The Last Guardian of Everness (excerpt)

by John C. Wright

John C. Wright’s book The Last Gaurdian of Everness (Tor Books) can be ordered at Amazon.

 

Chapter One: The Forgotten Wardens of the Dreaming

I.

Upon a midnight in midsummer, in an unchanging ancient house upon the coast, in the year when he was a boy no more and a man not yet, Galen Waylock heard the far-off sound of the sea-bell tolling slowly in his dream.

Galen woke. His eyes were wide with terror and astonishment, and he had clawed the bedsheets to either side of him into sweat-stained knots. The moonlight fell across the bed from the diamond-shaped panes of his bed chamber window. The roof and walls were all dark wood, hidden in shadows. Outside, came the soft and restless crashing of the sea-waves on the cliffs below the house.

The melancholy peal was silent, now: his waking ears heard only earthly noises.

“It hasn’t really happened!” He muttered feverishly to himself. “It hasn’t really, honestly, finally happened! Not after all this time! Not to me!”

If tradition were to be trusted, fifteen centuries and more had passed since the First Warden of the Order fell asleep beneath an oak tree in Glastonbury, mistletoe and ivy growing in his hair, to await the warning voice of that elfin bell echoing, mystical and furtive, across the star-lit waves of oceans only dreamers know.

Galen kicked away the covers and felt around for the lantern.

His fingers brushed it, and he heard it topple, and roll away across the night-stand, to drop to the floor. With a grunt of disgust, he reached down to where his jeans were crumpled on the floorboards, and found the pocket with his electric flashlight in it.

He sat for a moment on the edge of the bed, flashlight gleaming in his right hand, left hand cupped to catch the light. He was staring at a tiny burn-mark in his palm. He sat for a moment, breathing hard, flexing his fingers and wincing at the tiny pain, eyes wide with astonishment.

Then he leaped to his feet, called out.

A moment later, Galen ran breathlessly into the parlor downstairs, where his Grandfather Lemuel sat before the fireplace where two logs crackled, blazing. All along the mantle-piece, a dozen candles were burning. Above the mantle, carved in stone, was a shield bearing the sign of a winged horse rampant above two crossed keys. A motto inscribed below bore the words: “Patience and Faithfulness.”

Across the room, facing the escutcheon, was an old oil painting of a dark-haired, dark-eyed man wearing a black frock and conical black miter. On a chain of office he wore a heavy gold key. In the figure’s lap, an equine ivory skull with a single spiral horn was resting. The painting was done in a stiff, formal style, heavy with shadows.

Grandfather Lemuel stirred and put aside the book in his hand. “Shut off that light. If you must creep at night, use the lantern. Ever since you came back from college, you have become most lax and careless about the Rules of the House.”

Galen snapped off the flashlight and the circle of light at his feet disappeared. Impatiently he said, “Grampa, listen!”

Grandfather Lemuel said heavily, “Your father also never understood why our family lives this way. He never believed, never had faith. A man can be perfectly comfortable without modern plumbing, or electricity.”

Anger interrupted Galen’s urgency. “I wish you wouldn’t talk about him like he was dead! All he did was join the army and move out.”

“It is not I, but higher powers, who account your father’s lack of faith as a treason to our family’s ancient promise. He never believed the time would come…” Grandfather Lemuel’s head drooped, his mouth pursed into a sullen frown.

“Grampa! It’s come!”

Grandfather Lemuel straightened, blinking. “What’s that, boy?”

“I heard the sea-bell.”

“Wh— ?!”

“Just now. This evening. As I stood my watch along the Outward Wall.”

No expression showed on Grandfather Lemuel’s features, but a hard glint of suppressed excitement came into his eye. “We must be cautious. In your dream, did one of the Seven Signs come forth from Vindyamar?”

“I saw a Sign and received a Summons. The image was a sea-bird carrying a lantern.”

