The sun was sinking past the Rift in the sky like a glaring wound, and the three moons were starting their ascent when the raft and its strange occupant came drifting up to the dilapidated shack at the center of the marsh. That occupant was a slender figure in armor, wearing a helmet, visor down. An empty sword sheath hung over one shoulder.
The figure was mounted on a flickering horse, its form ever-changing; one moment scarcely more than a foal, seeming too small to support the weight of the rider; next a massive war horse in its prime, coat glossy with health; then a broken-down nag; and by and by nothing more than a skeleton, bones clattering against each other.
Dark rider and strange horse waited patiently as the raft swung through the channel. It moved by itself as if caught in the current, gliding past all sorts of strange objects strewn among the marsh grasses. Here, a gilded carriage wheel caught the light; there, an ornately carved table lay sunk at a half angle. Lengths of fabric waved gently in the current; lamps, trunks, and cutlery shone among the reeds and rushes.
At last, the channel opened up into a clear pool with an old, sagging shack at its center with a rickety dock. Wisps of smoke came from the stovepipe in the shack’s roof, and yellow lamplight danced against the dusty windowpanes.
The raft fetched up against the dock. The door opened and out stepped a young woman, with long blonde hair caught up in a bun, wearing a shawl over a faded, patched house dress.
“Daïtis,” the woman said. “I’ve been expecting you.”
The rider showed no recognition; if anything the figure seemed surprised.
“Are you the Grandmother of the Marsh?” The voice that issued from within the helm was feminine, but deep and resonant with the weight of centuries.
“Grandmother of the Marsh of the Lost, that’s me.” The woman laughed. “You expected me to look older, is that it? You yourself are a Time Knight, you should know how little physical age means. Step down, Daïtis, and come inside; I’ve been waiting for you all evening.”
The armored woman did as she was bid. The moment she swung down from the ever-changing horse, it flickered and dissolved into the air.
“How did you know I was coming?”
The young woman stopped and looked back at her with faint exasperation.
“I know everything that transpires within the borders of my domain. Now come inside. You’ve been traveling for centuries and I’m sure you’ve something you’d like to discuss.”
The inside of the shack was a single, long, low room divided in two by a fraying curtain. A table with a bench dominated the center of the room; an old iron stove stood in one corner, with two rocking chairs pulled up to it, and in another corner there was a somewhat rusty handpump with a sink underneath. A set of shelves against one wall held a haphazard collection of strange and wonderful objects culled from the marsh.
“Sorry it’s so dark in here,” the Grandmother said, lighting an old oil lamp. “The sun sets early these days, and the house faces Center-ward, you know.”
Daïtis said nothing, but raised the visor on her helm. Inside was shadow, in the depths of which, two eyes could be seen. Like her horse, her eyes were ever-flickering, ever-changing — now green and angular, now brown and twinkling; now a sparkling, pinpoint black and now a wide-set, pale gray.
Grandmother clapped her hands, delighted. “Why, what remarkable eyes, my dear! Did you borrow them, or are they yours?”
Daïtis shrugged. “As time and change encompass all things, so do we, time’s guardians. My eyes are mine if they are anyone’s.”
“Well, if you don’t mind, could you settle on one pair while we’re talking? It is a little distracting.”
“As you wish,” Daïtis replied indifferently. Her eyes closed, and when she opened them again, they were an angular bluish-green.
“Thank you, child, that’s so much better,” Grandmother said. She tilted her head, as if trying to peer deeper into the shadows of the helm. “You know, I’ve never quite understood you Time Knights. What are you, anyway?”
“Old,” Daïtis replied succinctly, in that voice that was not a voice. The word carried the weight of millennia. “Old beyond reckoning.”
Grandmother shook her head. “Now, that can’t possibly be true,” she chided gently. “After all, you know how old you are, right?”
A pause, and that hollow empty voice came again, gnawed by time as if by rats.
“Once, perhaps. When the world was formed, and the Clock of the Long Now set in motion, to tell the count of the world’s ages and keep the time in harmony from the Center to the Edge of the World. That is when — they say — we stepped out of time as well: the Time Knights, time given shape and form to protect the Clock forever.”
“And is that true?”
