“A Quiet in the Keeping” by Devan Barlow

There is no storm today, my pity and my penance.

This day’s seeker ascends the rocky steps toward me. Her cloak is the same azure as the small birds who dart so heedlessly through the skies on clear days. She is here to ask me a question and she crests over the final ridge like a sunrise, though I am the brightness she seeks.

The smell of her sweat mixes with that of the tough blooms clinging to the cliffs. My flesh should decay as they do, releasing its own sweet rot, yet my skin is smooth and warm. My heart, heavy and worn, is the only piece of me to acknowledge every impossible year.

She drops to her knees, head bent. I can’t speak until she asks her question.

Here lies the most precious thing in the world. Holy and beautiful, and useless.

There is a quiet, in the keeping of sacred things, and the keeping is my fate.

I was not a guardian, once. I was a ruler, with a name long lost in the tumult of my thoughts. I was a person who loved, and was loved. We loved each other so much, yet in the face of wracking winds and waves, love was not enough to keep him safe.

He sought answers, to help us do more good than ill. He insisted he would return, that our love would hold fast in any storm. He left because of questions, and now I am trapped here, overwhelmed with answers.

After he was lost I lingered on the shore for days, though the sea never gave up my quarry. I made a pointless fisherwoman.

Until the god who controlled the winds came to me, to grant me new purpose.

Mercy, he called it, and the chance to serve the gods.

Mercy, I believed it to be.

I never left the island again. The rest of my people passed through their lives, and the space around me emptied with every passing year. Eventually there was only me, and memories, and the treasure I protected.

The waters were often calm. The ruler of the winds deemed this part of my mercy, a lessening of the weather which had brought me so much pain. He never understood that this mercy was too late to do me any good, but I’m sure it made him look beneficent to do it.

They come to me, the warriors and the scions and the riddle-solvers. They ask me their questions, and they angle for what I guard.

I’ve learned to recognize so many varieties of disappointment. At the end of their journeys there is simply me, tired and drawn.

Some recoil before they can control themselves, but all still ask me their questions. Many leave with unsurprising urgency, disappointed by being granted only their answer and not the true treasure they seek.

Often they bring me beautiful jewels, or scented oils made of fine, dead blossoms. As if I would embellish myself here. Splendor is gone, gone like all those others who once lived on these shores.

After gifts are given, they ask their questions.

Tell me the fate of a child yet to be.

Tell me if I will bring honor to those of my name.

Tell me the legacy I shall leave.

Every question but the one I crave.

I dreamed so deeply after my love was lost. Of his return, of our transformations into creatures stronger and braver than we were.

When the ruler of the winds came to me, I asked for my love back. Instead he gave me a responsibility, claiming the strength of my love and my grief proved I was worthy to guard a treasure of the gods.

My island, my home, held a treasure the gods wished did not exist, but that had been wrought during some older, stranger battle the gods would not tell me of.

I was worthy, the ruler of the winds told me. The treasure must be kept safe, and the gods would be grateful for my service. I asked the treasure’s purpose.

The gods didn’t answer.

As the years slipped over this island, the way my visitors spoke changed. The ruler of the winds allowed me to understand them, no matter which tongue they spoke. Despite this, I still heard the changes time worked on their words, pronunciations slipping this way or that as age and fashion had their way. And from these words, I gleaned what the speakers believed about me.

Those who professed knowledge of me and set these supplicants on their paths said that I was here to grant the gods’ treasure to a worthy champion. That should one come before me who was pure enough of heart, I would grant them the power to use the object I guarded.

I asked the gods again, throwing my voice into the wind. The seekers’ surety only confused me more. What was this sacred thing for? How was I meant to judge those who came before me? All I knew of them were the questions they asked and the fatigue their journeys forced on them. I had no capacity to judge worthiness.

The gods’ only answer was to take my words away. The ruler of the winds reshaped my voice to speak only prophecy and potential.

The untruth about my purpose continued, though my words didn’t extend to decrying it.

Yet as more and more supplicants alluded to this falsehood, hints both subtle and not about the treasure they wished me to bestow, I realized how the lie began. It was the work of the gods themselves, and the arbitrariness was the very secret of it. I could never grant the treasure, which meant no one who quested for it would ever be good enough. The story was a way to keep the seekers dancing, because if they were dancing frantically enough they were too busy to question who made them dance.

Yet still they came, the warriors and the scions and the riddle-solvers, hungering for what they thought I could grant them.

To only speak the words the gods wish of me is a quiet all its own.