Lemuel muttered. “A lantern? Lantern..? Hm. Mm. Rod, Ring, Wand, Bow, Titan, Grail… Horn? Odd. Perhaps a torch could symbolize the titan’s blood, but… a lantern…? A lantern is not one of the Seven…” Then, straightening up, Grandfather Lemuel said to Galen: “How do you know this was a true dream, come through the gate of horn? Did you perform the Three Tests?”

“Flying; Reading; Observing your hands. Grandfather Lemuel, you know I know the tests! I was in the Deep Dreaming. It was a true dream. And I heard the alarm we’ve been waiting for, for all these years. I heard it. I heard the sea-bell.” All this came out in one excited rush of words.

Grandfather Lemuel raised his hands. “We mustn’t be too hasty. In the time of the Third Warden of Everness, Alfcynnig, he thought he heard the alarm ring out, and he called the Unsleeping Champion away from Rome to defend the Tower of Vortigern in Wessex; and this allowed the unguarded city to fall to the Goths of Totila. The Sixty-First Warden, Sylvanius Waylock, called up the Storm-Princes to whelm the Armada for Elizabeth, and we were cursed out of England for that presumption, by the White Coven whose charge we had usurped, and had to move this house, stone by stone, to the New World. When the Seventy-Ninth Warden, my Grandfather Phineas Waylock, heard the sea-bell, he raised the Stones and rendered the High Summons. But the sound was no true call; it was only the tumult of a leviathan tangled in the phantom nets of Vindyamar, whose lashing tail shook the crystal bell-tower, and set the bell to swinging. The Stones of Everness were angered to be roused from slumber for so light a cause, and my Grandfather lost his sight in the struggle to force the stones to quietness again… Had he sent to the Queens for word, his eyes might have been spared…”

Galen drew himself up, and, young though he was, now he spoke with snap of authority in his voice, not unlike that in his Grandfather’s. Their expressions were the same. “Grandfather! I know the difference between petty dreaming and true. I know them as well or better than you. The dream-colt comes every time I’ve called her, every time! And I’ve called her more than three. And I know the true sound of the sea-bell. I’ve heard it this night on the sea.”

Grandfather Lemuel did not look displeased, but neither did he smile. Perhaps he welcomed a show of spine from this young man. Nonetheless, his voice was cold. “That may be. But the reins have not yet slipped from my hands. You are not the Guardian of Everness yet, no matter what your talents.”

“Grandfather, I heard the sea-bell. The time is come. The time to blow the Last Horn-Call is at hand.”

Now Grandfather Lemuel did smile, but it was a sad, weary smile. “Patience and faithfulness are the virtues mortal men must practice when they stand watch against immortal foes. Galen, every single one of us, all the way back to the Founder, we have all thought, or hoped, or feared, that the Time of the Horn was at hand. But it never was. A lifetime of waiting seems too much to bear, when you’re so young, doesn’t it?”

Galen started to speak again, but Lemuel held up his hand: “Patience! We will do everything in due order, but only if (and I said ‘if’!) this latest alarm turns out to be the Sign for which we have all been waiting, all these long and weary years. There have been so very many false alarms before.”

Galen’s demeanor shrank, and boyish uncertainty once showed in his face. “OK. So now what? What do we do now? The old warrant papers say we’re suppose to warn the King or the royal governor at New Amsterdam. So where the heck does that leave us? Am I supposed to call the President? We don’t even have a damn phone in this moldy old museum!” In frustration, Galen struck the wall beside the door with the side of his fist.

“First,” said Grandfather Lemuel calmly. “You will sit down. Here, opposite me. Then you will recount all the particulars of the dream in detail. Don’t slouch.”

“I heard the bell from beneath the sea. Something’s coming. It’s going to try to rise up through the Mist.”

“In what part of the house were you?”

Galen turned and stared into the fire. A haunted, deep look came into his eyes. “Outside, along the wall overlooking the sea, where we always stand. The dream version is bigger, of course, and the huge blocks of stone glisten in the moonlight.”

“How were you dressed? In modern garb?”

“I don’t recall…”

“It may be important. You know the dream-things know no modern forms. If you have trouble remembering, recite the first exercise in your mind. Picture the circle of time. Say the key to yourself. Raise the Tower and build the mansion…”

Galen closed his eyes…

II.

