my joy and i held candles before the frozen throne
she in her winged sandals, i in my boots of stone
she in her silken flora, i in my leather drear
she with the grace of cora upon the road of tears
We shouldn't have been here.
Behind us, the blood seeped gently into the snow-dusted floor of the cavern. Our candlelight glinted in endless shattered reflections from the ice-blue walls.
And before us - the Throne.
If I had been her, I would have run up and put my hand on the grand armrests; I would not have been able to hold myself back from touching it, to corroborate the evidence of my eyes with my other senses.
But she just stood, and regarded it; and so I stood beside her, as I always had.
At first, I looked at it. The lions sculpted into the handrests, the great sweep of the dragon wings that formed the backrest, the dragon's head crowning the structure. Something that would run to water and be gone, in the hands of any ordinary artisan, installed in any ordinary place.
There was only so long that any artifice could hold my attention - so, instead, I studied her rapt expression.
It was true that the Throne was beautiful. The intricate detail had inspired endless imitators; a wooden version, clad with gold and inlaid with sapphire, sat beneath this land's mortal ruler. Many lesser lords had copied the motif for their own decorations.
While beauty interested my love, it did not consume her as this vision did.
I had not been told what this creation meant to her; only that it was a quest, an obsession worth everything we had been through to reach this cavern, worth the white wolves bleeding their last into the ground, worth the cold nights on mountain and glacier.
I did not need to know.
All I needed was the warmth of her embrace, and to know that she desired this as fiercely as she loved life itself - as fiercely as she loved me. As fiercely as she had challenged her parents and very station for me.
I knew my limitations.
There was nothing I could do in this moment but to keep the watch, keep silence, and keep any thing we had not already slaughtered from disturbing her trance of fascination.
and did they see us shining through winter’s dark decree
those gods of time and dying who reasoned doom to me
The omens for our journey had not been good.
Her father's court employed a haruspex during the monthly sacrifice to predict the course of the kingdom's fortunes. In the month we committed to the journey, he opened the first sheep to discover a liver swollen and disfigured, the liquid of which gushed forth upon him.
The healers descended on him, but it was too late.
Fever took him into the kind of oracular trance which her father's people had always disdained. He spoke of ice and darkness, of the beasts of the mountains, of the many deaths that one might die cold and alone beneath the glacier. None had been told of our plans.
The dangers he recited only hardened her resolve.
I have always dealt with omens thus: disbelieve, but prepare, for ignoring a warning is the surest way to double your chagrin - once for the failure itself, once for the renewed belief in that which warned you, despite whatever you might say about probability and chance.
Our journey fulfilled every one of his dying words.
The ice giants came out of their barrows to confront us; not, of course, anything other than men in piled furs atop great shaggy mountain-beasts, but they came.
And each one of the poetic deaths beneath the glacier - the icicles, the deadfalls, the inescapable crevice - was taken by some creature that opposed us.
She warded herself from the cold with amulets and layered silks, and danced as many into hazards they had not seen as I carved much bloodier and less subtle trails through.
One inclined to be superstitious would have called her blessed, but I had seen her training and declared her instead to be ready.
"We're done now," she said, at long last. "I've seen enough. We can go."
came bright the dove of april, good summer in her wake
the eaglet in her cradle, and autumn’s golden snake
who was it caught my dearest in snares of shallow will
to bind her frail and fearless upon their hallowed hill?
She never explained her need to see the Throne, and I had long learned not to ask such things, in the sure knowledge that answers would only bring more questions.
Her father was surprised to see us return, and not a little unhappy that she had not lost me to misadventure along the way. A new haruspex had reported nothing but good omens for this season, which he naturally disbelieved; it is not unusual for one in that position to pursue a policy of flattery and ingratiation with their new lord.
But so far there was no deviation from his predictions that he could pin on the unfortunate inspector of sheep - not even the loss of his daughter, once we were back.
I was rather afraid of losing her myself, however, after the expedition. She kept me in her chambers and in her bed, and sought her comfort in me as often as usual, but her father had started to cast around for political advantage once more. The good harvests had emboldened him and made him reckless with surplus, and turned his eyes outwards to other lands.
Other lands that were tamable with grain, but claimable more readily by marriage; especially if they thought they were getting the better part, without realising his daughter's strength.
He knew he had no chance of obtaining her co-operation by simple insistence, so instead there were a whirl of feasts and festivities, paid for by the harvests and the loans he could secure on the wondrous omens - eagles nesting in the forests, the wealth-snakes seen burrowing in the fields - which continued to deluge the lands with prosperity.
