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bears the crown

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The queen thought of him now and again in the years that followed; not often, perhaps twice in a decade, until one summer day sometime after she reached her third century, when she looked up and realized that she had thought of him every day since the snow had last melted.

“Who was the soldier who came to visit me?” she said to the maid who came to light her fire.

The woman started and nearly dropped the poker.

“I know of no such soldier, your majesty,” she said, eyes downcast; and hadn’t the woman’s hair been black, so glossy as to catch the eye, not this wiry grey?

“Never mind,” the queen said, turning her back, and after a moment the maid crept away.

It was hardly surprising that the servants couldn’t be trusted to remember things; and so the queen passed another season reading the long rolls in the archive, name after name marching down each closely written column; until all at once she came back to herself and became aware of a great silence.

The guns had stopped. Winter had come; and when she bent her head back to the scroll, the next name was his.

----

Her father had ruled six hundred years before she was born. The portrait of him still hung above the great central staircase: a slim young man with a red beard, his thin mouth curled into a smirk.

In his last century he had liked to wear the form of a man thrice the usual size and with thrice the usual number of arms, and often would set the soldiers to fighting each other in the courtyard for his amusement. That was how she remembered him best: watching, grim-faced, unmoved, until all at once he would roar at the combatants, his face flushed red and contorted with choler.

She had been long inured to the sight of death, of gore, and at any rate had never much troubled herself with the pain of others; and yet something in her heart stirred uneasily when at last he fell, and the rats burst from his belly; and the young queen had felt the first gnawing behind her own navel.

It began then, and had never stopped.

The cold quieted the fire in her belly—banked it for a time, so she could think instead of pacing and pacing through the night like a caged animal; like her father had, in all his power and his rage.

There would be no better time. Therefore she left the castle, taking nothing with her, and made her way out the gate, down through the silence of the city, to where the gates stood open and the great road began.

The snow fell softly, steadily. She passed among soldiers who trudged on, heads down, looking neither right or left and certainly not at her, though her gown was bright as fire, red as blood; as if nothing existed for them but the road under their boots.

There were many of them, but when she had walked for three days and three nights she found herself alone entering a clearing in the woods, where an old woman stood at the well.

“I expected a soldier, but I suppose you will do,” the old woman said. “My arms are weary; come help me pull my bucket up.”

The queen was not accustomed to being thus addressed, but nonetheless she went to the well; for she knew that her grandmother, when she tired of the long and subtle speeches of whales, had liked to meet travelers on the road, sometimes to their good fortune and sometimes to their detriment.

“Thank you kindly,” the old woman said, and then looked at the queen a moment before she spoke again.

“I will give you no gift, but perhaps I will offer you something nonetheless. What do you seek, child?” said the old woman.

"I am looking for a soldier," said the queen.

“If you turn around, you will soon find an army of such creatures,” the old woman said.

“A particular one,” said the queen.

“Are you certain that he does not lie under the snow, or under the ground?” the old woman said.

“Whether he does or no, I must speak with him,” said the queen.

“Then if you must, turn from the road ahead at the lightning-blasted oak. Keep going until you have crossed three streams, and you will find your doorway.”

She found it a mere hundred paces further down the road: the three oaks, split and blackened, and between them a narrow track, half overgrown. This she followed for some days; and when she came to the first stream, she saw that it had once been a mighty river, spanned by a mighty arch; but it had shrunk to a mere trickle, and the bridge had burned long ago and never been rebuilt. She waded across it, and it never dared more than to gurgle gently about her knees.

She went on through the storm and the silence after it, on through the night with the sound of trees cracking like gunshots in her ears, and left footprints dark in the thin mantle of snow that drifted down through the pines: for nothing in this world could touch her if she did not wish it—she who bore her death already in her belly. At the very edge of the forest she found the second stream, the bridge rotted entirely away. She stepped onto the ice and crossed.

On she went across the plain. In that place there was no shelter from the driven snow, so thick she could hardly see the path under her feet, but at last she came to the foot of the mountains.

The third stream had never been bridged at all, and though it was not wide, it ran so swiftly over the rocks that ice had touched it only here and there at the edges as far as the eye could see.

