Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Mere Acquaintances- Prologue


The river Swen was banked on one side by high, grassy ground peppered with brush and stunted trees, and on the other by black nothingness. For about two paces, the far bank looked just like the one Cheyne was standing on; rich dirt sloped up to contain the lazily flowing water and finally leveled to the same high grass and various foliage that could have banked any river anywhere. But after those two paces on the far side, it all just stopped, like a long sharp blade had simply cut through the earth and trees and peeled them away, leaving nothing but a black as dark as a murderer’s heart. Even from this distance, Cheyne thought it looked thick, like molasses, like he could put out his hand and be enveloped in it. Staring at it made him feel more like a child than the hero others thought him to be. He wiggled his fingers, just to make sure they were still attached to his hand. Even knowing that it was on the other side of the river, for a moment, he had almost felt as though he had put his fingers into the black, and they had gone numb.

He lifted the heavy steel helmet from his head and ran a hand through his chestnut hair. His hand came back covered with sweat. His eyes never left the darkness on the other side of the river. It was broad daylight-- just an hour or so after noon-- but the darkness was complete. He squinted, trying to penetrate it with his gaze, but at the same time not quite seeing it. He could remember remembering a time when that blackness wasn’t there, when plains-- he had the vague idea it had been plains-- extended far on the other side of the river, but the memories were not even half-remembered. A grimace tugged at the corners of his mouth. It was frustrating that his memory didn’t extend as far back as it used to. The memories from some of his past lives, the ones he had lived longest ago, were fading. Decades were missing, decades of experiences he could remember remembering and thinking on, but that was all there was anymore. Still staring at the nothingness without seeing it, he began to wonder how much his next rebirth would remember. Who would that man be? What would he be like?

How much of the land will blackness like that cover then?

The grimace that had been tugging at him made its appearance, and he put a hand on the sword at his hip, gripping the hilt tightly as if afraid the blackness would attack and he had to be ready for it. It didn’t waver. The one thing he was certain of, the one thing that was always a part of his lives, of all his memories, was the sword. Sonsedhor. Fine brown leather cord wrapped the hilt from pommel to the plain steel cross guard that separated hilt from blade. The blade itself was a bit wide, straight and double-edged, but tempered in a style that made it look like waves radiated from the center to the edge when the light hit it right. For all the old stories told about his former lives that involved Sonsedhor, all the legends that turned his lives and himself into a hero of legend, all the tales that made the famous sword into a brilliant weapon worthy of heroes, it wasn’t really much to look at. It was a tool, made for a purpose, and no more. But it was a constant; it made Cheyne certain of who he was. Sonsedhor had always been connected to him, and him to it, for hundreds of lives-- maybe thousands-- even though there were only a dozen or so he could actually remember in detail.

The sword was centuries old, and had never been wielded by anyone but himself. His predecessors took pains to hide it before death took him, so only the next incarnation of himself would be able to find it. Whenever he felt death at his back, he would do the same, and wait until the Mother gave him birth again to find it.

The sound of footsteps-- both human and horse-- approached. His grimace turned into a smile without his thinking about it, and he finally tore his eyes away from the blackness across the river. The horse was the color of dust, a well-tempered mare with calm eyes that matched her owner’s in color. But the similarities ended there. Above her own calm brown eyes, Senne’s hair was deep brown, pulled back into an intricate pattern of twists and curls that would normally be seen on a lady in a city, not out here at the edge of the world, days from any settlement. Even her gown was more suited for city business than traveling, except that the fine silk of her skirts was in fact divided for riding. It was deep sapphire blue and covered with hundreds of tiny glass beads. Pure snowy white slashed her sleeves and the middle of her bodice, all of that too encrusted with beadwork. It was a gown made for court, but Senne would have nothing less than the finest, even on the road.

“So it’s true, isn’t it, love?” she asked, her voice as soft and sleek as the silk of her gown. She left her mare to graze and strode next him, her hard-soled leather riding shoes making almost no noise in the grass that led up to the bank. Her arm went through his; he loosened his grip on Sonsedhor’s hilt.

“So it seems,” he replied. “There’s nothing on the other side of the Swen. It just… stops.”

“I was afraid to believe it when I heard the rumor. Thank you for bringing me out here.” For a long time he watched her as she stared at the blackness, almost without blinking, until he found his own eyes locked on it again, trying to see through it.

The sound of rustling fabric broke him from his staring, and he turned to see Senne had stepped out of her shoes and taken off her stockings. Her hands were reaching behind her back, undoing the row of buttons that ran up the back of her bodice.

“What are you doing?”

“I want to see it up close. The river isn’t flowing too heavily, now that the spring thaws are long past and it hasn’t rained in nearly a fortnight. In fact, it’s been so dry for the last month the Swen can’t be very deep. So I’m going to swim across and see it up close. Are you going to come with me?” She shrugged her shoulders out of the bodice and slid her arms out of the sleeves. The fine gown cascaded to the ground, piling around her ankles. Even clad only in her shift, she was able to somehow look more commanding than any monarch he had ever met. Without waiting for his response, she crossed her arms beneath her breasts and continued, “You’ll want to remove all your armor before you go in. It would weigh you down and drown you.”

Ignoring the tone in her voice that made him feel like she saw him as a child, he methodically worked his way out of his armor and set it on the bank next to his own mare. She ignored him. Once he was stripped down to his simple cloth breeches, with a sheathed dagger at his belt, he and Senne plunged into the river together.

The water was cold but not icy, deep enough that he couldn’t touch the bottom, but slow enough that it wasn’t an issue. A few minutes of swimming saw him and Senne clambering up the far bank not too far downriver from the horses. He helped Senne to her feet on the grass, ignoring the fact that the water had set her white shift clinging to her every curve, that it being wet had made it almost completely transparent. Even with trying not to look, he could see every bit of her. She smiled slyly at him and brushed past him half a step.