He dreamt he stood upon a wall of thick black rock, wet with spray, and he wore a coat of silver mail and carried a tall spear tipped with a glint of starlight. In the black, wide sea below him, he dreamt he saw a cavalcade of sunken horsemen, armed and armored in mother-of-pearl. These dimly-lit shapes passed silently from the deep sea toward the shore, and the hair of their steeds floated green in the water as they came. The mouths of the drowned knights were open as if they were singing, though no sound rose above the waves, and from their mouths floated clouds of blood.

To the left and right of the cavalcade, slippery black forms, sleek and playful, darted through the gloomy deep, and smiled with white teeth, as starlight shined from their black eyes.

Far, far to the rear, enormous shadows in the moonlight loomed. With black ocean-froth churning at their knees, and tumbled storm-cloud parting at their shoulders, taller than any creature of the world, strode giants.

The night sky above was torn with flying banners of silver-edged black clouds, rushing in the storm winds. The whole sky seemed to ring and tremble with the echoes of the great bell, tolling, tolling…

Black as a scrap of midnight storm-cloud, a seagull black as pitch whirled down from dark heaven. In his claws he carried a lantern of the elfs, burning like a small star.

A voice like a man’s voice came from the black seagull: “By token of this light I bear, know ye, Lemuel, Guardian of Everness, Last Guardian to be, I am come from He whose name we speak no more, who founded your order, whose blood and title and oath you bear. I summon you beyond the world’s edge, to Tirion, to Wailing Blood, for there are secrets touching the Emperor of Night, our ancient and undying foe, which you must know before the Towers of Acheron rise from the sea. Do not go to Vindyamar, nor elsewhere, but come at once at mine command.”

And he dropped the light from its claws to Galen. It plunged like a falling star, and the flame was silver, and did not move, or breathe, or flicker, even as the lantern spun and fell. Galen tried to catch the lantern but it burnt his palm, and fell from his fingers, so that the light was lost.

Below, with a roar of several voices, shining knights drenched in filth, and dark, smiling shapes rose from the sea. Giant forms with eyes like lamps came behind them, with arms as tall as towers, sea-water flooding from them, reached for the stones at the base of the wall…

And the warning bell tolled on and on…

III.

There was a small old book, sent to him as a present from his Grandfather Lemuel’s library, which Galen had begun to read as a child. It was made of hand-tooled leather, with a symbol of winged horses dancing on crossed keys on the cover. Galen remembered a poem was inscribed on a page illustrated with interlocking figures of fairies and mermaids, one-eyed giants, and winged horses. The old letters had faded with time, and the first letter of the poem was so decorated with curlicues that young Galen could hardly decide which letter it was supposed to be.

Ware the toll of a single ring
Night-mare her single rider will bring
Woe if twice the great bell tolls
For fire-giants and fell frost trolls
Storm-princes rise at the sound of three
The fourth ring brings the plague Kelpie
Five for Selkie, Six for Hate
Seven for Doom, Death for Eight
And if the toll sounds nine withal
Wake the Sleepers; Nine worlds fall.

If there were more to the old poem, Galen never found out.

When his father came upon Galen reading the book in secret, under the covers with his Boyscout flashlight, Galen’s father ripped the book out of his hands, beat him till tears quieted his loud protests, and took the book away. Presumably, to the trashcan.

IV.

“How many times did the sea-bell toll?” asked Grandfather Lemuel gently.

Galen’s eyes snapped open. “Many times.”

“More than nine?”

“Grampa, it was all night long. The bell was ringing continuously.” Galen’s eyes were troubled. He looked around the parlor, as if for support. High roof-beams; thick walls of oak; a floor of fitted stones, covered with oriental carpets, handwoven, faded. To one side stood tall French doors, open, admitting the smell of sea-brine. The murmur of the waves against the cliff below hung like a backdrop behind the other noises of the night.