The path continued on the far bank.

The water was very cold. It tore at her gown and threatened to take her feet out from under her, but she held up her head and went on with the rushing water drawing all the warmth out of her and all the feeling, a nothing that was almost like pain.

How long it was before she stumbled onto the bank she could not have said, but at last she stood on land again: with a thin rime of ice clinging to her skin, which cracked as she moved and slowly turned to vapor, except a shard which clung to her hair and would not melt. This she took and carried in her hand.

She went on and upwards, the air growing thin, the sunlight more piercing in the brief moments when the clouds parted. When she glimpsed the stars, they hung very bright and startlingly close.

The path grew ever steeper, until she had to scramble and use her hands on the rocks. She had begun to look up, and think upon the moment when she would have to climb, when she saw it: a low black opening in the side of a cliff, surrounded by bare brambles.

The queen paused there only a moment; and if she felt a glimmer of doubt, she had already made up her mind many days ago before the warmth of the fire. Then she ducked her head and gathered up her skirts in one hand, the other still holding the sharp ice, and with the thorns catching at her hair; and passed from this world to the next.

----

There was no wind there; the air never stirred, and the sky was a dull grey only a shade lighter than the grey plain upon which the shades of dead soldiers marched onward.

And there was no more path.

The queen took one of the shades by the shoulder. His pretty face was still whole, though his side showed the dull gleam of bone and his shoulder felt fragile in her hand, so insubstantial that it might shatter if she tightened her grip a little. His clouded eyes turned slowly toward her but hardly seemed to see.

She brought the blade of ice to her own wrist; and then she bent his head to her wrist and he drank, and she watched the color coming back into his skin.

She asked him: where is the soldier I seek?

He raised his head, mouth smeared with blood, and saw her face, and flinched away with eyes afraid; fled swift across the plain, the brief illusion of life fading all the while.

But the next one stayed; when she gave him her blood and asked her question, he only looked at her without recognition and pointed silently onward with his remaining hand.

So she went on through the land of dead soldiers—and indeed she was the only one among them who was no soldier. No long-awaited reunion with mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, sweethearts and childhood friends—not for them; not for those they loved; only the wounds they had borne in life and carried with them into death.

They walked, though what their destination was none would say, and those who could not walk crawled, and those who could not crawl dragged themselves along the ground on their bellies. The queen passed swiftly through their ranks, for she was whole and weighed down by neither equipment nor injury; and as she moved among them their uniforms gave way to armor of iron, and then to bronze and leather.

How long she sojourned there she did not know; there was no rest for the army of shades streaming onward toward oblivion, and none either for her, until at last she came to the far border, where the shades had faded to only the faintest sigh; the impression of a breeze in this airless land, and then not even that; and the sky and the earth colored the same shade of nothing.

“He is not here,” she said aloud.

----

She slept, then, on the strange borders of the land of eternal night, and dreamed of him as she had last seen him: his light step on her threshold, his head half-turned for a last sideways look at her. Was there a moment when he knew—when he saw the bright flags flashing at the top of the wall, or caught the messenger boy’s pitying glance; a moment long enough for a quick mind to conclude, deny, consider and discard a thousand possibilities, all of which led inescapably here?

Then she woke, and found that the world had changed around her: it was pale dawn, and there was air in her lungs and the moon overhead; and she took one blind step forward, and stumbled over a lump in the dark that jerked and shouted and sprang to his feet.

“Stop right there,” he snapped, but he was already lowering his gun at the sight of her: only as tall as a mortal maid, her hair loose, her dress ragged.

She thought the last time she had seen him, he had been uniformed in scarlet; nor had his hair been so short as this, shaved almost to the scalp. He wore clothing in patches of green and brown and grey, not in the least pleasing to the eye; but his face was the same, the glittering eyes harder than the softness of his voice would suggest.

“I mean you no harm,” she said, and was almost certain it was true.

“Where the fuck did you come from?” he said. “It’s thirty klicks to the nearest settlement.”

I came to find you, she thought of saying. Seeing him, she knew not what she wished to say to him.

