One Last Quest, Part One

This is a story I’ve published on Amazon, but I can offer it to you here, too — so I am. Enjoy part one of One Last Quest.

~*~

Lachlan wasn’t even there when the High King bestowed the title Vistridir. He had a very nice plaque to commemorate the occasion, which was too large to do anything with but hang. It leaned against the wall in his chambers, covered with a sheet. He found the Worm etched into it desperately ugly, and they had gotten the runes of his name wrong, so that it read “Lachran,” which was Red Hare rather than Brown.

He didn’t want to look on it. He didn’t need the reminder of what he had become, for how could he forget? When the plaque came, Lachlan was in bed, wishing he had died, and when at last he left its safe pillowed confines, he wished only to return.

He would not. If anything remained of what had been Lachlan, it was his defiance. No High One could possibly choose to remain as he did, a sore on the face of the world. It wasn’t at all the done thing for him to live, and he had considered, at first, taking his own life, as the nobles of the court would have it. But he would not, though when he looked at himself in the great swath of mirror over his dressing table, despair crawled over his heart like a sorcerer’s spell of creeping undergrowth. He had been beautiful once. Like a High One was meant to be, fine bone structure and delicate ears and perfect skin and luminous eyes. The eyes were the only things left, great pale-green eyes burning like fairy fire from his ruined face.

He ordered the mirror removed, and had never since looked upon himself. He knew what he would see—what others saw—but he tried not to care. They hadn’t given much of a damn for him before, nor he for them. Why should he give one now? The silent shunning burned, but he bore it more easily than most might. The only one of them he truly wanted to speak to was Craddoc, his brother, and they hadn’t spoken in decades anyhow, so it didn’t signify, or hardly did.

Lachlan went on like an inexorable machine, hardly noticing the passage of seasons or years, except that when the weather was fine he would dress impeccably in brocade jacket, pressed linen shirt, breeches with the legs pinned up. He would have his valet wheel him out into the Palace gardens and roll carefully down one of the paths to a glade no one else had seen fit to enjoy for years, there to read in the shade of the trees, surrounded by the low hum of insects and the scent of flowers.

There, over thirty years ago, Lachlan had discovered the secret that made his endless life bright, if only in the summers. It was a very small secret, at least in terms of actual size. Its import, should he choose to tell of it, would be great indeed, but he would not. Lachlan’s secret gave him more to anticipate than phantom pain and evil dreams, and so he would hold his tongue. Why not? Exposure would improve the child’s life not a bit. Quite the opposite, unless he missed his guess, which he knew he did not.

Besides, it pleased him to have Adeon all to himself, though of course he wished his small secret would come more often. Once a week was hardly enough to soak up all the sunshine that radiated from Busy Bee. He must have come by it from his mother, whoever she might be, for Lachlan could not imagine King Muirrach ever imparting a glimpse of light.

Adeon was the King’s son, and Lachlan the only one at the Court of Green Glaciers who knew it, and that suited him down to his stumps. Were any other High One to see the boy, even by chance, the secret would no longer be hidden; his parentage was so obvious, written in the letters of silver hair and finely structured bone, no one who knew the King could fail to see it.

Muirrach had three sons and a daughter. Adeon would be the youngest, and the least necessary. Merciful Mother, how they would use him! In a thousand different ways, with a thousand different cruelties, until the joy went out from behind his eyes, until he was as much the walking dead as the rest of the royal family. No, Lachlan couldn’t bear even the thought of it. He reminded himself that he ought to savor the little time he stole from a young boy’s life, and that he ought not to ask for more. If there was any person left in the world for whom Lachlan would draw his sword once again… broken as he was, he would draw it for Adeon. It was enough.

They met in Lachlan’s tiny glade near the south wall, so that the boy had as little distance to creep through the gardens as possible. There was a delicate-looking bench where Adeon might sit, if he liked. He sat on it hardly at all; his name suited him well. He buzzed about like a bee in truth, never alighting for long, whether in the grass or on the bench. But he listened. It didn’t mean he wasn’t listening. Hadn’t Lachlan been a boy just like that? Despair of his tutors! If he was required to sit still, it took every bit of his focus, and his ears would close.

No, Lachlan would never tell anyone about Adeon. He saw himself in the boy, and he knew that Adeon at Court would fare no better than Lachlan had. He contented himself with once a week in the summertime, when Adeon came to Green Glaciers to work down in the city, in his uncle’s stationery shop. He looked forward to it like he looked forward to nothing else, and now it was nearly Longday, and any week now he would see someone to whom his noseless, frost-burned face meant absolutely nothing. Who liked Lachlan’s company, relished his stories, and always begged for one more tale, just one more, before his valet would come down from the Palace to help him back up the slope of the gardens. He’d have to shoo the boy away, quick, be quick, I’ll see you next week, little one.

Now he eased down to the glade in the sunlight with a book in his lap for show, smiling broadly enough to pull at the numb scars on his cheeks. The winters stretched so long these days, and this spring had been damnably wet. Heavy, ceaseless rain turned the garden paths to slush, and then to gritty mud. Even when the sun peeked out of the overcast, Lachlan couldn’t go out beyond the marble-paved confines closer to the Palace. He would say he hated the chair, but that wasn’t quite true. In fact, he loved the chair, frustrating though it might be; it kept him from having to crawl. He hated the limits his long-ago injuries had imposed.