Outside, beyond the weeds of the overgrown gardens, Galen could see the tumbled stones and cracks of the little wall overlooking the bay. It was, of course, much smaller in real life, and overgrown with moss. Galen suddenly felt the urge to do the repair work Grampa was always on him about.

“Gramps,” said Galen. “I think I might be scared. What do we do?”

Grandfather Lemuel took out an old pipe, and stood up, reaching for his tobacco pouch atop the mantel-piece. “Think, eh? I know I am. But a little fear is like wind in the flowers, you know? The flowers bow for a time. The wind passes. The flowers straighten up again.”

“This is no time for your little sayings. Shouldn’t we be doing something?” Galen knew the old man wanted him to leave. He knew Gramps knew he couldn’t stand the smell of tobacco. Galen rose reluctantly to his feet.

Grandfather Lemuel smiled calmly. “First thing; you go back to bed. I will go to the Chamber of Dreaming to sleep. Tonight I will dream of Vindyamar. I will dream of the Three Fair Queens whose charge is to guard the Great Bell, even as we are charged to guard the Horn, and discover if it rang for a true cause. There was something strange about the sign you saw.”

Galen said in a sullen voice, “You don’t believe me. But look at this…”

And held up his left hand. There was a tiny blister in the palm, a burn. “We were summoned to Tirion. Here is the mark of the star-lantern I touched. The Founder is in Tirion.”

Lemuel looked carefully at the mark in the young man’s palm. He took a candle from the mantelpiece, and held it closely, peering. Even thought the air was still in the room, the candle-flame flickered.

Lemuel nodded slowly. “Its magic. Only the Blood of Everness can reach across the barriers like that, and allow a dream-flame to create a waking burn. Whatever else was in that dream, the Raven came from the Founder, sure enough.” He straightened up and shook his head. “But that doesn’t change a thing, boy. We do not answer each and any summons which come to us out from the night-world.”

“But Grandfather…!”

Grandfather Lemuel’s look of amusement died. “We don’t follow voices out of the night-world. That black sea-bird could have been a selkie wearing a gull-skin. And yes, that lantern you touched was the Founder’s handicraft, no doubt. So what?”

“So! The Founder called me to Tirion.”

“No. He called me. And I’m not going. And the Founder does not live in Tirion; he is beyond the rim of the world, hanging in the darkness, in a cage. He betrayed his oath.” Lemuel pointed with his pipe-stem at the motto inscribed in stone above the mantle. “Maybe he was unfaithful. But maybe he was only impatient.”

Galen understood the hint, reluctantly he turned to go.

But then at the door he turned again, a young and rebellious spirit in his eyes:

“Where is the Horn, Grandfather Lemuel? Don’t you think it is time I knew?”

“Patience. Its not time for you to know.”

“What if you don’t come back? Who will be left to blow the Horn?”

“You are not the Guardian yet. Now you go back to sleep. But do not answer the summons of the black sea-bird. Do not dream about Tirion. Recite the lesser key, and go through the gate of lesser dreaming to some nice visions. Cockaygne, perhaps? Luilekkerland? Schlarraffenland?”

Galen straightened. Wounded pride was clear on his face. “Schlarraffenland? That place is for kids! Grandfather Lemuel, I’ve have been places no other Guardian has ever dreamed. I have seen the trees of Arcadia and the groves that grow in the shadow of the Darkest Tower, I have tread the peaks of Zimiamvia and tasted from the ever-falling waters of Utterbol whose fountains are by the sea! I am the greatest dreamer this family has ever produced, and you know it! I am not afraid of the shadows of the dead. I can go to Tirion and return safely. The summons came to me!”

Not without kindness, Grandfather Lemuel said, “You are talented. But, all boasting aside, you are still very young, Galen. And you know that fairy-tales depict the rules in the dreaming the same way science describes our rules here. And no hero in any fairy-tale ever ignored his Grandfather’s warning and escaped unpunished. Do not go to Tirion. Do not go to speak to the Founder. Is that clear?”

And he lit his pipe with candle he held.

Galen retreated to the door, defiantly snapped on the flashlight, and clomped away upstairs, muttering.

