A Malevolent Sun

winter cityIt was a beautiful winters day. The sky was wide and blue and unmarked by even the smallest trace of a cloud. The sun was warm and glinted off the snow left from the previous day’s storm.  It was the sort of day that couldn’t be denied or put off. One of those rare warm mid-winter days that dragged you bodily from whatever task life had set before you, forced a smile on your lips and laugh in your eyes. It was the sort of day Olivia hated the most.

She huddled in the narrow crack she had claimed as her own and scowled at slashing sunlight muscling its way through the gaping timbers that passed for her walls. Olivia liked the sun as much as the next person during the long lazy days of summer, but in winter, that brilliant yellow face was anything but cheerful. It stared down at her, and those like her, with an intense sort of malice. She could practically hear it chanting from its hook in the sky: you can’t hide forever, little girl.

She hid from that malevolent face as long as she could, shifting her weight, moving an arm, bending a knee, avoiding any touch from those slow-moving beams, imagining if even one touched her it would mean her death that day. But the sun’s chant was right, she couldn’t hide forever, and as the sun climbed high into the sky her grumbling stomach finally forced her out of hiding.

Olivia traveled the rooftops as much as possible before jumping to the tops of the fences and stuck to the fences as long as she had one in front of her, her neck chain jangling as she hopped the gaps in between. The warmth of the day had melted the small mountains of snow the people of Barrowight had spent the previous months of winter piling high, the roadways and pathways of town now buried under feet of the sucking, heavy slush that was all that remained of the snow.

The city was alive with sound. Horses snorted, glad to be out of their stalls and feeling the sun once again on their skins, and their riders shouted and laughed, waving as they passed by friend and acquaintance and even foe – enemies could not remain such on such a glorious day as this! Their movements were smooth and unhurried, their trousers dry where hers clung to her wetly, their feet warm in the protective shell of their magic, where hers quickly became stiff with cold from constant contact with the melting ice and snow. She fingered the gold chain about her neck once again and felt a flare of hatred so deep, so overpowering, she felt as if her body might split right up the middle, spilling her steaming guts out onto the road beneath her feet. She shoved the anger away. She’d not give them the satisfaction of seeing her thus.

Despite her best efforts she was drenched and shivering by the time she made it to the market, but wonder of wonders, the shopkeeps were uncommonly generous this day. They turned a blind eye to her stiff hands and sopping clothes. One even offered her a steaming cloth filled with freshly roasted meats – a delicacy so uncommon for the likes of her she couldn’t recall ever having had it before. It was the warmth of the sun, the release from what had been such a dreary winter, that moved them. They knew nothing of the suffering that golden globe foretold for the Collared among them. And why would they? Why should they?

Despite the generosity of the market, the sun was sinking low in the sky by the time her belly was full. The sun, so full and warm just moments before, pulled its heat back to itself and left the mushy snow and rivers of meltwater below to freeze solid once again. Olivia hurried now. Her clothes stiffened as the moisture within them turned to ice. Her fingers and feet had gone numb long since, but she could feel her joints stiffening now. If she didn’t reach her destination soon she’d never be able to make the climb back to the warm crack beneath an overhanging roof. Her breath steamed in front of her with each exhale and it looked to her like the breath of death snorting just in front of her.

She came around the corner and skittered to a halt. She knew she should hurry, knew the cold would intensify beyond her body’s ability to cope once the last of the sunlight leached from the sky. But instead of moving she felt her mouth gape open, her feet root into the quickly freezing slush. In front of her was an open carriage carrying two women and two children, a young boy and a young girl. The children laughed as they licked at frozen treats within the warm glow of the spelled carriage, their faces flushed with warmth and the excitement of the day. One of the women chuckled as she helped the other one climb into the carriage, both aglow with the magic that held the freezing cold at bay.

She was less than twenty feet away, if any one of them were to look up they would see her. Their daughter, their sister. But would they recognize her? Of course, they would, Olivia chided herself. No matter what custom dictated, mothers would recognize their eldest daughter. The question was whether they would acknowledge that recognition.

Olivia watched as her family, the women who had birthed her, the siblings she had helped raise, vanished into the night. Only after the warmth of their magic had been swallowed in darkness did she realize she had fallen to her knees in the freezing slush. A part of her mind was screaming at her to stand up, to move, to live. But she stayed as she was, staring at that point at which the winter night had swallowed her family, and thought of the malevolent face of the sun on a warm winters day.

The Other Side

CrystalShe pushed her breath out in tight bursts as she scrambled between the house-sized rocks that had, in some past epoch, tumbled from the cliffs above turning the valley floor into a maze of rock and stone. The black sky shone above, its smooth face unmarred by even a single pinprick of light. It was the sort of day she loved.

She moved fast. She’d never been to this section of the narrows before but that mattered little. Her body knew how to climb, jump, squirm, and squeeze so well she barely spared a thought for such things. A fine film of powdered rock and dusk lined her arms, her face, she could feel its grit collected at the sides of her nose and between the teeth she clenched and unclenched as she moved. She could feel the muscles at the bottoms of her cheeks jumping and twitching in response.

She came to a small crack at the base of a tower of stone that otherwise completely blocked her way forward. She crouched low, twisted her body sideways, and slipped through without a thought. Unyielding stone scraped at her fine skin, removing a layer from her left cheek and the knuckles of both hands.