Blue-green eyes lowered in the shadows of the helm. “It was…very long ago.”
Grandmother smiled. “I see. Well, I would offer you something to eat, but I don’t think those like you need it. Give me a moment to settle myself in and then I’ll be all ready to listen to you.”
She prodded the stove until the battered old teakettle whistled, poured herself a cup of tea from the pot; then settled herself in one of the chairs near the stove and took up a pile of knitting. The yarn was a strange peach color, and as she shook it out, Daïtis’ eyes widened in the shadow of her helm. For the woman was knitting a leg: five toes lovingly detailed, even to the point of having nails; a perfectly formed ankle rising up to a smooth, rounded calf, raveling away in yarn at the end of it.
Grandmother laughed when she saw Daïtis’ surprise. “Don’t mind me — I’m just knitting myself a granddaughter. An old woman can get so lonely out here, and a granddaughter will keep me company.” Her needles began to click. “Why don’t you have a seat while we chat?”
Slowly, as if uncertain, the tall figure lowered herself onto the long bench. Grandmother nodded approvingly. “Now, tell me all about what brings you here.”
“I seek my sword,” Daïtis said, indicating her empty sheath.
“This is the Marsh of the Lost. All lost things find their way here eventually.”
The Grandmother closed her eyes, leaning back in her rocking chair. “Your sword. Yes, your Sword of Time…” When she opened her eyes again, they were bright and sharp. For the first time, her young face seemed just a facade, obscuring something vast and formless and old as the sky. “I think your sword might be here, yes. Of course, I don’t keep track of everything in the Marsh; it brings in what it will. Why don’t you tell me all about how you lost it and where you last saw it?”
“It was…years ago. Or centuries. Depending on how you count them.” Daïtis paused. “I have come from the Center,” she said somewhat lamely, as if by way of explanation. “Time runs more swiftly there. Centuries for us may pass as years for you.”
“Of course. And how long ago was it by your reckoning?”
“The Empire of the Center had already fallen to the Ever-storm by then.”
“Ah, well here, it stands yet. The marsh is still taking odds and ends from the Empress’ palace; why, the other day, I found a lovely long-stemmed pipe, as good as new, still warm from the Empress’ hands. But how did you lose your sword, my girl?”
Daïtis hesitated. For the briefest instant it seemed as if the outlines of features could be seen within the shadows of her helm. “A man came to my domain of the Valley of Time. He came… I gave him the sword. He took it and died with it.”
Grandmother raised one brow. “You have to tell me all, girl. As much as you can.”
Daïtis shifted, drawing back from Grandmother’s probing look.
“Tell me, or you’ll never get your weapon back.”
For another long moment, Daïtis considered. Then she began to speak.
He came to me from loveward, though that means nothing. The Clock of the Long Now is close enough to the Center that anyone who comes to it must come from one of the three directions: loveward, deathward, or joyward. And my area of the Valley of Time is to loveward, so anyone coming to me would come from loveward in any case.
He wore finery of one of the Imperial courtiers, though that too means nothing; the Empire of the Center had fallen by then, long and long, but pieces of it still turn up occasionally here and there throughout the world like flotsam. He explained later that he had recently returned from a journey to the Edge, and had been stunned to find that the Empire had fallen in his absence.
He was dying when I found him. The Valley of Time is…not hospitable…to ordinary men and women who seek it out. Time there lies thickly and can easily crush them. And he had been traveling for days; he had long run out of mortal comforts like food and water.
I had sensed him immediately; we Time Knights know the moment when one of those tiny sparks of flickering life enters our domain. It had been centuries since the last one sought us out; the Center by now was almost as devoid of life as the outer edges. I rode to meet him, drawing my sword from its sheath, expecting a challenger, and found only a supplicant: an ordinary human in ragged clothing, pale, with brown hair and eyes, dying on the rocks of my home.
I dismounted and tipped his chin up with my sword. His eyes opened. They were strange to me; he was one of those whose eyes I had never worn before. I could see he was barely alive; he had only moments left. So I struck him.
“You struck him, child?” Grandmother asked, her needles clicking.
Daïtis nodded. “The swords of the Time Knights have the power to cleave or add years to the lives of mortal men and women. I…” She paused. “I gave him back some time. No great amount; only enough to tell me who he was and what had brought him here. I had to know, you see.”