Clinging to each other, they inched closer to the edge of the void. Cheyne found himself leaning forward, his nose reaching to the wall of blackness while the rest of him stayed further back. He straightened and pulled Senne back just a bit with him. He saw her reach out a hand toward the nothingness and somehow could not make himself reach out to pull her hand back. He held his breath as Senne’s fingers came up to the blank wall of blank. For a long minute, her hand and the blackness sat there, suspended, frozen, and then one finger extended and breached the boundary of the void.

The black didn’t swallow her hand like Cheyne thought it would. Instead, her hand stayed perfectly visible, the edges sharp and vivid as if he were looking at it in broad daylight. It seemed, for a moment, that her hand gave off its own light to break the blackness.

“It feels… thick, but empty at the same time,” Senne said, moving her hand slowly around and wiggling her fingers. “I wonder…” Again, before he could move to stop her, she was leaning forward, her head broke into the darkness, and she was looking down. “Oh, my…” Her hand moved from his arm to his back, settling against his skin between his shoulder blades.

Cheyne had never been an easily frightened man , but he hesitated before carefully leaning forward himself and peering over the edge of the black. Beyond the edge, the world just ended. The ground beneath him didn’t even have any thickness to it. It was more like a sheet of parchment, stretched and scraped thin. He was suddenly overcome by vertigo and the feeling that the earth would break under his weight. Other than that thin crust that was the land he stood on, there was nothing in the black. Pure nothing, in every direction. He felt sweat breaking out on his still-clammy skin and realized he was trembling. As slowly as he had extended his head, he drew it back until green grass was beneath his eyes. Only then did he straighten up again.

On the return swim, the water felt warmer. When they emerged from the river, the sun was warmer, the breeze less bracing. The whole world seemed to be warm and more colorful, as if it were showing off how it was different from the abyss. He was grateful for the walk back upstream to where the horses were; the warm sun and wind dried him as he walked.

He helped Senne do up the buttons on the back of her gown before he started donning his armor. He straightened from fastening the last of his greaves and was reaching for Sonsedhor on its belt when a loud crack rang in his ears. A heavy weight slammed into him, pushing him bodily toward the river. His arms and legs became tangled in branches and leaves, and as he twisted to see, rough tree bark was all that was before his eyes. Completely winded, he tumbled down the bank and into the water, the tree dragging him with it. The weight of all the steel encasing his body dragged him down at the same time the tree tried to keep him on the surface. Water filled his lungs as he desperately tried to keep his head above water. He tried to free his arms from the tangled branches, but they were pinned too tightly. He whipped his head around as well as he could underwater, but the strap that fastened his helmet under his chin wouldn’t move. It dragged his head down, keeping it under the surface. His lungs screamed for air. He could feel the current pulling him downriver. The water was suddenly freezing.


Senne watched emotionlessly as the uprooted tree floated downriver with Cheyne tangled in it. “My master thanks you for the kingly gift,” she said sweetly to the drifting log. Before it was anywhere near out of sight, she turned away and reached for the sword belt with the scabbard and blade still in it, right where he had leaned it against one of the stunted trees. Without so much as a backward glance, she mounted on her mare and rode away.

She had not even gone a mile into the open plains when the late afternoon sun disappeared and she was swathed by darkness. Swirling black and gold and blue surrounded her, some of it moving so fast that it made her feel dizzy and sick. She reined her mare to a halt, practically throwing herself out of the saddle even before the horse came to a complete stop. Immediately she went to her knees, the sword in its scabbard on the ground below her chin.

Glancing up, she saw the swirling colors come together, solidifying into a man. His breeches and boots were black, his coat blue, all of it embroidered in sparkling thread-of-gold, even the boots. Black lace spilled from his cuffs and collar, bordering against the pale skin of his hands. The short hair atop his head was golden; his ears and the sides of his face pale. But where eyebrows, eyes, nose and mouth, cheeks and chin should be, there was nothing. Like the abyss on the other side of the river, his face was blank. Flat and empty.

One of the pale hands reached out. Hastily, she grasped the sword and proffered it to him, resisting the urge to jerk back once it was out of her grasp. He took the sword and wrapped stick-like fingers around the hilt, drawing the blade from its scabbard. “You have done well.” A voice that was at the same time smooth and gravelly came from the blank face. The eyes that weren’t there looked at the blade as he turned it this way and that to set light glinting off the steel. “You will go far in my service.”

The air was pierced with a bone chilling scream before Senne could thank him. It came from behind her, where the river washed over a man doomed to die, his body tangled in a tree. His head could never have broken the surface, weighted down as it was by his heavy steel helmet, but the scream was as loud as if she were right next to him. The air shook with its force. At hearing that cry, Senne knew Cheyne was dead.

At the very moment the shriek ended, the bare blade wrenched itself from her master’s hand, the scabbard flew from where he had discarded it by his leg, and both flew through the air back toward the Swen, a trail of smoky blackness dotted with gold trailing after it.

Senne stared after it, completely stunned until an iron grip surrounded her throat, choking her. She managed to turn her eyes up; her master’s hands were motionless by his sides; his empty face turned down, looking at her.

“You will go back and get it, or so help me, you will die a thousand deaths before I’m through with you. Don’t call my name unless you have it in your grasp.” The grip tightened on her throat. She was lifted through the still air and felt herself be thrown, her rough landing ripping her gown at the same moment it knocked the breath from her. Looking back, there was nothing but uninterrupted plains. Her mare came trotting up to her, looking as if nothing had happened.

Tired and shaking, she got to her feet and then into the saddle, turning her horse’s head toward the river Swen. Something in the deepest part of her knew she wouldn’t find the sword there, or anywhere.

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