“Listen, you can’t stay here,” he said; but there was no way short of violence to make her leave; nor, in truth, did he seem particularly eager to do so. Thus she watched him and thought upon what had brought her here, which was nothing at all: a whim, a memory, a passing thought that would not pass.

“Look, if you’re going to hang around, the least you can do is make yourself useful,” he said.

She had fetched water for an old woman in a clearing in the woods. She supposed she could do as much for the soldier she had come so far to find.

She took the bucket and went to where the spring bubbled up, though the pool around it was still crusted with ice. A bird sang; the ice broke, the water ran; and the long-banked pain awoke with a sudden stab. She stumbled and went to one knee, head down, panting. That was where he found her.

“It is nothing,” she said.

“Are you sure?” he said. “Because it doesn’t look like nothing. Actually, it looks pretty bad. You’re shaking.”

She looked at him and thought of saying: it is only the burning thread inside me, and the last time I explained it I had you shot for it, and this time I may still; and if I should so desire once more, I know now how to find you.

The winter had been long, and she had grown too used to its numbness; somehow she had almost forgotten the familiar pain.

“It is nothing,” she said again; but later than afternoon, as if in answer to her prayers, a chill wind swept in. She stood there, her head tilted back toward the darkening sky, and breathed in the sharp air.

“What’re you so happy about?” the soldier said, around the last tent peg clenched in his teeth. “Get in here before you freeze solid,” and rather than tell him how wrong he was, she went.

----

It was a tent meant to be a tight fit for one, room enough to sleep and not much else; with two, they could each sit, or one could squeeze tight into the corner while the other lay with legs curled up.

“I know who you are,” he said. “It took me a while, ‘cause I still have no idea how the fuck you got out here, but believe it or not I’ve seen a coin at least once or twice in my life. Not to mention the statues.”

“I walked,” she said, and then, “it took a long time.”

He snorted. “If you don’t want to explain, I can’t make you,” he said. “I’m just saying, it’s going to be an awfully long storm if you don’t want to talk.”

“You may speak if you wish,” she said.

“Never mind,” he said. “Budge over. I’m going to take a nap.”

When he woke, or if it was the first time he had done so, she could not have said; she had been listening to the storm outside. Strange to only hear it, without feeling its wrath on her skin.

“I’m going home,” the soldier said abruptly from where he lay, his head somewhere near her knee. “My contract’s up in a month. I’m not signing on again.”

“I see,” the queen said.

“Half my unit died last summer. The brass split the rest of us up.”

The queen was silent.

“Nothing to say?” he said. “You don’t care? You don’t need me to fight a war for your amusement?

“You won’t understand,” she said, the old words rising to her lips like ghosts; she choked off the rest.

“Fucking try me,” he said.

She thought of the secret burning thread, the fire in her belly momentarily banked, and the echoes of a conversation had when she had been much younger; of her father, and his soldiers, and his pacing feet.

“A very long time ago, my many times great grandfather swallowed something he should not have,” she said. “It haunts us still.”

“Oh,” he said, and then, “okay, but what does that mean?”

“Pain,” she said. “That is what it means. You asked me why I fell, what invisible wound I bore; now you know.”

“What,” he said, voice rising. “Is that it? All of this—all these deaths, all this destruction—because your stomach hurts?”

“Their pain eases mine,” she said. “Why should they not suffer as I do?”

“We all suffer already,” he shouted at her. “That’s what we do! That’s what life is! You don’t have to make it worse!”

She thought: I could tear the tent open and let him freeze to death.

“We’re all trying,” he said. “That’s all there is. Everyone’s in pain, and all you can do is try to make it a little better. Or at least not make it worse.”

----

The queen was familiar with silence. She had lived with it all her life, in the castle with its rich rugs and heavy tapestries that quickly swallowed the voices of any who dared speak. But the soldier was perhaps less accustomed to it: for sometime in the night, he began to speak to her of the dead. His mother, lost in childbirth, and the baby with her; his grandmother, taken when he was fifteen by a cough and a rattle in the lungs; his childhood friend, gored by the bull he had raised from calfhood.