Grandfather Lemuel’s smile faded as soon as Galen was out of the room. “A long flight tomorrow night…” he whispered. He stared up at the carved image of the winged horse. “And a dangerous one. Will the dream-colt come for me, this time, now that the bell has tolled? Vindyamar tonight. But where tomorrow..?”

His gaze crossed the room to look at the painting of the stern-eyed man who held the skull. “Will you talk to me this time, old friend? And let me go again? Its so cold beyond the world’s edge, and I am so old…”

He tamped out his pipe against the mantelpiece. He was not in the mood for a smoke after all. His thoughts were somber. “Suppose you do not let me back through the mist to the sunlight this time? If I don’t wake up, who is left? One frightened boy?”

V.

Galen, who had made a deal of noise clattering up the stairs, knew his Grandfather Lemuel’s habit of talking to himself, and had crept quickly and quietly downstairs again, flashlight extinguished. He was crouched in the hall beside the parlor door; and was in time to hear his Grandfather Lemuel’s last comment.

Later, laying awake in bed, and watching the play of the shadows of branches in the moonlight above his bed, Galen came to a stern resolution.

“The first of the watchers is still being punished for his dereliction of duty,” Galen thought to himself. “But Gramps still goes to talk to him. He risks it. It put him in a coma when I was in sixth grade. I remember that’s what the doctors called it. A coma.” He grunted to himself. Contempt was all he felt for modern doctors.

“The First Watcher’s summons came to me. Me. The dream-colts come every time I call, but they have only come three times for Grampa. He might not even be able to get to Tirion.

“And if I go tonight, and brave the danger myself, he won’t need to go tomorrow.”

In his mind’s eye, he drew the circle to build the Tower of Time his Grandfather Lemuel had taught him how to keep in his mind. He inscribed the four wings, placing a different phase of the moon in each, a different element, and a different season. About it, he erected statues and symbols, gardens and arbors, walkways and walls, each with its own name and hidden meaning. In a few moments the imaginary mansion was as real around him as the mansion he slept in. He whispered the Second Secret Name of Morpheus, and stepped into that mansion, rose from the body on the bed on which he slept there, and walked out the doorway which represented today’s phase and season.

In an imaginary garden pagoda, a torch made of narthex reeds held up a light of pure white fire. An imaginary vulture on a stand was gnawing a driblet of red liver. One arch of the pagoda led to stairs which climbed up to the huge black sea-wall to the East. Inscribed on the pagoda walls to either side of this arch, in letters of silver, burned the words of the spell to call a dream-colt from the deeper dreaming.

He looked at the words, wondering whether to speak them or not. Even now, he was still only half-asleep: he could feel the heaviness in his limbs, dimly sense the pillows and bed sheets around him, like a little mountainous country-side of folds and wrinkles. Grandfather Lemuel had taught him never to call even a lesser power of the night without someone standing by to wake him up in case of trouble.

And a dream-colt was not one of the lesser powers.

“Gramps will notice in the morning if I’m not back by then,” Galen tried to tell himself.

He had one last thought before he drifted off to sleep, forgot his slumbering body, and entered fully into the dream:

“I’m not a frightened boy.”

Chapter Two: A life for a life

I.

A husband and wife sat in the sunlight. He sat on the bed and held her hands in his. She sat back on the pillows, eyes bright and cheerful as always. He was a big, burly man with thick black eyebrows and a forked black beard.

Where he was large and bulky, she was small and graceful, and her face was always in motion, now smiling, now blinking, now pouting thoughtfully, now glancing back and forth with a curious gaze.

“I’m so sad!” She was exclaiming cheerfully. Her voice was as bright as a bubbling stream, and those who heard it felt refreshed.

“Aha. And what makes her sad, my little wife, eh?” He tried to smile, but there was an undercurrent of sorrow in his deep voice. He had a thick Russian accent.