She laughed at my insecurities, and returned to me later each evening; naturally I was not invited to the high table at which he sought to introduce her to a better spouse.
None of the mortal kings and princelings gave her pause. But after some months of this, the rumours came back from the outlying guard - the Hunt had been sighted out in the border lands. And it was not long until their gleaming horses were cantering gaily up the Trade Road, leaving tales of faery gold and inescapable beauty in their wake.
The rumours left her, in turn, strangely melancholy and then filled with a manic passion, an insistence on soaking up all the mundane beauty the world had to offer, including - to her - me.
I did not believe in the Fair Folk, although sometimes I had been given to wonder, what with her mother missing since her birth and the grace with which she comported herself. But in the end, that does not matter, does it? The Fair Folk believed in themselves, and something was approaching us on wings of ever more fanciful rumour.
come now you crawling spider, dire wolf and driving rain
my heart will sleep beside her, secure as iron chains
As they drew closer, I was finally invited to the dinners, on her insistence.
She clung to me like a talisman, and I did not question, because I was glad of her company.
It was the evening that their horses were stabled in the Grand City when she woke me at midnight, with fear that I have never seen on her face.
"There are only two things that can protect me from their touch," she whispered. "Iron, and true love."
Did we have true love? I had not questioned what we had since she pulled me out of the ranks; you did not say no to a princess, and I supposed that I loved her well enough. But well enough for this?
Perhaps the proof was in the doubt - I could not bring myself to discover that true love had some other definition.
"Then you should have both," I declared, and we stole off to the dungeons.
I had not been down into these depths before, but she navigated the corridors with ease, and soon we came to the great room with the cold, empty fire-pit and the quiescent bellows.
"Up here," she said, climbing boldy onto the iron contraption suspended above the place which would hold the flame. "There's plenty of room - it gives them hope that way."
I was not keen on the confidence of her declaration.
"I can't climb in with you," I heard myself protesting. "It surely doesn't open from the inside, and then there would be no-one to defend you should someone come this way."
"Always the soldier, my love," she replied, with a lightness and excitement that contrasted oddly with her earlier terror. "Do close it up, then."
I did as she ordered, and prepared to stand guard.
An unearthly scream of rage and frustration echoed faintly through the corridors. Some time later, swift and determined footsteps could be heard.
I took up the closest thing to a decent weapon - a poker designed for the fire, but a long stout piece of metal nevertheless - and several small sharp implements that felt like they had enough weight to fly adequately.
The first figure to outline itself in the doorway got a face full of knives - little more than a distraction, not being true weapons - and I was halfway through the swing before I recognised her father, flanked by two of his personal guard.
I did have a choice. I could have pulled the blow. I could have dropped my weapon and stood down and taken whatever was coming to me for making the king bleed.
The poker connected solidly with his royal head.
i climbed the rise at evening to bury my delight
no sign of web or weaving, no shadow of her flight
behold the unmade chalice, the wine that has no taste
the bare and phantom palace she made of my embrace
Once the short but vicious battle was over, I opened the iron box without a further word.
At first she ignored me, went straight to her father; knelt down and held up his head, looked skeptically at the wound, lifted one eyelid.
She did not like what she saw.
I stood silent.
I could have taken her out, easily, at that moment. I could have kept her from screaming, from running and getting help. I did not. She did not. We did none of those things.
She stood quietly, and looked up at me.
"The Throne," she said.
"My lady?" I replied, in abject confusion.
"It is the only hope that we have," she insisted.
Without waiting for me to agree, she set off down another passageway.
"Wait," I called, hurrying to her side. "We will never make it without provisions - without our warm clothes…"
"We will never make it out of this castle if we go back for them," she insisted.
behold these endless mazes, these winters without end
we roam till we have faces to feel the spring again
I had never been a thief, until that journey.
She told me that everything in the land would belong to her, in any case, should we succeed; and we would be too dead to serve our punishment, should we fail.
I asked her about the gods, and the fate of our souls, but she just laughed bitterly and asked me if I believed in such things now.
"You believe in this Throne," I replied. "What makes it more than just a sculpture of ice, buried in a cave that never thaws?"
She refused to answer me. I think she would have left me, had she not needed my strong arms and my warmth and my company, had she anyone else left in the world.
And at length we came once again to the cave.
This time she did not merely regard the Throne. As soon as we were near, she broke into a desperate sprint. It was all I could do to keep up with her, and watch as she fell triumphantly into the seat.
"Was something meant to happen?" I asked.
Then I heard the rumbling noise of the avalanche, cascading far above us, but groaning through the tunnel that would no longer furnish us with escape.
She placed her hands on the lion heads, and looked up in supplication.