And then the army and those he had known there: the two boys who had grown up together and signed on together, their faces grown like as brothers through long familiarity though they shared not a drop of blood; the quiet man who had deserted, and been brought back and quietly hanged; the lieutenant who had been shot in the back, in the dark, and the one they had gotten to replace him; and others, laughing, drinking, wrestling, whittling, singing, digging latrines and filling them up again, fucking, courting, scavenging, giving names to dogs and guns and vehicles and officers behind their backs—

“—and he was a real asshole, but that didn’t save him either,” the soldier said, and drew a breath as if to continue; then fell silent.

“I am sorry,” she said after a moment.

“Yeah,” he said. “Me too.”

----

Some time later: “I like to think I’ll see them again.”

She thought of the grey land in which she had sojourned, and was silent.

----

He slept again, then, for how long she did not know; when he woke he sat up, rustled around, opened the tent flap to get snow to melt and shut it again with a curse.

“Seriously, though,” he said; his spirits seemed somewhat higher. “What’s the deal with—” he gestured vaguely at her. She did not pretend not to know his meaning.

“It is nothing,” she said. “Only pain, which—as you have said—is the birthright of every living thing; and for it there is no cure,” she said, and saw that he wished to protest.

“My grandmother was a witch who lived a thousand years, and her father spoke to all the birds and beasts, and his mother swam through the fiery veins of the earth and communed with the leviathans of the sea; and each of them searched all their days for surcease: a thousand thousand years of power, and they were already wise long before your ancestors first crawled into the sun,” she said, and again, “For some things there is no cure, only endurance.”

----

In time the storm passed. So they came down together out of the mountains to the nearest garrison, where they were met by the local commander.

Her dress was ragged and her hair loose; but she was queen, and had been so, by mortal reckoning, for a very long time.

“Captain,” she said. “I require an escort to the capital.”

Ah, the panic in his eyes as he babbled of finding accommodations for her, sending to the fort for more soldiers—

“No,” she said. “This soldier will suffice.”

When he received the order, the soldier gave her a narrow-eyed look, but said not a word of protest. They traveled on the broad highway instead of a narrow track forgotten even by the deer and stopped every night to camp, for though she could walk through night after night, he could not.

The tent he carried for them both was larger than the one in which they had passed the storm, but that was a waste; she had no need of it. When they stopped, she paced and paced.

Surely they were nearly to the castle. Surely they would soon hear the guns again.

“What’s the matter?” he said. “You weren’t like this before.”

The days had grown longer; she could see the shadow of stubble on his cheeks by the late light.

“It was colder before,” she said.

“Does that make sense?” he said, and then, “Never mind. Come on—come here. Lie down a moment.” He reached out as if to take her hand, but turned it into a gesture toward the waiting tent.

She was not entirely ignorant of what a soldier might want with a queen, though it had very little to do with herself; she had sprung fully formed from her father’s thigh. But perhaps he had been too long alone in the mountains, for he made no such attempt.

“Sleep,” he said, “I’ll keep watch.”

She woke once to see his shadow outside, silhouetted against the fire; again when he came in and lay down behind her. He murmured in his sleep, which she already knew; but in the morning she found that she had it in her to sit still while he made coffee.

The next night she went without his asking, and he gave her a sideways smile when he saw it; and so they went on.

“Listen,” he said one night, very late, very quiet; he might have thought she was asleep. “All I ever wanted was a life. Someone to be generous to, and to be generous to me. That’s all it ever was.”

She was silent; but there in the close darkness with his breath in her ear, his knee almost touching hers, she thought she was beginning to understand; and she thought, also, that though she was not her grandmother, she had power of her own.

That was the last night. It was early in the afternoon the next day when they came to the end of their journey, the road behind them and the castle walls rising ahead.

I remember you, she didn’t say there in the courtyard. I remembered your face and I remembered your voice while all the years since slipped away like the morning mist, and I have remembered all this time what you spoke of: your heart’s desire, for the sake of which you dared to knock on a queen’s door.

She paused there on the doorstep and turned to him.

“Will you come in?” she asked.