“Shadows and Bells” by Mari Ness
In the kingdom of the dead, the bells rang.
It had been long since this had happened, so long that even the dead, who do not surprise easily, were surprised. They stopped in their wanderings to turn to each other, to open their mouths, and almost—almost—speak. But they had no need for words: a glance was enough to tell them that the others could hear it. That the kingdom of the dead, at most a land of whispers, was no longer silent.
A few sank to the ground. Others lifted their heads, listening, or spread their arms, to soak in every possible note and tone of the bells that they could.
It was not that music was forbidden in the kingdom, exactly, or bells, only that any song, any melody, typically sank into the dead air, staying there, hovering, before slowly dying off, going nowhere. The dead had to be quite close to the singer or to the instrument—quite close—and they were not comfortable with closeness, the dead. They were all cold, and dry, and cold, and wrong. And close to the instrument often meant so close that the hands of the musicians could not play it without reaching through the dead. Lifeless though they were, some things could not be borne, even for the dead.
And so the shadows of instruments piled up in the kingdom of the dead, unplayed, silent, as the dead wandered by.
The bells were soft at first, and then louder, clanging so brightly that had they been alive, the dead would have cried out in pain.
The queen of the dead kept a court, of sorts. It had been so long since she had been dragged down here, tricked by promises of flowers and light, so long since her lord had left, leaving the dead with her, that she knew little of the ways of living courts and schemes and manners. But she listened to the whispers of the dead, and learned, and as the kingdom of the dead grew and grew, filling with shadows of mortal things, she had created a court of shadows, dead nobles and musicians and poets and fools, who travelled with her as she wandered the lands. Sometimes, when near her, the musicians could almost breathe a melody; the poets could almost form a rhyme. It was entertainment enough, for the dead.
It also meant that she, more than all, was surrounded by whispers and shadows.
And so she was the last to hear the bells, the last to hear the rising whispers.
She had been considering a journey to the sharp mountains, to see if more shadows, if more lands, had appeared beyond them: her duty, she knew, and she was not one to shirk her duty, since she had nothing else to do. Or perhaps take another look at the court around her, and choose another as an ambassador to the lands of the living. A shadow made of a harder cold. A poet, perhaps, or a singer. The ambassador would not return, she knew: they needed more and more ambassadors, the lands of the living, and no ambassador was able to return. That, too, was duty, and she could feel the pull, the need of her lord, even after all these long, shadowed years.
Cold or death. Shadows or exile.
She had not considered bells.
It was soft at first, hardly noticeable above the constant whispers of the dead, so soft she almost did not hear, so soft that for a moment she thought the unexpected pain deep within in her came from something else. A memory, perhaps, or a whisper. And then the clear notes, over the broken whispers of the dead, cold enough even to catch the attention of their queen.
She had come to the kingdom when bells were rare and new, and even she had heard them but rarely, before or since, stolen by the wind in the lands of the living, muffled by the dead in these dim lands. But she knew the sound. Her lord had played bells for her, once, before leaving.
Her skin, if possible, grew colder.
“My lord?” she whispered.
The shadows of her court turned to watch her with grey eyes.
She shut her eyes, and sang.
She had once been a daughter of earth, and even here, the dead earth spoke to her, not in song, but in a harsh whisper. Of pain. Of death. Of life.
Life, clinging to the sharp mountains.
But the dust could not lie, not here, in the land of the dead.
Her gaze turned to the sharp mountains. Some days travel, even for her, the queen of the dead. But duty. And what else did she have to do here, in this dry kingdom?
The whispers around her grew louder. She could feel the pull of her lord, feel the pull of the dry earth beneath her. For a second, she allowed herself to close her eyes. Bright flowers filled her vision, scarlet and purple and gold.
And then she strode off to the sharp mountains, the shadows following her step.
She found them at the base of the sharp mountains, cowering beneath a bell of bronze.
The queen could not have said how the bell had come here, to this kingdom: touched by her lord, perhaps, or dragged here by a memory of shadow. But she knew them, as she knew every shadow in her realm. Not from personal knowledge, but because she had seen this before: two shadows, flowing into one another, bound together. A murderer and his victim.
It happened sometimes like that, in the kingdom of the dead. Especially if the victim managed to strike the murderer, creating murderer and victim, victim and murderer. Why them, and not lovers, the queen could not say; perhaps death was a stronger bond than love, here, in the kingdom of the dead. If it did not seem to trouble the victim overly much—and very few things troubled shadows—the queen allowed it. If she saw the victim shake, the murderer would feel a cold sharp enough to impale shadows, and the two would be separated soon enough.
But they were always, always, dead.
The queen could see it: the bright silver in both their eyes; the pulsing silver in the victim’s hands, running out in a thin line to the grey dust below, and from there, to the kingdoms of the living, where somewhere, someplace, the victim still breathed.
Ringing the bells of the kingdom along its path.
How that had happened, she could not tell. She had heard mutters from the dead of healing, of miracles—no more than fragments, sometimes hardly even full words. Hope they clung to, she thought, though she herself had never seen anyone but her ambassadors and her lord leave this land, and she had always believed that no one came here who was not dead, sent here by her ambassadors, to walk through the gates of ivory and horn, or cross the grey river. No one except, of course, herself and her lord.
And yet this.
Perhaps one of her ambassadors had made a mistake. Perhaps someone in the kingdoms of the living had learned how to stop her ambassadors, at least in part. An impossibility, she had always thought, but here she was, looking at dead who were not dead.