Her people never explored the narrows. It was dangerous, they said. There were… things… that lurked here, they said. There were wild magics that could hold a person in thrall until they wasted away and their bones turned to dust. There was even light, they said.

She’d come, at first, in search of these things. But all she’d found was dirt and stone and a sort of solace she’d never found anywhere else. In the narrows, the only sounds were the wind whistling through tight alleys and cracks of stone, the occasional trill of a canyon wren, and the scuff of her calloused heels on dusty stone. The only rules were those she made up herself, and she’d made up only one so far. There must never be any further rules.

The crack she moved through tightened further, but she could see a vague glowing whiteness ahead, something brilliantly white almost glowing in the cool darkness of the day, and it was close. She took a deep breath and held it briefly before pushing it all out, collapsing her lungs as much as she could. She scrunched down lower, the crack widened a tiny bit down low, and shoved herself through.

She tumbled out into a wide cavern and looked about in surprise. Cobwebs hung in tattered strings in the corners, a layer of dust covered the floor so thickly her bare feet left clearly defined imprints behind. To her surprise there were stone benches scattered about the room, most lying cracked and broken now. The room was old, clearly unused for a long time.

Along the far wall, an expanse of crystal stretched from floor to ceiling and wall to wall, glimmering white in the cool darkness. The expanse of crystal was so thin she could see through it to the other side. And on the other side, a light so brilliantly white she could see little more than vague shapes and shadows.

She held back at first, fear strumming her nerves like instrument strings. Light. The great enemy of her people. Something that robbed them of their sight, that burned their pale skin to deep blistering shades of red, and most terrifyingly of all, housed the others. Those with eyes so dark they could see right through that blinding whiteness, and skin so black even fire couldn’t burn it.

But while the sheer whiteness on the other side made it difficult for her to see details, it did not burn her eyes. She glanced from one side to the other, scanning the room around her. Her vision was as clear as it ever was. The fear plucking at her nerves subsided a little, and excitement began to run in its place. She moved forward a step, the forward momentum of her foot seeming to take an entire month to complete. A second step, a third, and time seemed to both speed up and slow down simultaneously, as if her mind now moved so quickly it felt as if it took an epoch for her body to catch up.

And then she was there, forehead leaning gently against the clear crystal surface, both hands splayed along its smoothness. She narrowed her eyes, willing them to pierce the blinding whiteness and reveal the secrets it conspired to hide. A room, but beautiful and shining where hers was old and in ruins. Colors seemed to cover the walls, colors of a brightness and hue she’d never imagined could exist. She pressed her forehead against the crystal wall, the last of the fear she’d felt at the realization of light vanished, the desire to see those colors, to touch them, overrode everything else.

In the center of the room was something that looked like a sort of sofa. Brown, she thought, maybe wood, maybe stone, but polished to a warm glow in the brightness of the other side and covered with something… fabric maybe. But fabric that danced and cavorted with color and shapes so fine she couldn’t quite make them out through the blinding light.

She stared through the looking glass as the day grew old behind her. Beyond the narrows, the first flickering star made its debut in the lightening sky. At the far edge of the horizon, a soft pink stain formed and grew, slowly stretching long fingers across the sky. As she strained her eyes against the glare of the far side, her own people hurried home as the brightness of night grew around them.

In the narrows, in that small room lost to time, she stared. Stared as the burning bright light on the other side faded into dusk, finer details began to reveal themselves to her thirsting eyes. Brilliantly feathered birds with jeweled eyes cavorted along marble-white walls. A fireplace, mantle of living tree, huddled hungrily on the far side. And in the center, a reclining sofa made of shining tiger eye stone rested at ease, padded by thick layers of feathered pelts in ruby reds, sapphire blues, amethyst purples and smoldering oranges. And atop them, a dark shadow reclined.

With a gasp, she jerked her head back before thrusting it forward once again, clacking her curling horns sharply against the crystal barrier. It was one of them. One of the others. She inhaled sharply and held her breath as its head turned toward her, eyes open wide in surprise. She watched as the figure climbed to its feet, facing her.

The burning whiteness of that other place had faded enough that she could see his eyes glittering like shards of obsidian. His dark skin stood out starkly, breathtakingly beautifully, from the color of the room behind him, and his body rippled as he moved toward her.

The soft pink light of the approaching night had finally made its way through the myriad cracks and valleys of the barrens and filled the room around her with a soft glow. The light in that other place faded quickly now, a cool darkness suffusing what had been a blazing fire of light a short time before.

A strange sort of equilibrium settled over both rooms, as heat seeks the balance of coolness, and wet the balance of dryness, light reached across that crystal boundary in search of balancing darkness. He tilted his head to one side and she could see the curling thickness of one of his spiraling horns, larger, darker, but otherwise so like her own. He lifted a hand then, placing it over hers, his skin black as night, hers as white as the marble lining that far room. A sigh passed through them, through the crystalline barrier, through both her room and that other room, as light and darkness came into balance. She felt her own breath pass from her lips, heard his do the same. She felt his touch, warm and dry and direct. She turned her pale blue eyes to his glittering black ones and they breathed. One moment. Two. An eternity in an instant. And then the balance was broken. The last of the light drained out of his room, the pink glow of her nighttime sun filled hers, and the thin crystalline skin between worlds separated them once again.