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Dreams And Mazes

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In the City of Heaven's Peace, a great queen and her prince, who had been a wanderer before, welcomed a daughter. Many sisters followed, but for as many years she was first and last, and so she was dearly beloved.

She grew quickly in the way of children. The queen bore her, the prince carried her, then she walked beside them through the stone streets of the city and the warm and fragrant ways of the queen's garden. A red flower grew on a vine which twisted about a tree, and she liked to sit beneath it and smell this cloying perfume and listen to stories.

On this evening the queen and the prince walked with her. The queen's hand was dry, the prince's heavy on her head. He yawned and acted as if he would push their daughter into the ground as he would a nail. She shook him off and scowled, and the queen laughed and threw her arm about her and carried her away from this cruel father who lamented at their passing.

They sat together beneath the tree with the red flower. Winter had faded and spring come, but the flowers on the vine were still small, green buds.

I want a story, said the daughter.

The prince cleared his throat. The prince's stories were exciting, full of swords and wicked viziers and donkeys who didn't do as they were told. But she did not want a story from the prince.

The queen raised her eyebrows. She touched her chest. The daughter nodded. The prince made a face at his queen.

You may leave if you wish, said the queen. The prince did not leave.

*

Once there was a princess who died to put evil out of the world. She did not fear death or mourn life. She had already died the once. She worked to seal this evil away, and when the magic took the last of her breath, she was satisfied.

A stranger travelled with her. He feared her death and mourned, and then he broke the seal and gave her breath to her. Evil was free again, the world thrown to a growing shadow. All this because he loved her.

When the princess woke and saw what he had done for her, she turned away from him. She did not see love, but selfishness. She had made peace with her sacrifice. She had seen what was necessary. She had thought he, too, had seen this.

In vain he argued with her: rather than lock this evil in a prison which it might again escape, why not destroy it outright? Surely together they could do this. But her hurt was too great, her death too near, the warning tales of her absent people too true. She would not listen to him.

In the ancient catacombs beneath the place where Ahriman spilled like ink out into the world, she left him.

*

She left him? said the daughter. Her voice rose.

Yes, said the queen. She left him. The queen stroked her daughter's hair back from her eyes.

Did he die? the daughter whispered.

Be quiet and listen, said the queen, and I'll tell you.

The prince leaned his head against the tree and closed his eyes. He listened.

*

After she left, the princess thought again of what she'd done. True, that he let Ahriman free to save her. But she thought of the stranger buried in shadows and lost, and she turned back. She would save him and then set him in another land, where he would live apart from her. She would not look in his face again. So she returned.

He was not there. Shadows filled the old city. Poison swelled. The corruption swallowed it all. She looked for him, but Ahriman advanced. She could not stay. The light of Ormazd filled her, sweet and purifying, but the darkness towered over her. So she left again.

In the desert the winds blew sand into her mouth, her eyes. Perhaps the stranger escaped. He was clever and strong. He lived, she told herself. She blinked the sand out of her eyes. The grit on her tongue was thick, but she preferred it to the taste of lies. The wind sighed against her.

The stranger was dead.

*

I don't like this story, said the daughter. Small lines crossed between her eyes. Tell another story.

He's not really dead, said the prince. She just thinks he's dead.

The queen narrowed her mouth. The prince mimed locking his. Their daughter leaned against him. He tucked his arm about her. Together, they looked to the queen.

The queen softened. Then she spoke.

*

The princess went into the world. Her people had scattered years before, taking with them all the knowledge and the power Ormazd had gifted them in his service. Now she searched for them, as Ahriman grew strong again.

His influence poisoned the lands which the Ahura had once wandered. Noble kings sought only to gather riches. Kind warriors turned cruel. The destitute grew in number and in desperation. All the ills of the world, Ahriman magnified. The old stories had come true.

Where the princess walked, she fought the corruption. She purged Ahriman's poison where she could, and as she did, the breath of Ormazd grew thick within her. She was but one against all the forces of Ahriman, though, and however bright the light she carried, it was not enough to burn away all the shadows cast. So she searched for her people wherever she journeyed, and there she found them, spread like grains of wheat thrown far.

