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East of the Sun, West of the Moon

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East of the Sun, West of the Moon

by Brighid

Author's disclaimer: This is not for profit, but for love. I make no claim to them, and seek no profit save the joy of writing ... oh, you get the picture. I'm hoping alyjude wins the lottery, though, and lets me borrow 'em on alternate Tuesdays.


East of the Sun, West of the Moon

by Brighid

Once, there was a quiet man who lived alone in a forest. Long before he came to the forest, he'd been many things: a merchant's son, a High King's soldier, a guardsman, a husband. But there was no quiet, no peace for him in any of these things. He carried a curse inside him, twisted into the skein the Fates had woven for him long before he had breathed his first breath, cried his first cry. There came a day when the world clawed at his eyes and his ears, burned his skin, fouled his mouth and nose, and he could bear it no longer. In fear and shame he left it all behind, and wandered days and nights until the forest swallowed him whole.

For a time, the forest soothed him, was a balm to his nerves. He found solace in the silence, in the deep places, where there were none to judge him, none to mock him. But still the curse dogged him, hounded him, harried at his heels. He found himself adrift in a sea of sensation; days and nights would disappear and he would only know the passage of days by the churning in his belly, the beard upon his chin. There were times he was tempted to lose focus completely, finally, but he never quite found the resolve within to do that. Instead, he lived as best he could between the reveries, like sunlight between clouds. He grew lean and hard and silent in the wilderness, and almost managed to convince himself that it was how he wanted to live.

One early autumn morning, checking the snares he had set, he happened to see a strange bird, ruby-feathered and quicksilver fast, and he felt himself falling into the crimson, as though he could taste the colour, smell it and feel it wash over him, a crimson tide. The dead rabbit fell from his nerveless fingers, and some part of him understood that this would be the last time, that this was the end of everything; he was drowning in a sea as red as blood. Dimly, as the waves of red closed over his head, he heard the distant roar of two angry cats, and a third, howling cry of a lone wolf.

)0(

He came to himself when a rough, wet tongue licked him once, twice, three times. His eyes opened wide, only to have his vision filled with another pair of eyes -- wide and blue and undeniably canine. He scrambled backwards through the pine needles, and found himself being watched by a shaggy grey wolf. Its tongue lolled, and for a moment the man was sure the wolf was laughing at his panic-stricken retreat.

"Is that any way to say hello to the one who saved your life, man?" the wolf asked, and he had been right, the wolf was laughing at him, but not in an unkind way. There was gentleness in its tone, and wryness, and something suspiciously akin to wistfulness.

"I heard...I heard mountain cats," he replied at last.

The wolf sat on its haunches, cocked its head slightly. "It's been a lean season -- they scented your rabbit, thought to make a meal of it. I led them off to a larger kill, then dragged you here."

The man looked around, realizing for the first time that he was a good ways away from where he'd lost himself. "Then I owe you my thanks, Wolf." He stood up, and gravely offered his hand to the wolf. A part of him was deeply afraid that the wolf, despite its words, might snap his hand right off, but honour demanded he do no less.

The wolf stood, moved forward, nuzzled his palm briefly, and then stepped back again. "You owe me more than that, man. In the forest there are rules older than mankind, and the rule for this is you owe me your life." The wolf's voice was still kind, still laughing, but there was a vein of granite beneath it; the man felt his insides turn cold.

"So you've saved me only to destroy me?" the man asked, running his fingers through his close-cropped hair, over his beard-rough chin.

The wolf yipped angrily, a snarling, contemptuous noise. "Much good you'd do me dead, man! I mean you owe your life to me, that I might ask of you what I will. But I am not a greedy wolf. I have only three things to ask of you. A reasonable price for your skin intact, is it not?"

The man scuffed his worn boots through the thick carpet of pine needles. "Reasonable enough. What would you have of me?"

The wolf stood, came close to the man, brushed against his legs like a favoured hound marking its human. "I ask that you let me live with you, guide you through this wakeful dreaming that so afflicts you. We wolves have long been guides and teachers, and it might be that in my old stories and ancient ways, I have a way to help you."