He might have been the advance scout of an army, one that sought to control the world by controlling the Clock of the Long Now. Such things had happened before; a madman or madwoman deranged enough to think that here one could find the key to power, to reversing the world. I struck him, and his breath became less labored; I struck him again, and he sat up, though still unwell.
“Who are you?” I asked, “and what brings you here?”
He looked up at me with those foreign brown eyes. His voice was thin, weak. “I am Sebastian,” he said. “Heir to the Whitewalls Barony — or, I was once,” he added quietly.
“Whitewalls stands no longer,” I told him.
He only nodded. He tried to gather his feet underneath him.
“Be careful. You have an hour left, at best,” I told him, and his face paled. His shoulders slumped. Weakness and exhaustion hung on him like the remnants of his court finery. He pushed himself up unsteadily, guttering like a wind-blown candle flame.
“I seek a boon.”
A boon, I thought. It was not unknown for people to come to us from time to time for this purpose. Sometimes, boons are granted.
Often, they are not.
“Tell me,” I said.
He shook his head. “Take me to the Clock.”
“One moment, child,” Grandmother interposed at this point. She gestured toward the dusty, cracked windowpanes that made up the walls of the house. “It’s getting dark outside. If you will permit me…”
She lit another oil lamp. Daïtis looked on, her blue-green eyes thoughtful. The new light flared briefly; for a moment the dim outlines of her features seemed almost visible. Grandmother nodded, settling herself down again in her old rocker.
“So. He asked to see the Clock — and you said?”
There was no reason for me to refuse; I struck him again, to grant him more time yet, and helped him to his feet. He was wary of me; I don’t think he had ever seen one of us before.
I brought him to my horse, Hours; he shied away. “She…changes.”
“Time always changes,” I replied.
I helped him into the saddle — it was difficult; he was weak, and more than a little afraid, I think — and swung up before him, then turned Hours’ head to the center of the Valley, where the Clock of the Long Now loomed against the horizon.
Have you seen it? I thought not. The Clock is a tall edifice of stone and metal and crystal, with wheels upon cogs upon gears, dials and faces and hands. Tall as a mountain, it splits the horizon; keeps time for the entire world, from the Center to the Edge. He watched the ground flow past as Hours ran. There was little enough to see. The Valley of Time is barren. The press of time there is too strong for life. Nothing but ageless rock endures.
There is no wall around the clock; no castle, no fortress; the mountains are wall enough, and we, the Knights, are more than sufficient guardians. There are twenty-four of us, one for each hour in the day. Another three guard the center, the Maidens of Time.
I asked him as we rode what boon he sought. “I can tell you now,” he said, “because you have already agreed to take me. I wish to turn back the hands of Time.”
Well, I cannot say this surprised me. Occasionally we have mortals come to us, asking to turn back time for them; usually because of some petty complaint, such as the death of a loved one, or a mistake made in their past. They cannot fathom that their troubles are simply their troubles, that they are not worth throwing the world into upheaval. I told him this as well.
“My request is different,” he said.
“Everyone says that.”
Reality is thin near the clock. It is as if the world has become jelly-like, and each tick of the massive hands — there are nine hands in all, keeping time for the regions through and out to the Edge — sends ripples through reality, as the world turns around the axis of the Clock.
The three Maidens of Time came to meet us as we drew near, Death and Love and Joy, Chentis and Kami and Gaudjhom, always shifting, always changing.
Sebastian went to dismount and almost fell. The ride had taken more of his time away than I had anticipated. I struck him with my sword again and he straightened. He drew back from the ever-changing Maidens and glanced at me uneasily.
I had never experienced a mortal looking to me for reassurance before; I simply nodded him forward.
The three women stopped some distance from him. It was Kami who spoke first — have I told you that he came from loveward?
“Sebastian, of Whitewalls Barony,” Kami said. He seemed startled that they knew his name.
“We know your request,” said Chentis. For a moment her face flickered; it was his own eyes that were gazing back at him. “We will not grant it.”
Anger flared on his face. “But you haven’t even heard what I am going to say!”