“All the stories seem to be going out of the world. Drying up!” She held up her hands, fingers spread, and shrugged, as if to indicate a mysterious vanishment. “No one listens to them, or tells them any more. They just watch TV. My Daddy calls it the ‘Boob tube’. I don’t know if that’s because of shows like Baywatch or if only boobies watch it. Except sometime mothers read books to their children to sleep.” She sighed, and suddenly looked very sleepy herself. Her eyelids drooped. Like a light going out, all the animation seemed to leave her face.

He leaned forward, his face blank with fear, and touched her forehead with the back of his hand. “Wendy?” He whispered.

Wendy’s eyes opened. “Tell me a story,” she said.

“I am not good with the stories, my wife. I only know the one of my father, and that one I told to you long ago, when we were engaged. The night on the lake, you remember, eh?”

She sighed and snuggled down into the pillows more deeply. “I said I’d marry you because you were the only man I ever met who was in a fairytale story. It was such a good idea! I’m so glad I thought of it.”

“You thought..? It was I who asked you, my wife.”

“Yes, well, and a long time you were getting around to it, too!” She laughed in delight, and then said, “Tell it to me again!”

“Well. Father lived in the Caucasus mountains and hated the Russian government men with a deep hatred…”

“No, no, no! That’s not right! It starts with, ‘I am Var Varovitch, which means Raven the Son of Raven in your language. This is the story of how I came by this name’. “

“Hah! Who is telling this story, you or I? Now be quiet and let me talk to you. I am Var Varovitch. In your language I am called Raven, the son of Raven. This is the story of how I came by this name.”

“Almost right,” she allowed. “The next part goes, ‘My father had climbed throughout all the mountains, in places even the goats did not go, and such was his fame as a trapper and trails man, that…’ “

“Quiet, now. When the government people wanted a guide, they came to my father and offered him their paper rubles, which were worthless, for they had no gold to back them, and a government order from the Georgia S.S.R. apparatchik, which was also worthless, but which had the guns and soldiers from the Tbilisi garrison to back them. For himself, he had no fear. But for me, he had fear. For I had taken my mother’s life when I came into this world, and there were no doctors to save her, for she was Georgian, not Russian, and had no friends in the capitol to have a doctor assigned by the government. And I was but a babe in the crib at this time, and had never seen the green grass, since I was born in the winter and the spring had not yet come.”

“I love that part.”

“Quiet. Father feared they might burn the village if he refused to take the expedition up the slopes of Mount Kazbek. He knew the place where they wished to go, even though it was not the place shown on any of their maps. But he asked them why they could not wait till spring? Did they not recall how the Russian winter had destroyed the invasion of Hitler’s armies less than a handful of years ago? But no, they must go to the spot where it said on their maps. The scientist there in charge of the expedition said they must go, since the glory of the Soviet peoples commanded it, and only a traitor would cause delay.

“Well, father said he could not leave his little baby with no mother, since he had only the milk to drink of wild she-wolves father caught in the snow…”

“That’s you! I bet you were cute. But you forgot a part. ‘The winter was so bitter that winter that the cows gave ice, and the bird song froze in the air, and it was not until spring thawed the notes free that all the birdsong sprang up over the green earth…’ “

“No, that is from different story. So, now. The expedition had been traveling for many days, blinded by snow, on short rations…”

“Wait. The government scientist made your father take you with him. You were bundled up on his back in a wrapper of wolfskin.”

“Yes, that too.”

“And you forgot about the part where they all laughed at him for carrying a bow and arrows when they had guns, and then later their guns froze.”

“That part is coming. Where was I? There was nothing in the sky but one black vulture, and all about them ice crags and chasms of the mountains. Father pointed at the black vulture…”

“You forgot something.”

“Yes, yes. The-stupid-scientist-thought-they-were-lost-and-the-soldier-sthreatened-to-kill-father. OK? OK! Listen: Father pointed at the black vulture and said they need but follow the bird to find what, in the midst of the empty mountains, that bird found to eat.

“He led them to where there was a naked man chained to the mountain, a man so tall that he was taller than the steeple of a church. He was chained with chains of black iron, and frost clung to his chains, and red icicles spread like a fan from the great wound in his side, all down along the bloodstained cliff where he was chained. His face was calm and grave, like the face of the statue of a king; but all full of suffering, like the face of a saint in an icon.