At last the spring rains receded. At last the paths dried enough for Lachlan to get out, and the God! But he flew! As fast as a man with no legs and no magic could fly, he flew from the Palace, from the corridors done up in white and pale-green marble, from the claustrophobic echoes of voices that never spoke to him, and the slip-sliding eyes of all the Revanar, ignoring him by mutual, tacit accord. At last there would be Adeon.

The power of his arms, the one strength left to him, brought him safely to the glade by the south wall. Perhaps not today, but soon—it would be soon. Lachlan stopped next to the bench and opened his book. He found it difficult to focus on the pages, the tale within silly and vapid. Giant Fleas Amok. Who could credit such a thing? But it passed the time, or it might have, if not for his wild, excited anticipation of someone who saw him and didn’t pretend not to.

He waited all the day long, with the muscles in his right thigh twitching, tapping a toe no longer attached. By the time Cathal came to collect him, he was exhausted and deep in silent depression: no bright lad to shake him loose of it. “Is everything well, Lord?” Cathal asked in his quiet Movanar voice, cocking his pale head to the side. His face, when standing, was level with Lachlan’s.

“Fine,” said Lachlan, and only that. Cathal helped him back up to the Palace then, off to his apartments buried far at the back, a light and airy prison for the cast-off third son of an earl, who had once been loved and feared. Vistridir profited him nothing. A name in exchange for all that Yehoram had taken from him. He loathed it. He loathed all the tall perfect nobles who made believe he did not exist. He even loathed himself, and more than a little.

He returned every day to the quiet glade by the south wall, there to wait for a silver-haired King’s bastard, but Adeon never came. The sun still shone on Lachlan’s skin, but the clouds over his heart gathered blacker and blacker. Three weeks, at least that long, though in truth he lost track after one. Day: out to the garden. Evening: back to his apartments. On and on.

Lachlan’s dreams darkened. There was no peace in his sleep, no defense from the dreams of cold. When he dreamed, he saw crystals of ice creeping across the pool of Rex’s blood, ever nearer to what was left of Rex himself after he’d been clamped between the White Worm’s jaws, rent and torn by carnivorous yellow teeth. Little Kep frozen fast, coated in the same slick clear ice that had trapped Lachlan’s legs, and only the tip of his spectacular black-fringed tail stuck out, limp. Mariella, crushed by the dying beast as it slumped to the cavern floor bleeding and burned. Inches from Lachlan’s pinned legs.

It all whirled together in a pillar of snow. He woke weeping, shivering with remembered cold. His friends—how he had gone on without them, he didn’t know. Most likely they’d all be dead by now; it must have been half a century, maybe more, but even an extra year of them… oh God, how he missed them. Rex’s jokes, Kep’s serious face, and all the promises gone unfulfilled in Mariella’s eyes. Gone, with the movements of their hands at dice or cards, their smiles, their voices, their dancing. Frozen.

Lachlan would sooner have his friends than any number of functioning legs. He woke weeping in the small hours, clutching his blankets in clammy fists while nonexistent muscles cramped and lost toes prickled with chill. He slept so badly that Cathal began sending him nervous looks, wondering when he might explode. It had happened before, but this time, Lachlan slumped farther and farther. He couldn’t muster the strength.

One evening in late summer, Cathal scraped together all the courage in his small servant’s body—Lachlan could see him puffing himself up for it, his slight chest expanding—and asked him, out of the clear blue sky, “Is it the boy, Lord?”

Lachlan hesitated, a trifle too long. He read it in Cathal’s lean, foxy face. His valet’s pale-blue eyes went sharp, but he tried anyhow, woodenly. “There’s no boy.”

“Lord, I mean no disrespect, and begging your pardon and all, but just how blind do you think I am? Or is it stupid you find me? Begging your pardon, mind.”

“I don’t find you stupid at all,” Lachlan snapped, feeling a little flare of emotion in a heart he’d thought barren. “If I did, rest assured you would swiftly be seeking another lord to serve.”

“Then, begging your pardon,” Cathal said, sitting down on the lacy-looking bench and laying ankle over knee, “I’ll say that I know it wasn’t me you hid him from, and further that I’m glad you did. They have whatever they like far too often for my taste.”

“A solid assessment.” If Lachlan’s voice came out sour, well, he’d thought it himself more times than he could count. He’d been out in the world and seen things, seen how ridiculous, how flagrantly decadent the High Ones really were.

“Well, Lord, shall we find him?”

“That seems… ill-advised.”

“Hmm.” Cathal nodded slowly. “Let me ask you another way, Lord. Will you sleep easy not knowing what’s happened to him?”

Lachlan thought until the day flowers were nearly shut. His valet sat patient in the westering sun until he said, “Never.”

“Tomorrow, then.” Cathal rose. It didn’t escape Lachlan’s notice that the servant failed to call him Lord, but in truth he would sooner not have heard it to begin with. They went back up to the Palace together, and over the wild green sea the sky exploded with oranges and reds and a streak or two of purple cloud. Lachlan took it as a good omen, and if he didn’t sleep well that night, it was better than he had grown accustomed to lately.

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