“We do not need to,” sighed Gaudjhom. “We encompass all of time in its flow. Your request was known before you came to us. We would never have granted it.”
“But — ”
“Do you think,” Chentis reproved, “that the Clock of the Long Now exists for your whim? Do you even know what it is you would ask?” Above them all, hundreds of feet in the air, the circles and gears of the clock ticked, and the world trembled. The stars arched, wheeling, above. The sky is dark over the Clock of the Long Now; it is where the world is closest to forever. “There comes a time,” Chentis added, “when what has been done cannot and must not be undone, no matter the consequences.”
Sebastian reeled; despite the added time I had given him, he was already growing weak. Still he tried to protest. “You must. It is the only chance — ”
“We must do nothing,” said Kami.
“Go,” Gaudjhom told him. “There is nothing more to say.”
Sebastian struggled to protest, but he could barely stand. The depth of time was pressing down on him, squeezing the life from his body. I could have left him there to die, as I had done with others.
He came from loveward, though that meant nothing.
I struck him one more time with my sword, then pulled him away. With a nod to the Maidens of Time, I heaved him onto Hours, swung up behind him, and rode away, carrying him outward, to the edge of the valley.
“I know not why,” Daïtis confessed. Grandmother rocked in her chair, her needles clicking placidly. “I had brought others to the Clock before and seen them die; it meant nothing to me. Time destroys all.”
“Perhaps he was different somehow,” Grandmother suggested, smiling.
Daïtis shook her head. “I think — ” Then she lifted one hand and stopped.
“What is it, child?”
Daïtis yanked off one gauntlet. At the end of her arm was a strange flicker, shifting and undefined, but holding the shape of a human hand.
Grandmother shrugged. “What about it?”
Blue-green eyes lifted in the shadow of the helm. “They are…distinct. They were not like this…before. It has been said…we are carved out of time. Time is ever changing and so are we. What is happening?”
Needles clicked, and rows of flesh-colored material piled up one after another. “Keep talking, my dear,” Grandmother said, “and perhaps we shall find out.”
I carried Sebastian away on Hours’ back, though I scarce knew why I bothered. Wanting to turn back the Hands of Time is, as I had said, not uncommon among those who make their way to our Valley, and almost always for personal gain. I had little sympathy. Our lives as Time Knights are ones of eternal service. I am constantly surprised at the selfishness of mortals.
And perhaps in my heart I was…disappointed…that this man wanted no better.
He came from loveward, I thought, though that meant nothing.
When we reached the outer edges of the Valley, where the flow of time thinned, I set him down. “Go,” I told him, tightening my grip on my weapon, while Hours stamped and snorted. “Go, and do not return.”
Sebastian did not move. He looked defeated — devastated — and while I had seen mortals look in such fashion many times before, something about his expression touched me. I lingered, though I did not know why.
Perhaps it was only that it had been decades since I had last spoken to another. Whatever the reason, it was enough; I looked down at him from Hours’ back.
“What?” he asked, seeing my confusion.
“What was the boon that you would have asked of the Clock?”
I knew — or suspected — what he would say: the fall of the Empire of the Center, or perhaps the loss of his barony.
He looked away. “It doesn’t matter now.”
“Tell me,” I said, “and perhaps I might help you.”
Sebastian debated for a moment, then faced me again with those clear brown eyes. “I had hoped,” he said, “to turn the hands of time back to before the Everstorm.”
The clicking of Grandmother’s needles stopped. “Well,” she said quietly. “That’s quite a request.”
Daïtis was silent, still gazing down at her hands. They were growing still more distinct. “I…We…had never heard such a request before. We had no idea anyone would ever request such a thing.”
“And what did you say to him?”
I could not say anything at first. I was struck dumb. The sheer audacity of the idea took my breath away — I who am old beyond measure, who have seen and heard almost everything in the long expanse since I was carved out of time.
“This is your boon?” I said at last.
Sebastian looked up at me, his eyes — so unfamiliar to me, eyes that I had never worn, in all my life — intense and appealing. “It is the world’s only hope. The Everstorm destroyed the Empire of the Center. It is destroying this world, all around us. Every year it grows further, devouring more — more lands, peoples, nations. Something has to be done!” He swallowed. “When I returned from the Edge, my home was a ruin. No one had lived there for years, perhaps decades — centuries. I had expected my family to be gone, but — And not five miles away, I could see the vast wall of the Everstorm, forever growing outward. I cannot let it go. I cannot.”