Ahriman grew stronger, but so too did the princess.

Even so, as the Ahura gathered around their princess, she was alone. Many years had passed since that day when she turned from the stranger, then turned back too late.

She was no more the young woman she had been on that day. The shadows changed her as they changed everyone who fought them. She was older and heavier, no longer the girl. War raised her. Peace, made, tempered her. To the Ahura, she was not a princess, but a queen.

At odd times she dreamed of the stranger, first as she had known him, then as he might be had he lived. She dreamed of his hands clasping hers as light filled her and lifted her from the ground, a feather on the breeze.

He had laughed when she spoke of dreams. If you just sit around forever, he said, that's all they'll ever be. If you ask me, and she hadn't, living is a lot more exciting than dreaming.

Now she dreamed of him walking the desert, of his hand in the small of her back, of the blue of his eyes. In the morning when she woke alone and aching, she thought it fitting. She could not live that life, so she dreamed it.

*

The queen paused. A breeze in the garden sighed.

The queen's daughter was quiet, nestled in the crook of the prince's arm. Her dark eyes filled her face. The prince smiled at the queen over their daughter. This was a familiar tale.

The queen smiled at the prince. Gently she touched their daughter's cheek. Then she settled and continued.

*

Now the princess, who was queen to the Ahura though she refused it, journeyed east. Rumors had sprung of a new general to Ahriman, a man called the Forsaken. They said a lover betrayed him and that was why he gave himself to Ahriman. The princess had laid to rest the Singer and the Barren Son, whose monstrous workings had brought the desert north. Perhaps she might cleanse this new general before he woke to his true power.

Many brave warriors went with her. Some had lost those they loved to Ahriman. Others knew their duty. All promised her fealty, and she trusted them. Even so, she remained apart from them. She kept her fear to herself.

She thought of the stranger, swallowed by shadows. Would he have surrendered to Ahriman? She would not have thought it of him, but then she had never thought her father would turn his back to duty and to the world. Would Ahriman in his rage listen to the pleas of the stranger who had helped to seal him in the life tree? Not so, she thought.

In the cave where she and the warriors made camp, she sat alone away from the fire, staring up at the stars. A voice whispered inside her. She had tried once to convince herself he'd survived. Perhaps this was another lie she told herself.

And if the Forsaken was her stranger? If his eyes shone blue out of his corrupted form?

The stars fell. The sun rose. At her back, the warriors stirred. The princess stood, ready to guide them on.

A hot jungle ate them, and they walked in wet silence throughout the day and long into the night. Left to her thoughts, the princess knew.

She would fight him. She would purify him if she could, as she had purified him once before, but if the corruption lanced too deep, she would send him to rest.

The ache she carried with her opened, hollow, in her chest. She knew this ache, though. It could not hurt her more. The princess walked on, east to the Forsaken. Her warriors, brave men and women, walked with her. None turned back. Light showed them the way.

*

Go on, said the daughter. I want to hear the rest.

*

The jungle withered before them. The trees rotted and fell into themselves. What birds had followed them fell silent. The wetness in the air remained, though the earth was dry and hard beneath their feet. The air tasted of salt, like tears. Through the jungle, dead things walked. They neared the Forsaken.

The princess turned to her warriors. If any of you wish to leave, she said, this might be the only chance you'll have. Please go. You don't have to fight.

No warrior stirred.

She nodded. Then follow me, she said. Some among them would die. Sorrow and guilt pressed on her, but gladness lifted her. It was wrong to be happy, but she did not want to face this alone.

Night came. A deeper shadow came over the jungle. In the dark, something twisted and something sighed and something whispered her name.

He's here, she said.

A tree groaned, then split, and the Forsaken was among them. Its face, she couldn't make out. If it had been the stranger once, she couldn't tell. Strange lights enveloped it, dark lights now blue, now red, now a longing green.