” ‘What do you see?’ asked my father. For he knew the Russian men were not like those of us from Georgia, and cannot see what is right before their faces.

” ‘I see ice,’ said one soldier.

” ‘I see rock,’ said another soldier.

” ‘What do you hear?’ asked my father.

” ‘I hear nothing but the wind,’ said one soldier.

” ‘I hear your brat squalling!’ said another soldier.

“But the scientist looked up, and said, ‘I hear a great deep voice, asking us to shoot the vulture which torments him.’

“But the soldier’s guns had frozen, and could not shoot the great black vulture.”

Wendy chimed in happily, “But your father shot him with the bow!”

Raven nodded. “Exactly right. Down and down the great bird plunged, and the great voice told my father that, even though the bird would live again as soon as the sun came up, for that day, the torture had been stopped. And because he had done this thing, he could ask for any wisdom in the world.”

Wendy said, “But the scientist made him ask…”

“Yes, yes. The scientist made my Father talk to the titan. ‘The Americans have a bomb which they have made from splitting the atom. This is a fire too dangerous for mortals to control, unless it is the Supreme Soviet.’ This is what the scientist made him say.”

“And about the rockets.”

“Yes. ‘The Americans have taken the German rocket scientists from Peenamunde. And they will learn a secret of the fires of heaven, which is how to launch a great missile, greater than the V-1 and V-2 rockets. We must launch a satellite before the Americans, to show the glory of Soviet science to the world. Our great leader Stalin has commanded this thing.’ “

Raven paused. “You are not too tired for this story? It is almost time when time is up.” He looked at his watch and frowned.

“What happened next?”

“The giant looked down at Father with wise and sad eyes, and said, ‘Son of the mountains, I will tell these men who have enslaved you all you ask of me. And yet in my heart I hate all slavery, for man was not created to be a servant. You know this is true. Creatures made for servitude, cattle and sheep, who crawl with their faces forever in the ground, they do not yearn for liberty; only mankind. I will tell you a secret thing unknown to all others, upon your promise never to tell anyone, not even your own son. For there is a way out of these mountains, across to the other side, past all the patrols, over the walls and past the guard posts, into the lands of freedom to the west. I will tell you this way, if you will promise instantly to take it, and go.’

” ‘What must I give you in return, eldest grandfather?’ asked my father.

” ‘To be free, you must give up all fear. Neither you nor your son shall ever know fear again. To begin life anew, you must give up your old name. You may call yourself Raven, for he is a wise bird, and he knows the boundaries between life and death; and if any ask you how you climbed down the impassible mountains, or escaped past the guards and fences, you may tell them you flew as a Raven.’

“And that is all my father told me of how we came to this country when I was a boy, and I never learned the truth of it, though I know he would not tell a child the names of those who had helped smuggle him out, and that only secrecy would keep the way open for others. All he would say is that he flew like a Raven, away from a land filled with death and corpses.”

II.

Raven was silent a moment, and took his wife’s hands in his. “And then I came and fell in love with you, my beautiful strange little Wendy…”

III.

At that moment, the nurse came in to give Wendy her medications, and Wendy would not speak about a dream or tell a secret story in front of a stranger. The nurse also gently reminded Raven that visiting hours were over, and that the other patients in the terminally ill ward might be disturbed, even if the door was shut, by his voice.

Wendy was made sleepy by the medicines. “I remember all sorts of weird things that I forgot from before,” she said. “And such funny dreams!”

Raven leaned forward to kiss her goodbye, but whispered. “I will sneak back in tonight by the loose window I found. They cannot keep me from you, my little one…”

“Don’t be sad,” she said softly back. “I can feel I might be going to a better place. I can see it in my mind some times, when I’m half asleep, like a light, filled up with warmth. If I can stand it, you should be able to, you big man, you. And stop worrying! You’ll make me worry if you do…”

And Raven fiercely hugged her, afraid to take his face away from her cheek, since he was ashamed to let her see his sudden tears.

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