I had heard such stories before, of course. Many had come before him, begging for the reversal of time, so that they could retrieve something the Everstorm had taken: house, or home, or husband and child.
Yet he was the first one who had ever asked this — to run the clock back to the beginning of the world.
“Do you know how the Storm came about, child?” Grandmother asked, her needles clicking.
Daïtis raised her eyes in the shadow of her helm. Her features were almost visible by now: the merest suggestion of an oval face, with high cheekbones and wide-set eyes, narrow nose over full lips.
“Why don’t you take that helm off, dear? I can hardly see you under there.”
Daïtis shook her head. “No,” she said, and her fists clenched. She looked down at her hands, growing more distinct by the moment, and the set of her shoulders suggested fear.
“Well, suit yourself. But you have such a lovely face — why hide it under that helm? Anyway, go on. The Everstorm?”
Daïtis shrugged. “The Triune Goddesses loosed it upon the world. To what end I am ignorant. But the Storm was created either with our world or so close to the beginning that we, the guardians of time, know no difference.” She paused. “Someday, they say, it will end.”
“Perhaps,” Grandmother said, her needles clicking. “But go on with your story, child.”
“Your request was foolish from the start,” I told him, harsher than I meant — or perhaps not as harsh as he deserved. “To run the clock back at all would throw the world into chaos. To turn it back as far as you wish — Madness beyond madnesses.”
He looked at me sullenly. “I have nothing left to lose.”
“But others do.”
“But if I don’t do this, we all will die!” He sat down then, suddenly, as if reaching a decision.
“What are you doing?”
His chin set defiantly. “I’m not leaving. Not until they agree.”
“Then you will die here,” I told him.
“Maybe so,” he said. “But I must do what I can.”
Clearly there was nothing more to say. I turned Hours’ head away from him, and rode off.
“And did he leave?” Grandmother asked, rocking in her chair.
Daïtis’ eyes lowered. “He did not.”
I had my patrol, I had my task. I rode my appointed section of the Valley of Time, and tried my best to put Sebastian from my mind. But my route took me back by the edge of the Valley, day after day, and day after day, he was still there.
Every day Sebastian would ask, “Have they agreed yet?”
Every day I would reply, “No. The Everstorm is destroying the world slowly. Your request would destroy it in an instant. Leave now, and save your time.”
Every day he would respond, “No. I will sit here until they change their mind.”
And I would ride off and leave him.
After the third day, it was clear he was growing weaker. Time was bearing down on him; he had little of it left.
I took to striking him before I rode off, just to give him some time back. The hours I granted to him kept him alive, but no more than that. He was starving, but not to death. He was dying of thirst, but would not die. Every day I would tell him, “Leave now.” And every day he would reply, “Not till they agree.”
I do not think I have ever wanted anything in my life so much.
Such mortal torment is foreign to us. We require neither food, nor rest, nor sleep. So I could not understand, not directly, what that man was going through. But I marveled at his extravagance of spirit. I found I could not forget it.
Could not forget him.
“I…do not know why…I kept visiting him,” Daïtis said, shifting awkwardly on her bench.
Grandmother’s needles clicked. “Perhaps you were lonely, dear.”
“Lonely.” Daïtis said the word as if it were something utterly foreign to her.
“We all need other people.” She nodded to the half-leg in her lap.
Daïtis said nothing but looked down at her hands.
“They are becoming more solid,” she said quietly, removing her other gauntlet and holding her hands up before her. There was clear alarm in those blue-green eyes. “What is happening?”
“It’s the marsh, child,” Grandmother said gently. “It recovers what is lost.”
Within the shadow of Daïtis’ helm, dim outlines seemed to frown.
“Are you sure you wouldn’t like to remove your helmet, dear?”
“No.” But her denial sounded weaker than before.
“Well, then,” Grandmother said, rocking in her chair. “Tell me the rest.”
I do not know how many days passed thus, myself warning and him unmoved. I had never seen such suffering. Finally, one day, after I had struck him, I remained.