The man regarded the wolf doubtfully; neither the priest-healers in the King's service, nor any of the apothecaries and alchemists his father had bought had managed to find a way to unravel the curse woven into his threads, and yet here was this wolf offering him the faintest flicker of hope. Something inside him shuddered to waking for the first time in years, and reached out towards the hope. "Done. What else do you require of me?"

The wolf just flicked its ears and tail, and loped off down a trail it alone could see. "In due time, man. In due time." It paused, turning in quick circles, as though trying to catch falling leaves. It waited only long enough for the man to catch up. "Hurry then, hurry then, there is so much to learn and so little time!" It paused, circled the man once, twice, three times, a binding knot, and for a moment the man was sure, just sure that he saw a bit of coyote somewhere in the wolf's bloodlines, in the angle of its toothy smile and the gleam of its sapient eye.

He wondered what, exactly, he had gotten himself into.

)0(

Days and weeks passed, and the autumn turned to winter, and the wolf was as good as its word. The man came to understand how the curse worked, and even, perhaps just a little, understand that it was as much a blessing as a curse. The fact that his belly was never empty and his little cabin well provisioned for the winter attested to that. By the time the first snows fell, he could hear birdsong from the heart of the forest, could smell a rabbit's warren from across the river, could taste the weather on the wind. For the first time he could remember, his life was free from the bewildering confusion of synaesthesia, free from the waking dreams that robbed him of days at a time.

One night, as he sat mending his nets and snares and listening to the wolf tell stories about the ravens and the bears, he was startled to realize that he was happy, that he was at peace. He stayed perfectly still a moment, and wished that the moment might last forever: peaceful and warm, with the voice of the wolf filling him up completely.

But time does not stand still, and when the wolf's story was over and the snares were whole again, the wolf came up to the man. "I am ready to claim the second debt," the wolf said, and all peace fled the man entirely. But he was an honourable man, in his own way, and so he simply folded his hands in his lap and waited. The wolf regarded him, and the man was uncomfortably sure that everything he felt was utterly transparent to those blue, blue eyes.

The silence continued until the man sighed in frustration. "Well, then? What do you want of me? Since my shelter and companionship are not enough, what more will you have?"

The wolf lifted a paw, placed it in the man's lap. "I would have you let me sleep beside you, man, for the winter is cold and the floor is earth and two are much warmer together than apart." The wolf laid its head down in the man's lap, and the man found himself stroking it absently.

At long last he nodded. "It's a strange request, but one I can honour, Wolf. The nights are indeed cold, and two are warmer together than apart."

That night, though the wind howled about the cabin and tore at the thatching and shutters, man and wolf slept soundly, and if they dreamed strange, magic things, they did not say so to the other.

)0(

Spring came, and though the world was warm again, the wolf did not leave the man's bed, and the man did not ask. Their days were spent together as well, as the wolf taught the man mastery over what the Fates had woven. As the season passed, the man realized that perhaps, this too was part of the pattern. Perhaps, just perhaps, there was a meaning to his life, and a place for the wolf as well. Together they ran the forest, together they caught fish in the water and ate fresh berries and watched the clouds and shared stories. It was the life the man had always longed for, and he thought, perhaps, all the time in misery, all the time alone was a fair price to pay for this.

And then, one day, the wolf paused in the middle of a story about the Lake and the Wind, and just sat looking at the man. Its eyes were grave and serious, as though it were weighing something in its heart. It made the man wary.

"What? Is it the third debt, Wolf?" the man asked, the words coming out like broken glass and stone.

The wolf nodded its shaggy head, but still did not speak. The man watched the wolf, how its tongue flickered out to lick berry juice from its muzzle. Late spring silence, heavy with the sound of bees, fell between them like a shadow. The wolf's eyes never left the man's face, and he felt as though the weight of it might unravel him.

"What?" he yelled suddenly, scattering the drowsing crows -- a murder of crows, echoed in his head -- from the trees overhead.

"I want you to pack your possessions up, and take me back with you into the world," the wolf said finally, standing and stalking over to the man.

