She knelt before him with all due reverence to his station, and all the piety of a parishioner in Sanctuary. There was fire in her eyes as she bowed her head, but in her there seemed neither hatred nor defiance.
Much unlike those in the city square, nor those dwelling in the countryside, she did not fear him.
“Master preserve me,” Magridd whispered. “I didn’t believe it. I don’t believe it.”
He had long thought her gone from this world, but here the Will of the Divine knelt before him as would a common serf.
“When last you were in my presence,” the king remarked, “you knelt to no one, no man or beast living beneath the heavens.”
Her shoulders were stone, her voice steel. Her conviction rang true, even as she softly denied his words. “I have never been in your presence, your majesty.”
“Stand, Soul Blazer,” he whispered, fingers brushing against her shoulder. “I have enough weighing on my soul.”
The woman did as bid, and fixed him with deep blue eyes that echoed the confidence of her words.
“My name is Lenore,” she said. “I know not this Blazer of whom you speak.”
Lisa welcomed her home with open arms, and brushed away the snow that clung to her cloak. The hour was late, and Lenore forewent supper as she often did under such circumstances.
“What did he want?” Lisa asked at last, at the edge of sleep, tracing the marks on Lenore’s bare shoulders while they lay beside the hearth.
“He mistook me for someone else,” Lenore answered simply, gazing at the fire.
The seasons turned. While Lisa slept, Lenore climbed the cliff wall overlooking the valley. The frozen tulips growing in the niche of rock bobbed as she inched past them on the ledge. Mindless of the cold wind or the frost, she watched the lights flicker in the old Sanctuary ruins.
Magridd summoned her twice more, and twice more she returned home. Each time she was away longer, each time Lisa asked, and each time, Lenore replied the Master’s honest truth, “He seeks a queen.”
In the spring, as they birthed the goats in the mud outside the thatch-roofed shack, Lisa finally wondered aloud, “Why don’t you?”
Lenore blinked, slowly and without understanding.
“I do not love him,” she replied, “I cannot give him what he wants.”
The third time the king summoned, Lisa did not ask.
The Preacher stood upon the hill, as the townsfolk gathered around him. Lisa stopped to listen, and Lenore stood by her side. He had taken up ruin in the old Sanctuary, building anew over the ruins. He preached the will of the Master, of diligence and piety and suffering.
Their eyes met over the heads of the crowd, and not for the first time, she found them familiar. Some things were, but she only ever remembered them in dreams.
The sickness had been swift.
The boy’s mother knelt beside the hearth, cradling him in her arms. Lisa held her arm as Lenore stared down at them, the familiar lack of understanding clouding her eyes.
This was not the first time the villagers had asked her for a miracle. The breathless hope in their expressions were always the same. The first time she had seen it – her first memory – had been the hope in Lisa’s eyes, that dimmed as the seasons passed them by.
In this young mother, sprung hope anew. Even as this was, perhaps, more drastic than blessings over crops and chickens and goats. She laid her hands over his heart and his chest, and something in the act seemed so familiar, so natural.
“Please,” his mother begged as she knelt beside them, “please.”
She sat with them for an hour, until the boy’s forehead was cold under her fingertips. His breath was gone. Lenore stared at the small body, that his mother was yet unwilling to part with. Lisa had given the boy sweets when he came around their pens and made faces at their goats.
When she stepped into the night, the boy’s mother wailed behind her. The villagers crowded about the small shack backed away, giving her space.
She leveled her gaze at the shrouded figure by her side. He did not shrink from her, as did the villagers.
“Had you but trust in the Master,” the Preacher said. “The boy might have lived.”
Upon her niche of rock in the cliff wall, Lenore turned her eyes from the Sanctuary. Her mind wandered, over the child that died, and the villagers that exalted and feared her. Over the woman she loved, and the king that loved her.
Her fingers traced the skin under her ribs, where a womb ought to have been.
She could neither bear heirs for Magridd, nor seed children for Lisa.
The tulips bobbed and whispered among themselves.
The first rock struck her temple, dazing her. The second she caught in midair, the third struck her arm to no effect, as she moved between Lisa and the crowd.
The village chief intervened. Bent old man that he was now, he had once been one of King Magridd’s generals, and he still held sway. Under his breath, he advised that they didn’t return to town, at least not until tempers died down.
At a distance beyond the unruly mob, the Preacher stood, and Lenore met his lifeless gaze. Memories stirred within her, butterfly wings against her heart.
In their home, Lisa tended the bloodied bruise. In response to her bewilderment, Lenore could only remind her, “They were scared.”
The mere first of the crisp autumn leaves had fallen when Magridd summoned her, once more. This time, he was dressed for war. Armed soldiers came and went, as he took her aside the map room.
“You have your answer,” she preempted him. On her visits, they had become something akin to old friends, but she was only ever upfront to his machinations.
“That is not why I have called you,” he answered, face grim.