“Go,” I told him.
“I will not,” he responded. To tell the truth, by then I do not know if he could.
I thought for a long time. At last I swung down from Hours’ back.
“What are you doing?” he asked in confusion.
I knelt beside him. “You are going to die,” I said, “unless you leave here. I can only keep you alive for so much longer.”
“I will survive long enough,” he said. “I must.”
He struggled to sit up; he was so weak that he could not. I raised him to a sitting position. I do not know why. He clutched at my arm.
“Help me. Please.”
I dragged him to a rock and propped him against it. “How? What help can I give you?” I asked. I will not say at this point that I was prepared to help him — but I was impressed.
“Something…I have to have something…Something to defeat the Everstorm,” he implored me, clasping harder at my vambrace. His eyes sought mine again, those strange, foreign eyes.
“You must go,” I told him.
“I cannot. Not until — ”
But I had drawn my sword from its sheath. “Here. Take this.” And I laid it before him.
He started, and looked at me in something akin to alarm. “Your…sword?” he asked.
“Our weapons have the power to cleave or add years from the lifespan of anything that exists. Here,” I showed him, turning the blade this way and that. “This to cut, and this to add. How do you think I have been keeping you alive? Carry my sword to the heart of the World. Use it to cleave years from the life of the Everstorm, cleave and cleave until the storm is spent. In this way you may defeat it.”
He looked at me closely. “Are you sure?”
“Why have you not done this before now?”
“We are bound to our posts,” I told him. “The Clock of the Long Now demands our protection; it is so vital to the world that even the Everstorm cannot compare. I cannot leave. But you can. Take my sword and with it free the world.”
He stared at me for a long time, as if trying to discern my thoughts, then reached to take my sword from my hand.
He twined his fingers around the hilt. I watched his face blanch as he felt the weight of it, saw him shiver, but he did not let it go. Slowly he struggled to his feet. He could barely lift the blade. It trailed on the ground in the dust beside him. He faced me.
“Thank you, Daïtis.” Those unknown eyes were as clear and as guileless as the sky over the Valley of Time. “I will never forget you.”
“No,” I agreed. “You will not. Now go.”
Limping with every step, he turned and began dragging himself toward the edge of the valley. I watched him until he passed from sight.
“It was a lie, of course.”
Grandmother inclined her head. “Was it, now?”
Daïtis looked uncomfortable in the shadow of her helm. “Well…not a lie, exactly. The blades of the Time Knights do take and add years. But the Everstorm was formed out of time itself; it is eternal. My blade could never have destroyed it. And that was if he even managed to reach the heart of the world in the first place, which he did not. In truth, I knew he would not.”
“Did you?” And one brow arched as the Grandmother’s needles clicked.
You must understand the power of our blades. Much like ourselves, our blades are fragments of solidified time.
The moment a mortal’s hand touches the hilt, time will begin to accelerate for that man or woman. They are quite literally bearing the burden of years. And the longer they carry it the more swiftly time passes.
I gave him my sword because…I am not sure why. I wanted to get him out of there, I suppose. It was not kind of me, perhaps, but it was not kind of him to come to my section of the valley, and refuse to go away, no matter if he came from loveward or not.
He made it quite some distance — quite some time. But then, he had been young to start with, and had a great many years to lose. He bore my sword across the Plains of Song and Wind, over the Skybridge; past the Iron Wall and Desert Sea, strewn with the wreckage of the ships of air. I do not know what kept him going for so long. All I know is that I…had never seen such determination. Such strength.
He fell, of course. I had given him a task that could not be completed. It was not kind of me to do so, but those of us who are Time Knights are not created for kindness. It is not my responsibility if he did not understand that what he asked is impossible.
He came from loveward. But that meant nothing.
I knew it when he fell. I felt the sword leave his hand.
I tried to recall the blade to me — we are bound to our blades, or they to us. It is said we were hewn out of the same fragment of time together. Yet the blade did not come. I knew what I must do.
I rode out from the Valley of Time.
Surely you are thinking it was dangerous to leave the Valley, and you are right. My aspect of the Valley was left undefended. But I had to recover my sword.