I'm sorry, cried one of her warriors. He had looked into the Forsaken's face. I'm sorry, he said, I didn't mean to leave you--

Then he died, gouged through the heart.

Another two fell in the shadows, in the night, crying out as the Forsaken cut them down. Their voices lingered, even as they were silent. I'm sorry, I'm sorry, please forgive me, it was my fault, I love you, I'm sorry.

The princess struck at it, as her warriors regrouped and readied their arms. The Forsaken turned. Sorrow filled her, deep as an ocean. Tears dripped down her face, mirroring the lights that fell like rain from the Forsaken's shifting mask. Now she faced her mother, now her aunt, now the Mourning King.

I'm sorry, she said.

The Forsaken reached for her. Now the stranger wept before her. He raised his hand high against her. His eyes shone red through his tears. Black tendrils surrounded her.

The princess drew on the light which pulsed within her and threw it wide as she would a net. The Forsaken screamed, caught. The light bubbled in her chest, then spilled out of her in an unending wave. Shadows trembled before it and were gone.

The Forsaken writhed in the relentless expanse of light. You did this, he screamed. You left me. You killed me.

The Forsaken was only a child after all, a child heavy with rage and with hate. She reached to touch him. The child lashed at her and screamed again.

I'm sorry, she said. She closed her eyes on the light, which flashed white through and from her.

The Forsaken burned in the light, riddled with it. You did this, it screamed. Then it was gone.

The light faded. The princess dropped to her knees, then to her hands. A man near to her shouted her name and said, Stay with me, you have to open your eyes.

His hand brushed her back, then he caught her arms. His fingers were warm. Cloth pooled in the dirt before her as he leaned over her.

She fell into darkness.

*

A cloud passed over the sun. In the garden, a thin shadow wandered. The queen watched it as it passed from the sculpted path to the wall stretching beyond.

Was it him? said the daughter. Was it the stranger?

The prince quieted her.

*

The princess woke in a tent, many-patched and small. Her head ached. For a time she lay there beneath the thick blankets, her hands over her face, then the smell of the blankets was at last too much for her. They stank of unbathed donkeys and long travel.

She kicked the blankets from her and sat up. She struck her head on a string of bells which hung from the peak of the tent. The ring echoed in her ears. She clutched at her head.

Outside, those who talked lapsed into quiet. Her warriors, gathered around her still. A man among them spoke, too low for her to hear. Footsteps approached the tent. The princess sat straighter, prepared to receive the woman she had appointed captain of this motley guard.

The flap opened. A man stooped to enter. His feet were bare and dark with dust. A trail of cloth shivered over his shoulder: blue cloth patterned with red and orange flowers, like the cloth that had spooled before her eyes as she fainted into sleep. This was not the captain of her guard.

Who are you? she said.

But she knew, even before the stranger lifted his head. She knew the breadth of his hands and the width of his shoulders and even his gaudy taste in scarves.

Do you realize, he said, how long I've been looking for you? I almost died. Twice. Twice and a half.

The hurt was there in the hitch of his voice. But he smiled at her, and he stepped to her, and he fell to his knees before her. He touched her fingertips.

Elika, he said.

The hollow in her chest filled with light.

*

The queen finished. A bird warbled in the tree above them, then fled.

The queen's daughter waited a moment. That's it? she said. But how did he find her? Was he mad at her? Where did they go? Did they stop Ahriman?

This story is done, said the queen in the way of her mother. She flicked dirt from her pants.

You can't end a story there! said the daughter.

The prince jostled her in his arms. How about I tell you the rest of the story later? he said. We can sneak out when your mother's sleeping and practice your wall-climbing.

I hope you aren't teaching her wall-climbing, said the queen.

Hey, said the prince, when's the last time you had to catch me?

This had the ring of an old argument. The young princess stood and left them to it. Her father called after her to watch for snakes. Her mother called after her to mind the bell.

She ignored them both and turned into the little maze which stood in the corner of her mother's garden. The hedge rose green and tall about her.

The princess followed the sun.