The wind tugged at the hem of her dress as she followed the thready skein of music along the fragile cliff-side path. An old familiar melody, granted by the Gods long before she’d been born, it lived in the cliffs and in her bones.
It would remain in these mountains, she was certain, long after she was gone. Even with the barbarians overrunning their cities; even if only within the hearts of the spirits still dwelling here.
It wasn’t fair.
She shouldn’t have been regent.
She was, she felt, too young.
Far too young to have any of this on her shoulders.
The Dark Star was in the sky, even in daylight now, challenging the sanctity of the Garden of the Sun and the Morning Star.
The priests argued about it endlessly, whether it was a good omen or a bad one. The Gods granted them no insight.
She trusted in him.
He sat at the summit, amidst the broken stones that once had been a temple to a long forgotten God. Streaks of gold colored his dark hair, even paler now than when they were children, and his rich blue tunic reflected the depths of the summer sky. With his eschewing the pomp and regalia of royalty, only a single feather fastened into his hair denoted his status as the king of her people.
The music stopped.
Twisting the flute in one hand, he reached for the knife at his side with the other, and turned to see who it was behind him. His grip on the knife relaxed when he saw her, and a smile lit up his face, brighter and more precious – to her – than the sun itself.
Before he was a king, before he was her chosen prince, he was a herdsman. Her parents hadn’t approved of her choice, not exactly – not with the priests whispering in their ears that he would bring their Empire ruin, not prosperity – but in time they had relented and allowed her decision in the matter, for good or ill.
She was grateful to them.
When they met that day in the hills – on a day she had run from her home and responsibility in a frustrated childish fury and gotten nothing but lost for it – she felt in her heart that it wasn’t the first time. That she had known him all her life.
She had trusted him then, to lead her back to civilization.
She trusted him now, come what may.
He inched aside to give her space on the worn-to-earth flat stone that might have once been an altar, as, arranging her skirts, she sank to the ground to sit beside him.
Raising the flute to his lips, he paused.
“A God has spoken, and I have heard Her.”
It was all he said before he resumed playing, and echoed in her head. There was, for the first time, a shadow of a doubt in her mind; she banished it without a second thought. She focused the music, watching the play of his fingers as they traveled along the instrument.
There was a ring on his hand, one that she had never seen before, set with a dark-hearted crystal that absorbed the light rather than scatter it.
At length the melody trailed off, and the wind carried its echo off down the mountainside.
The young king sighed, and looked to his queen.
“The spirits...” he tried to explain, as though without the proper words. He shook his head, and set the flute across his lap. From the worn satchel he always carried at his side, he withdrew a peculiar, worn doll that she had never seen before. “Spirits chosen by the Dark Star gave me this.”
“You have to keep it safe.” She took it, and stared into its strange, unseeing eyes. An unbidden nightmare from childhood bubbled up, faint and intangible in the light of day, and was gone again as quickly. “There are... others – but they were stolen from the ruins, and I...”
She listened attentively, the only sound the wind rushing through the gulley; for several long moments he toyed with the strange ring.
“There’s more, but... I can’t tell you. Not yet.”
That stung her heart.
“Are there secrets between us at last, then?” she asked.
He laughed, as sweet a melody as any he could have played upon the flute. She pressed her lips together thinly.
“Never,” he assured her, running his fingers through the feathers of her crown. Smoothing over any perceived indignation.
“No,” he said. “Listen to me.”
And she did.
“If you trust me,” and that wasn’t even a question, flutter of doubt be damned, “Then trust when I say that there’s nothing to be afraid of.”
He took her hand as he stood, pulling her with him. He let go to stoop to collect his knife, whisking it away into his satchel, which he slung over his head as he straightened again. Pushing it behind him, he again took her hand.
“The invaders will be here soon...”
“And they will find their victory bitter, as we will have flown to a new homeland.”
That was the plan, at any rate.
The expression on his face said otherwise.
“There’s... something I must...” Biting his lip, he let go of hand. His words grew distant as he rummaged about in his bag. “There is a journey I must undertake, before I can join you. Here.”
He offered her a small pouch, adored with embroidery. Along with the statue tucked unceremoniously under her arm, it seemed important. She took it, turning it this way and that.
“Don’t wait for me. Trust only that I will find you, be it in this life or the next.”
Her guards were waiting for her return at the temple, to escort her through the secret tunnels and past the pitfalls and traps.
To the Golden Ship, their last refuge.
Standing on the deck, she felt their plight empty and meaningless without him here.
The strange figure, along with a curt word, she handed to a servant, who bowed in reverence even if she stared at the thing in confusion as she took a hasty leave.
That left her with the pouch. Shaking what it held into the palm of her hand, Queen found a ring that matched the one her king had worn. Shining bright in the torchlight, instead of dark in the sun. She slipped it on her finger.
Fear and hope roiled within her, battling for her heart.
This seemed familiar.
Had this not happened before?
The high priest rushed to her side and bowed.
“Shall we set sail under cover of darkness, my queen?”
Don’t wait for me.
Was she not then allowed to have a mind of her own?
“No,” she answered.
She would wait for her king’s return.
In this life, or the next.
At the world’s end.
Until the end of the world.