I found him where I knew I would: in the Grave of Dreams. I was surprised he had made it that far. He lay as he had fallen, on his face, one hand stretched out. I turned him over, as the dream fragments formed and burst around me like soap bubbles. His hair was white, his face deeply lined. He was not the strong young man who had come to me from loveward. I wonder if he had even understood what it was he was still doing, at the end.
If he had even understood what I did to him, by granting the sword.
The sword was not there. I backtracked, trying to find if he had dropped it, but no matter where I looked, I could not find it. It was gone. Lost.
“And so I came to you, Grandmother,” Daïtis finished. “For this is the place where all things lost come to be.”
Grandmother laid down her needles and looked at Daïtis. The leg she had been working on was almost up to the knee. “Well, now, my dear. That is quite a story.”
“My hands — ” Daïtis held her hands out. They were fully formed now — long fingered, with smooth skin.
“I told you. The Marsh has the quality of recovering those things that were lost,” Grandmother said, smiling.
“When I leave…I will be back the way I was? This will be gone?”
“I don’t follow things that leave my domain, girl. The only way I know what happens to them is if they return,” Grandmother chided her. “Will you return once you leave me?”
Daïtis’ half-seen features twisted into a scowl. “All I want is to find my sword.”
Grandmother glanced toward the windowpanes. “It’s light out, child, you talked through the night. Perhaps we can go now.”
“Do you know where my sword is?”
Grandmother pushed her knitting off her lap and rose to her feet, stretching. “Come, child,” she said, “and I will show you.”
Daïtis followed Grandmother outside to the raft still tied to the railing. Together they stepped onto the platform and Grandmother pushed off from the dock. The sky was washed a brilliant golden by the rising sun, and the Rift shone like a livid wound across the smooth face of the sky.
Daïtis was silent as the raft moved along. Everything seemed strange to her: the air brushed past her cheeks with a startling familiarity; she could feel the smooth glide of the raft under her feet, swaying slightly with the current.
He came from loveward, she thought. Loveward…
The raft moved through the marsh’s channels. Shattered furniture bulked at an angle, next to a child’s wooden top; the glint of a mother-of-pearl-handled hairbrush could be seen under a vast wooden spar from a ship. Daïtis gazed at her hands in the morning light, turning them over, back to front. Her face was still hidden in the shadow of her helm.
“What will you do when you find your sword?” Grandmother asked her.
“Go back,” Daïtis said. “I shall take up my position again, and ride for as long as there is time. Until the Everstorm devours us all. And it will be…” She paused. “It will be as if I never knew a man named Sebastian, who came to me from loveward.”
“Is that what you want?”
“It is my task. Humans’ concerns are no affair of mine.” Her helm turned toward Grandmother. “You yourself should know this.”
“Well, maybe I do. I’m sure you’ll forgive an old woman,” Grandmother said. “But you may find that you have lost more than you know, when you gave him the sword.”
They rounded a thick, pink, squared boulder and came upon a tree in the middle of a small island, festooned with long strands of wire; the wire stirred gently, though there was no breeze, and faint chiming sounds came from them. Grandmother nodded to the island. “It’s there you’ll find what you’re looking for.”
She sank the pole in the ground, anchoring the raft. “What are you waiting for, child?” she asked, looking over at Daïtis.
Daïtis did not move.
“Go on, child. Your sword is on that island.”
The Time Knight seemed to gather her courage. The boat rocked as she stepped out onto land. Metal glinted from under the tree roots.
The harp strings chimed softly as she drew near. She brushed the strands out of the way as if she were brushing back hair from the face of a lover, and bent down to take her weapon. The hilt gleamed through the mud, carved in the shape of an hourglass; she curled her newly solid fingers around it. In a single movement, she pulled the sword free and held it up…
The edge of the sword glittered in the sunshine, jagged and sharp. It was snapped off about halfway down its length. Daïtis’ surprise seemed to give way to shock; she jammed the snapped blade into its sheath, and then bent over again, searching almost frantically in the mud.
“What did he do with it?”
“Did you know that it was broken?” Grandmother asked her.
“I didn’t know that these blades could be broken. I can only imagine what could have done so…” Her armored form suddenly swung toward Grandmother accusingly. “Where is the other piece?”
Grandmother raised her hands. “Why, how should I know, child?”