"No," said the man, and his words were harsh and metallic and unnatural in the green of the forest. "No!" he roared, sending the last of the dark birds aloft. The world meant suffering, and hurt, and betrayal, and he had had enough of that years ago. The thought of returning terrified the man beyond reason.

The wolf bared its teeth at the man, snarled angrily. "You promised, man. You promised. This is what you owe, this is your word and your bond and I claim it as is my right!" It lunged forward, its teeth snapping and grazing the man's bare hands.

The man rose to his feet, and he too snarled and snapped. "No. I will not go there, I cannot go there. Not by myself, and certainly not with you!" His belly was a cold hard knot of fear midst the fury the drove him forward, and somehow he managed to grab the wolf, lift it up over his head despite its strength and agility. Incoherent with rage and terror, he flung the wolf away from him, wishing for silence, wishing for darkness, wishing for the waking dreams to claim him.

The wolf hit the ground hard, its body splayed unnaturally, and it took the man minutes to realize that its stillness was the stillness of death. He reached out with the eyes and ears the wolf had taught him to use, but there was only silence, there was only stillness, and a nightmare that he could not wake from. He covered his face and wept.

A strong hand on his shoulder startled him, and he looked up to see the wolf's dark blue eyes in the face of a young man, standing where the wolf had lain. He was naked and shaggy and his young-old face was unutterably sad. "Look what you've done, man. Look what you've done. Had you but kept your word, you'd have had a companion and a helpmeet for all your days -- but your fear has destroyed us both, and now I must pay the price and give myself to the Dark Enchantress who rules in a kingdom that lies east of the sun and west of the moon." His hands were broad and square and they touched the man's face gently. "All because you were afraid," he said sadly, and then melted into nothing at all, leaving the man clutching at empty air.

)0(

The man's misery was deep and abiding, and after many long hours of grieving he knew in his heart that it was his duty to find the kingdom the youth had spoken of, just as he knew in his heart that he would never be complete if he did not find the youth within that kingdom. "I must rescue him. I owe him that, and myself as well," he vowed to the night

"There are those, man, who would say too little, too late," the night replied, a dark shape detaching itself from the shadows and approaching him with a predator's gait. Cat's eyes gleamed at him through the darkness. "But I can see what is in you, what was always in him, and that deserves a chance, however slight. Go to the Cave of Fire, and maybe there you can find a way to bring yourselves together again." A slip and a slide and the great cat slipped back into the shadows.

The man packed immediately, and set out for the Cave of Fire, for any hope of finding a kingdom that lay east of the sun and west of the moon.

)0(

It was many long miles to the Cave of Fire; seven sunrises and seven sunsets passed before he found his feet at the cave's mouth, and the heat that belched out was deep and smoky and threatened to sear the flesh from his bones. Nevertheless he pressed on, deep into the bowels of the cave, until he came upon a lake of fire.

"I have come seeking a kingdom that lies east of the sun and west of the moon," he called out. "Is there any help for me here?"

The lake of fire stirred and seethed, and a giant of a man, dark as soot, emerged from its depths. "I know what burns in you, what burns in the other, but my heat cannot touch that faraway place, nor do I know the way there." His eyes were dark and gleaming, and warmer even than the lake beneath his feet. "But I can offer you this, to use if you should find your way there." The giant held out his hand, dropped two stones into the man's hands. "It's a long hard road, son, and one that offers you little hope."

"I have to walk it," the man said, and the black giant just nodded, his gaze alive with sympathy.

"I know it, I know it. Try the Oldest Forest, for that is the first place, and it may have a knowing older than mine." The giant sank down beneath the waves of flame, and the man stood silent a moment longer, then turned his feet back to the journey, for it was longer still to the Oldest Forest.

)0(

It was many long miles to the Oldest Forest; seven sunrises and seven sunsets passed before he found his feet at the edge of the clearing before the forest, and the deep stillness of the place settled achingly over his bones. Nevertheless he pressed on, knee-deep in the untouched grasses, until he came to the wooded perimeter.