He led her up the stairs, to the parapet, where the autumn sun was warm upon her skin. He paced back and forth, royal cloak swirling about his legs.
“Darkness is coming,” Magridd told her at last. “I have heard it whispering in the night.”
“There is no darkness, sire,” Lenore replied. “Only the wind.”
“In my dreams...” Magridd began, but shook his head. Grabbing her arms, he pleased, “Fight for me, once more.”
In the passing years, his heart had proven pure, though Lenore did not love him in return; his esteem of her, however, was another matter altogether. She grasped his shoulders, gentle but firm, and searched his eyes.
“You have mistaken me, sire,” she said. “I am a goatherd.”
The winding road home passed the waterfall, cascading into a burbling stream upon the ledge that poured further down the mountain. There, Lenore paused, listening to the rustle of dry leaves. Turning from the road, she took the footpath that led down to the where the water pooled amidst the reeds.
Ice had formed at the edges of the water. Under the still surface rested a lifeless form, porcelain skin blue, golden hair silver, sleeping suspended in a single moment of time.
Lenore stood at the water’s edge, until the light scattered across the sky and darkness fell across the valley.
In her absence, the village chief had succumbed to cold and age. Lisa had taken her own life, or so they whispered. Her home was cold and dark.
She was sitting upon her ledge when the mob came, the Preacher at their head.
Lenore let them.
The visage of the Hand of the Master stared down at her. There was no life in the statue’s stern gaze, no weight to the anger. In contrast to the lashes and the burning iron, the silent judgment and the rope cutting into her wrists was a fair respite.
Standing under the statues wing, a man regarded her silently.
She had not heard him enter, and even now there was no rustle to his cloak as he approached her on silent feet. The pain in his eyes seemed to resonate within the depths of her chest, but she knew him not. She raised her chin in acknowledgement of his presence.
He was not of the village. He was not of the Sanctuary. He was not here to harm her.
“The Master sent me,” his voice was honeyed rich, so unlike the Father’s or the King’s. It echoed the village elder’s, and for a single moment to hear him speak, the ache subsided. “It pains Him to see you this way.”
Lenore laughed, mouth dry and full of dust. “There is no Master.”
Her visitor recoiled, visibly stung as though she had struck him.
“How could you say that?” The quiet ache in his voice cut deep, and his distress tugged at the fibers of her being. “He is Our Father as She is Our Mother.”
In silence, they watched one another, until the man twisted in pain. He pulled from a scabbard a sword that glistened of its own light, even in the darkness of the candles. Thrusting it deep into in the floorboards before her, he waited.
He stared at her as the villagers had stared at her, as Lisa had stared at her. And her silence must have disappointed him, for the hope in his face fell.
“Take the sword,” he told her, in a Voice that was not to be ignored. “Free thyself, He commands it.”
Lenore stared at the blade, even as the distant thunder crawled under her skin.
The villagers were returning.
“Take the sword, my brother,” his voice cracked. “I beg of thee.”
When they came for her, pouring through the pews and between the columns, he stepped back into the shadow of the Master. They ignored him, and she didn’t look back.
The valley was dark. Black clouds roiled overhead, blotting out the light of the midday sun. The earth rumbled. The water sloshed upon the banks under swaying bridges. The Preacher shouted his sermon above the din of earth and rumble of discontent, but as the villagers pressed together in fear, his hold on them was breaking.
Mind distant as the Preacher called for her blood to be spilled upon the earth, Lenore instead watched the villagers, wide-eyed and fit to bolt as the goats in her pen.
Before her death could be struck, lightning crashed into the earth, and the ground opened to brimstone sulfur. As one, the villagers scattered, running to escape their fate. Their screams echoed from the cliffs as beasts crawled from the gaping wound in the earth.
Lenore stood her ground. This had been her home for as long as she could remember, and these had been her people.
By her hand, a sword had been thrust in the earth. When she raised her eyes from the pommel, the Preacher was not a man but some form of hellspawned beast. The creature before her grinned, wide and twisted.
Hellfire had scoured the valley, leaving the basin full of cinder and ash and melting down into the very rock of the mountain itself. The twisted, blackened stone was still warm through the soles of his boots when Magridd’s entourage arrived.
By some miracle, the devastation had ended here.
There was nothing for his soldiers to do, or that they could have done. For a king, even less.
Magridd knelt beside the river, now dried black slush that turned to soot in his hand. He had dreamed of this, of burning alive.
There came a shout from one of his soldiers, a sign of life. Lunging to his feet, the king hurried on, to the growing crowd of men. Crowded in a circle as he pushed through them, they kept their distance.
At their center, the Soul Blazer stood still as stone, sword raised against the unseen. Magridd reached out; his fingers brushed the warrior’s arm, and the effigy collapsed to ashes that swirled and danced upon the wind.
High above the valley, in a niche of rock upon the cliffside, the tulips wept, bobbing gently.