“Don’t play games with me. If the blade is broken, then the other half of the blade too is lost. It should be here. Why did you not tell me and where is it?”
Her voice crackled with anger. She laid one hand on her sword hilt and took a step forward.
“Calm yourself, child.”
Grandmother did not stir, but the words carried a subtle, unmistakable warning. Suddenly, she seemed more, somehow; though no outward change had taken place, a shadow surrounded her. The woman sitting on the raft seemed a brightly painted illusion hiding a vast abyss of power.
Daïtis released her weapon and stepped back.
Grandmother nodded, and that other dimension was gone.
“Where might your blade be? Well, now, that is the question, isn’t it? You are right, that if the other half of the blade was lost, it should turn up here. The question is, when. Could be the time of the swamp hasn’t caught up with the time of the Blade yet. It may be here in another few years. Or centuries. If it truly is lost. But,” she frowned. “I suspect it is not.”
“But then where is it?” Daïtis demanded with real anguish.
Grandmother shrugged. “Might be, the blade was destroyed. Or else — ” Grandmother studied Daïtis thoughtfully. “Perhaps the blade is not lost after all. Perhaps someone else has it.”
“Someone…else?” Even under the helm, Daïtis looked confused. “But who would want such a thing? They would have to brave the wrath of the Everstorm — ”
Grandmother shrugged. “Who knows, child? There are many strange people and creatures in the world.”
Daïtis drew her half-blade from her sword sheath and stared at it, then suddenly dropped to a sitting position on the grass, her bright surcoat stained with mud. She turned the blade over, examining the snapped-off end, then growled in frustration.
“What will you do, child?”
Daïtis turned the blade in her hands. “What I ought to do,” she said, “is return to the Valley of Time. Tell my sisters what happened. Perhaps I do not need my sword after all. Perhaps something else can be done.”
“Or?” Grandmother prodded.
“Or,” she said slowly, “I could go on. I could seek the remaining half of my blade.” She paused. “The search could last centuries. And while I dally, my post is unguarded. Yet — how can I guard it when I do not have my sword?”
Grandmother studied her. “Do you want to return to your valley?”
Daïtis shook her head. “It is my…fate.”
“But what do you want to do?”
Daïtis reseated the blade in its sheath. She held up her hands, looking at them in the bright morning sunshine.
“My hands,” Daïtis said quietly. “They look like…his.” She turned them over again, studying them. “Smaller, but — the same. The same.”
With an air of resolution, Daïtis ripped off her helmet, revealing herself to the morning sunshine. Her hair was copper red and wavy, her face oval with a scattering of freckles across her nose. Her eyes were angular and green, like the eyes of a cat.
“I’ll start by returning to where he fell,” she said, looking over at Grandmother. “I will search there, and see if I can find anything that might lead me to the other half of my blade. If I cannot, then…”
She shifted from foot to foot. “Then I will seek him on the other side. Perhaps he will know what became of the blade. But I cannot go back. Not yet. Not till — ” She fell silent.
“He did not falter in his desire to bring death to the Everstorm; I must not falter in my quest to retrieve my blade,” she said at last.
Daïtis turned and looked over her shoulder. A shimmering showed the advent of her horse, Hours; the ever-changing creature, flickering from mare to foal to nag to skeleton and back. Hours came forward, and Daïtis took her reins.
“Well, I wish you luck, my dear,” Grandmother said, patting Daïtis on the shoulder. “Here, let me take you to the edge of the marsh.” She cackled a bit to herself. “If you return in time, perhaps you can meet my granddaughter. She ought to be finished by then.”
Daïtis frowned. “Why would I return?”
“Well, child, if you do, you’ll know the reason.” Grandmother stepped onto the raft after Daïtis and took up the pole. “After all, here is where all lost things are found.”
And she swung the head of the raft to the edge of the marsh, poling onward into the gleaming sun.
|Dana Beehr has a couple of degrees in anthropology from various Midwestern colleges. Her first real experience with writing professionally came when she worked as a reporter for a small-town newspaper. Previous fiction publications include stories in Bards and Sages Quarterly, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and The Lorelei Signal. Currently she works in real estate and lives in Michigan with her husband and one spoiled cat.|