The Oldest Forest was the first home of man, and would be the last home, but in those times it was forbidden to humanity. When the man approached it, a blinding light appeared, dazzling him and sending him to his knees. "You cannot enter," a voice said, and it made the man tremble in his bones. "It is not yet time."

"I have come seeking a kingdom that lies east of the sun and west of the moon," he called out. "Is there any help for me here?"

The light subsided, and the man found himself suddenly face to face with a slight, fair-haired man in patched and rumpled robes. He had gentle eyes, and his bearded face shone with an inner light. "I know what your soul yearns for, what the other's soul yearns for, but the kingdom you seek is beyond the scope and sphere set to me, and I do not know the way there." His eyes were as blue and open as the sky above, and he plucked a feather from the air behind him; it was too long for any bird to have cast off. "But I can offer you this, to use if you should find your way there." The rumpled man placed the feather in the man's hand. "It's a long hard road, my child, and one that offers you little hope."

"I have to walk it," the man said, and the fair man just nodded, his gaze as deep as the woods he guarded.

"I know it, I know it. Try the Great Sea, for that was here before the Forest, and its guardian may have a knowing older than mine." The fair man disappeared in a flutter of white wings and gold light, and the man stood silent a moment longer, then turned his feet back to the journey, for it was longer still to the Great Sea.

)0(

It was many long miles to the Great Sea; seven sunrises and seven sunsets passed before he found his feet at the edge of the white shell beach, and the wide emptiness echoed hollowly in his ears. Nevertheless he pressed on, his feet sinking in the untouched sands, until he came to the lapping edge of the Sea.

He found himself peering into the glass-smooth surface, only to see a pale woman smiling up at him through the slow waves. She was Venus before the seas gave her up, and something older still.

"I have come seeking a kingdom that lies east of the sun and west of the moon," he called out. "Is there any help for me here?"

The Lady of the Water reached up, and their hands touched briefly through the green glassine surface. "I know why your tears flow, and why the other weeps, but my waters do not reach that faraway place, nor do I know the way there." Her eyes held his, alive with liquid sympathy. "But I can offer you this, to use if you should find your way there." The Lady's hand pushed up through the wave, holding up a sea-dragon's scale, as bright and shiny as a mirror. "It's a long hard road, dear one, and one that offers you little hope."

"I have to walk it," the man said, and the Lady just nodded, her sympathy as fathomless as her waters.

"I know it, I know it. Try the South Wind, for She travels far and wide, She gave this world its first breath, and She may have a knowing older than mine." The Lady sank down deep into the Great Sea, and the man stood silent a moment longer, then turned his feet back to the journey, for it was longer still to the home of the South Wind.

)0(

It was many long miles to the home of the South Wind; seven sunrises and seven sunsets passed before he found his feet at the old stone gate, and the verdant green scent of the place overwhelmed him, confused him. Nevertheless he pressed on, climbing the gate and moving deeper in the lush green jungle of the South Wind.

"I have come seeking a kingdom that lies east of the sun and west of the moon," he called out. "Is there any help for me here?"

A tall woman appeared, lean and tan and clothed in pink flowers and green withy. Her auburn hair stirred about her face, as though moving in a current of air that touched only her. "I know you use your last breath calling out to him, and he to you, and I know all that has been since the first breath of creation. I know this kingdom that lies east of the sun, and west of the moon. And I can take you there, if you are strong enough, if you have mastered your fear enough to use the gifts you have been given."

Her bright eyes rested on him, as though waiting for him to back away, but he simply straightened his shoulders and clenched his jaw. "Let's go then."

The South Wind laughed wildly, and suddenly he found himself held aloft in warm, perfumed air, rushing towards a kingdom that lay east of the sun and west of the moon.

)0(

The South Wind set him down at the borders of the kingdom. "I can take you no further," she said. "It's a long hard road, my friend, and one that offers you little hope."

"I have to walk it," the man said, and the South Wind just nodded, smiling at him knowingly.

"I know it, I know it. Remember the gifts you've been given," she said, before disappearing into her own whirlwind.

The man turned towards the path before him, and saw a stone castle, low and tumbledown and half-lost in a distant jungle, and knew in his belly that was where he must go. He closed his eyes and scented the air, tasted the wind until he caught the wolf-scent of the youth, and used it to guide him to the path.