The bells of the kingdom clanged.
She could try to sever that shimmering line here, in the land of the dead. It would be easy enough to do: one simple stroke from the silver knife her lord had given her, so many years ago, when he had named her his queen. One stroke. The bells would be silenced. And so would his victim, so dead that she would not even be able to find her way here, to the land of the shadows.
So dead that she would not even be a shadow.
She could try to have the victim killed, truly killed, in the kingdoms of the living. Send one of the shadows now following her as an ambassador, with instructions to kill. If her ambassadors could kill. The queen did not know; none of her ambassadors had ever returned, and her lord had never said. It was risky. It was safe. It might allow this quivering half-shadow to stay here, beneath the bell, and finally silence the bells.
Or it might destroy the shadow.
She could try to reach her lord, either by sending an ambassador, or through the bond she still felt between them, the bond that might, she sometimes thought, outlast even the dead.
The red flowers bright against the tangled high green grass
Surely this was his task, his realm. And yet. She did not know if her ambassadors could find him, did not think that she could reach him through the bond. She had tried before, and he had not answered. And the half-living were here, in the land he had entrusted to her.
She could go to him, perhaps, travel to those other kingdoms. She had, it was true, eaten the dry fruits of the dead, and tasted their dust on her tongue, but she still lived, or at least she thought she did. She breathed the air that was not air, down here in these kingdoms, still thirsted for water, still sipped the wine her lord had stolen from the kingdoms of the living, long ago, before he had stolen her here. She could still, perhaps, step into those kingdoms herself, and feel the wind and the rain on her dry skin, bend, and touch flowers warmed by the sun.
If the land allowed her to go.
Taste this, my love, my love
The queen stroked the cold knife at her side.
Or she could simply close the gates of ivory and horn.
A risk, that. It might not silence the bells; it might cut her bond with her lord. It might trap her here, in the kingdoms of the dead, unable to ever return, and see the sun. It might kill the two cowering shadows before her.
Or it might let them live.
The bronze bell rang. Around her, the shadows shuddered.
It was a slow, dry road to the gates of ivory and horn, and the queen’s feet burned with pain. She did not pass this way often. Her duty, yes, but she had not entered the kingdom through these gates, and most of the dead had not either. It was a cold place, a dry place, even by the standards of the kingdom of the dead, and although the queen sent her ambassadors through the gates, she did not follow them there. And the ambassadors, of course, never returned. And so she rarely travelled there, staying instead in her cold court, surrounded by whispers.
The gates were the same as they ever were: high, dull for all their polished splendor, wide open to allow passage.
Here, she could barely hear the sound of the bells, no more than a light clanging, an almost melody against the whispers of the shadows that followed her. There, through the gates, she could hear the singing of the living wind, could sense a coming rain, could see—see—a bright star against the living darkness. Something in her twisted. Her throat dried, drier than the dust at her feet.
The silver knife heavy at her side.
It had been so long since she had travelled in the kingdoms of the living. So long. They had changed, she knew: the fragments she heard from the dead had told her of wonders and evils and fallen mountains and islands sprang hot and new from the sea. Of cities rising and falling. Wonders she had never seen.
Eyes burning, she turned to look at the gates.
Only cold gems and cold fires and cold silver stolen from stars, but all of it, all of it, yours, my love, my love
They had not been closed since her lord had last departed. She sighed, and stepped forward to close the ivory gate.
As she did, she could smell it—
Her steps faltered.
Her hands landed on the gate.
The scent was sharp and clear here: new rain, and more, things the queen had not sensed in years, had not allowed herself to sense in years. She pushed. She could hear the wind, the cry of a bird, feel a drop of water land on her dry skin—
—see a shadow streaked with silver.
She released the gate and took a deep breath of living air. She stroked the silver knife at her side. One step. One step, and she would be on the other side. On the living earth, in that water and wind. A small reward for doing her duty, for plunging her knife through the still living body on the other side, for restoring order to the kingdom of the dead. For silencing the bells.
The shadow stood on the very edge, hands raised, silver eyes brighter than anything in the living darkness beyond the gates, silver tears splashing upon the queen’s face and knife at her side, a silver line leading through the gates, out into the darkness.
The shadow quivered.
The second shadow came to stand beside the queen. Their arms stretched towards each other, intertwining, though the queen could still see bright silver in their eyes, could still see that silver line.
How long could that body last, out in the kingdoms of the living?
Flowers flashed before her eyes, purple and scarlet and gold.
A day or two, perhaps. A week. Even years, as mortals counted time, but what was left of that shadow would die. Nothing lasted forever, not even the eternal stars: she had seen those flare and die. Not even the quiet of the kingdom of the dead.
She took another breath of the living wind, felt her nails dig into her palms. She did not need to look at them to know they had filled with blood.
“Come,” she whispered, and the dead followed her, their queen.
As she walked from the gates, she let herself listen to the bells. Not duty, this, but music. And in their sound, for a moment—just a moment—she could not feel the pain in her hands or feet, or the shadows and dust settling on her skin.
|Mari Ness lives in central Florida with two cats who are not quite as appreciative of poetry as they should be. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including Tor.com, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Daily Science Fiction, Nightmare, Fireside, Apex, Strange Horizons and Uncanny. For more, visit her website at marikness.wordpress.com, or follow her on Twitter at mari_ness.|