I long to tell those who seek me my truth, to warn them of what the world will do if they are unlucky enough to become victims of grief. Heartbreak is so easily fashioned into a chain for the gods to imprison you with. But the wind presses on me, and I do not say these things.

An answer is trapped, hanging just behind my lips. Yet first I must be asked about myself, and how I came to be here. No supplicant has seen the truth in my eyes, and my hope has died in the way my body has not.

I’m merely the lock guarding the treasure. A lock is useful, but irrelevant to the one who twists the key and then hides it away. The key to my freedom, the one who will ask the question, must find me. But there is no inherent sympathy between us, no common metal we were forged from that might resonate across the skies.

I sought the treasure once, venturing deep within the caves where it rested. I hoped it could free me.

The wind halted me, singing of my sadness. My loss, and the dearth of hope I could claim.

What is left for you? it taunted. A love long dead, a time not your own.

I reached for the treasure, but the wind was too strong.

The questions are so many and my heart keeps beating, undeterred by time’s passage.

Always there is the wind, the wind, the wind, cackling and whirling with a freedom I know not.

Without my words, those who seek me would be left with their own fears and foolishnesses. They would live their lives as they choose or as their destinies bind them. Their questions would linger, or they would gain new meaning.

The question unanswered is forced to change its form, but it retains its possibilities. An answer without a question is worse than useless, and a soul who seeks to force the latter receives nothing but wind-blown apathy.

I tried to escape after my words were taken from me, racing toward the beckoning waters. Let the gods guard their own treasure.

The wind hit me like a charging bull. I snapped backwards, hearing a multitude of small, incomprehensible sounds within my own body. The gods would not have me leave.

My wounds never healed. Slashes and scrapes ringed me like the jewels I never wore. None who sought me ever looked to ease my pain. They only drenched me with treasures as useless as their questions. The wounds became part of me, as constant as the sough of the sea and the laughter of the air, as I marinated in my own silence.

The woman’s blue cloak is marred by grime and sea spray, but I recognize the device on the brooch clasping it. Others of her line have come to me before. I wonder how many of them are dust by now.

She raises her eyes, and I prepare myself for her question.

But then she says, “Your love did not drown.”

The cliff roils under my feet and I stagger. She is still, but her eyes are warm and she reaches to help me regain my balance. I have not felt the touch of a hand in all my years alone here.

She tells me the story she struggled to learn and bring to me. Of a sailor, tossed ashore in a strange place, taken in by those who became this woman’s people. Of an older age, when finding this island from so far away was impossible.

She tells me her story and I think of the wind, coming to me in my grief.

The gods cannot do everything. The very existence of the treasure I guard, the treasure they hate, proves that.

I was a child of these cliffs, decades of my life spent here before my tragedy. My bones sang to this land, which made me someone the gods could mold to their purposes. They needed me, and so they manufactured the circumstances that would give me to them.

She asks no questions of her own. I thank her, and she offers me a place in her boat. But I decline, because that is not how I must leave this place.

She departs. I stare at the calm sea.

There is a quiet in the keeping, and it will suffocate me if I let it.

The gods force me to guard because they fear what the treasure could do to them. They would not fear a thing they could destroy.

The treasure glows softly in the cave’s heavy darkness. Its many angles are sharp in my hands, and scaldingly hot. I am not meant to hold it.

Before I can quail, I raise my hands and strike the treasure against the wall.

A substance spills out, a soft glow both a liquid and a haze. As it falls it forms patterns on my skin that I don’t think will go away. It reaches the ground and continues moving with uncanny purpose, as if seeking to coat every scrap of the island. I follow its path, leaving the caves.

The winds whip angrily and the waves gnaw the shore. The gods are coming to make me answer for my disobedience, and answer I will.

Worlds’ worth of brightness flows from the treasure I’ve broken, and the restrictions on me shudder and splinter.

The magic spills beyond me and into the water. I see the boat holding the woman in the blue cloak, and I hope some of the magic reaches those aboard. Let the people of this world trouble the ruler of the winds.

My answer sparks on my tongue as the gods approach. They will not ask, but I will make them listen.

There is a quiet in the keeping, and it shatters when I scream.

Devan Barlow‘s fiction has appeared in the anthologies Upon a Thrice Time and 99 Tiny Terrors, as well as in Diabolical Plots, Lackington’s, Abyss & Apex, Truancy, and Daily Science Fiction. Her fantasy novel An Uncommon Curse, a story of fairy tales and musical theatre, is forthcoming. When not writing she reads voraciously, drinks tea, and thinks about fairy tales and sea monsters. She can be found at her website devanbarlow.com.