)0(

The jungle was crawling with dark things, nasty things, and at night he dreamed of a gold-spotted cat with mad eyes, but he could smell the youth, taste him in the wind. In his dreams he heard the wolf crying, and it spurred him on past fear, past reason, until seven sunrises and seven sunsets had passed, and he was at the ruined castle.

The walls were high, and as he stood there he felt his spine crawl, an itching between his shoulders. He felt the weight of malevolent eyes, and he knew deep in his belly that somewhere, the Dark Enchantress was waiting for them, that he would have to destroy her to rescue his friend.

He swallowed down the fear that threatened him, and instead opened up his gift, scanned the ruin until he knew what window to breach to reach his friend. He walked the perimeter until he came to the window, and stared up at it, wondering how he could reach it undetected. Light flickered at the corners of his eyes, and he remembered suddenly the feather he'd been given. He drew it out from his pack, and as he did so he began to fly up towards the window he stood under. As soon as his feet touched the crumbling ledge the feather turned to dust, and he grappled for a handhold to pull himself into the dark room.

The young man was stretched out on a stone pallet, pale and still as death. When the man touched him, he was as cold as ice, so cold he froze the man's very marrow. For a moment he despaired, and then the smell of smoke, a sudden heat infused him, and he remembered the gift of the dark giant. He drew out the two stones and clapped them together, and a small tongue of flame blossomed between his fingers. He held it to the frozen body of his friend, and let it warm him through until at last the other awoke.

"You came," his friend said as soon as his eyes could see, but the older man shushed him, pulled him up and carried his weak body out of the room. Before they had even made it to the next floor, the man felt the same malevolent presence as before, and turned to see a tall woman, warrior-strong and ice-pale, watching him.

"If I cannot have him, you certainly cannot," she said, her voice the throb of the spotted cat, her eyes alight with the same mad gleam. "This is where you belong, this is where our kind belong, we the cursed. Here there is power, here there is nothing to fear," she said, but her words were empty. He looked at her, and saw the gaping hole that he had been before the wolf had woken him in that far-away forest.

The man heard the soft song of the sea, and remembered the shining dragon scale. He set the younger man down carefully, and pulled the Lady of the Sea's gift from his pack, holding it out to the Dark Enchantress as if it were an offering, an olive branch. She took it, looked into the gleaming surface, and fell into the emptiness of her own gaze. With a howl she was swallowed up in darkness, and disappeared entirely. The dragon scale clattered to the floor, then dissolved into nothing at all.

The man turned back to his friend, and helped him to his feet. "I found the kingdom," he said awkwardly, his voice rough and uneasy. A part of him was still deeply ashamed at his earlier fear, at the fear that haunted him still.

"So you did," said the youth, and he smiled tiredly but genuinely. "That's a good beginning, man, a good beginning."

"What do we do now?" the man asked.

His friend went over to the nearest window, pulled at the vines that covered it until the light shone in, then turned back to the man. "Anything we want to, man. Anything we want." And his eyes were bright and deep in the daylight, and the man reached out to the promise of hope they contained.

)0(

"I think she's asleep, Chief," Jim whispered quietly into Blair's ear. Blair nodded, and together they carried Jim's niece into the spare room and tucked her into bed. They moved together with practiced ease, and the little girl didn't even stir when they closed the door.

Jim went over to the kitchen, started the kettle boiling while Blair rummaged through his teas for something that fit the crisp autumn night. He held up apple cinnamon and Jim nodded. "Sure. Sounds good." They made the tea in silence, and carried it over to steep by the fireplace, the younger man curling up against the older. For a long time, they simply watched the fire.

"That was a hell of a story you told her, Blair," Jim said at last, and his voice was rough and just a little wistful. "How does it end?"

Blair twisted around so that he was facing the Sentinel, just inches away. His eyes were bright and deep in the firelight, and he smiled at Jim. "It doesn't," Blair replied. "It never ends, man." And he kissed Jim on the mouth, and there was the taste of hope there.

An End