

The Staryk stared, lowering his own sword; the goblin blood was thick and gray, and it shone almost like silver as it fell from the blade.

“I think that’s all of them,” I said; at least, I couldn’t smell any more, and the heat of their passing was beginning to fade. I craned my head to look at my shoulder. It needed to be cleaned, but it was not deep. My breath was coming fast, and I was trembling a little, not with fear—I had found, over the last few days, that the fear faded when the thing I dreaded had actually come to pass—but with the aftershocks of power and the death I had dealt. I moved toward my husband, who stood between the bodies of his enemy, still unmoving, still staring. “Are you hurt?”

“No,” he said, that high, thin voice a little hoarsened. “No, I am not hurt. Mortal girl, where did you learn to do that?” His eyes were fixed on me, very wide; I could see the rise and fall of his chest as he breathed.

“That,” I said, “is a question, and we have not reached a bargain.”

“I made an offer,” he said, stepping closer. His eyes moved now, traveling down from my face to my bleeding shoulder, down to the long silver dagger gripped in my hand, down to the dead at my feet. “You said the price was too high.” Those eyes—shining white now, as though the fight had reminded him what life was—traveled back to my face, and I saw then that even if he did not know who I was, he wanted me, too. “I countered, and you did not refuse.”

My blood was humming with magic and with my own death averted; he was my husband, and had lain in my arms, and I was determined not to lose him; I did not want to refuse. “Three questions,” I said, and reached for him.

We were cold as ice and hot as molten gold all at once; there was no bed as we came together in the open air, and I was flecked with blood that was mine and blood that was not, but I felt assured with him in a way I had never done before in the short year we had been married. I felt sharp, like a blade myself; I felt primed, like the coals of a fire ready to be blown back into flame.

I did not feel entirely human.

******

After, I washed again and bandaged my shoulder as well as I could. He was unhurt, but for where my fingers had dug in and left streaks of silver against his skin.

“Three questions,” I said when I was dressed and we had set off once more. “Ask them carefully. Remember, I can’t tell you who I am.”

“How did I come here?”

Safe to answer, but not easy to get the words out. “You had taken a handful of knights out to the farthest reaches of your lands, to ensure their border was secure. They came at you from the dark.” (Flek's voice had been very soft as she told me this.) “They killed two of the knights, and seized you, and pulled you down. The others sealed the breach, but too late.” I wondered if he had thought of me at all, in the moments before he forgot he had a wife to think of.

He took this in silence, then asked, “Why did you come here for me?”

“I could answer that question,” I said, “but if I did, the gatekeeper told me my blood would turn to water and my bones to ash, and then you would have no-one to show you the way. Choose another.”

He frowned, unsatisfied. “My knights have not come, but a mortal who can have no love for the Staryk has. I would understand this.”

No love for the Staryk. Well, I saw how I could answer this much, at least. “They could not come because they would forget, too. I am human; I was told my memories might remain.” And so they had, as far as I knew; I remembered my mother crocheting in the warmth of that house in the woods, my father’s lips moving over the words of scripture, Wanda knitting with soft wool. The warm scent of spring in Lithvas. And then I thought of another way I could answer his question, truthfully if not completely. “I came for you because you made a treaty with me, to stop the winter in its proper time. I will not let that treaty be broken.”

He took this in silence as well. I could tell this had opened up more questions, many more, and he was struggling not to ask them. I walked on as he thought, humming a little to myself.

When he spoke again, his voice was faint as I had ever heard it. “Mortal girl, what is my name?”

My heart nearly stopped; I turned and stared at him, disbelieving. “You’ve forgotten that?”

“I remember the mountain,” he said, distant. “I remember my people. I remember chests filled with shining gold and a long dance under the trees when I was young. But I do not remember that.”

I wanted to go to him, to hold his face between my hands and whisper the name as I had on our second wedding night, the true one. But I worried that to show him the way I ached, the way I would comfort him, came too close to breaking the bargain that had brought me here; and I thought it would come too close to breaking me, to show him and not see him respond. So I held myself back, my throat burning with the tears I would not shed, and pitched my voice very clear but very soft, so it would not carry.

And I said his name, and again, and again; and each time he came back to me, just a little, but enough to give me hope.

That night as we lay down—not touching, though I ached to reach for him again, to hold him to me and keep him there—I said, “Your people are singing for you under the white trees, to hold your memory in their hearts. I don’t know if it will be enough, when we’ve left this place.” He said nothing. I could not tell if he heard me at all. “I hope it will be enough.” We were very close, now; I could tell from the way the mirror called to me, whispering to me of a winter night in Lithvas.

******

The next day I sang a song about the harvest and told him it was a charm against hunger; then I sang a song about carding and weaving wool and told him it was a charm against the cold of winter. But even that did not make him bridle as I thought it would. He seemed to go in and out, thinning gradually in my vision if I watched him too long; I found it easier only to look at him out of the corner of my eye, where he was sharper, like a faint star that appears if you look just to the side. I almost wished for another attack, to wake him again, but it did not come.

So I sang every song I could think of, until my voice was hoarse, and then I hummed instead. And then the song died in my throat because the tunnel had turned sharply upward. There ahead of me shone a light: not the sickly light of goblin fire, but the light of the sun, strong and just out of reach.

“There,” I said, my breath coming short. I could hear his footsteps, even and dreamlike, as he walked along behind me. “There, that is the way out. It will all come back to you soon.” I said it hoping rather than knowing it to be true; and wasn’t that how magic had always worked for me?

I pushed on ahead, my calves burning with the effort, and the light grew brighter until I could see the end of the caverns and a glimpse of white beyond, and dark green, and the gold of the sun. I quickened my pace. I wanted to turn, to look at the Staryk; to be sure he would follow; to watch his face as the memory came back to him. Instead I kept my face squarely ahead toward the light, so that I wouldn’t glance back and be turned to a pillar of salt.

And then I was spilling out into the open air, half-running: into a forest of dark fir trees with branches set high, and a light blanket of snow over their needles and over the ground. I stumbled on until I came to the trunk of one of those trees, where I fell forward with my hands against the bark, panting in the clean scent of the forest and home. My palms were sticky with sap. And still I did not look back.

I heard the crunch of the Staryk’s boots in the snow, and then I heard nothing but the sounds of the forest.

And then:

“Lady,” came my husband’s voice.

I drew one last, long breath of that fresh air, and then I rose and turned to him.

He was standing just outside the cavern’s mouth, sword drooping in his hand. He looked lost, even as his skin began to firm and whiten and the ice began to form again along his shoulders. He looked lost, but he was looking at me.

I began to run, properly now, and reached him just as his legs gave out and he knelt in the snow. He seized my hands, pressing them against his face so I could feel the cold tears starting from his eyes. I fell to my own knees and took him in my arms and knew that I had, once more, done the impossible for him; and in a whisper that ghosted white from his lips, too soft for anyone but me to hear, he said my name.