Hallowed

XXXIV. The World

When Izra woke, Avenel was waiting for her, sitting at the foot of her bed.

“You knew,” said Avenel, looking straight ahead at the wall.

Izra didn’t need to ask what she meant. “Yes,” she said, “but she needed to see it for herself. My word alone wouldn’t have been enough.”

“You knew, and you lead us here.”

“I lead you to the means of saving the world.”

“At the cost of Deena’s life?” asked Avenel. “What sort of world is bought with the life of a child?”

Izra didn’t answer.

“How long do we have?” asked Avenel. “Until—until she has to decide?”

“Just until the sun disappears,” said Izra. She stood and walked out into the corridor, where they could see the sun through the broken ceiling. It was just a crescent, hairline thin, barely visible but for the light. “Once it’s fully extinguished, nothing can bring it back.”

Avenel shook her head. “She’s a child.”

“She’s one child,” said Izra. “Do you know how many children are in this world?”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Avenel. “I made a promise to keep her safe.”

“You didn’t yet know what you were promising.”

“I won’t let her die!”

Izra watched her for a moment, then leaned back and closed her eyes. “If that’s truly your choice—and hers—then so be it. My part here is done.”

In the tower of a castle carved from a mountain, Lord Vallus Nebeel gazed out the window. The sun was nearly invisible but for its light, a fiery halo in the sky.

All night, he could not sleep, only tossed and turned between fitful half-dreams. He remembered Fosette dying, blood on the sheets, remembered the sound of Deena crying.

Was it true? Was his daughter the Harbinger, destined to destroy the world? Was the world truly doomed to end unless his daughter died?

No, he would not believe it. Fosette had traded her life for Deena. He would not believe that they had brought her into the world only for this.

There was a knock on his door. “Yes?” he asked.

“It’s me, my lord,” came the voice of Charles.

“Ah,” said Vallus, quickly straightening and sitting down at his desk. “Come in. What do you need?”

Charles looked at him, surprised. “You asked to see me,” he said. “About the new sleeping quarters.”

“Ah, yes,” said Vallus, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “My apologies.”

Charles frowned. “With all due respect, my lord, you haven’t been yourself of late. Ever since you returned from your urgent journey to the Meridian—”

“It’s nothing,” said Vallus. “Just—I’ve been feeling slightly unwell, is all.”

“Shall I send for one of the physicians?” asked Charles.

“No,” said Vallus. “I don’t think this is something a physician could fix. It will pass.” He glanced at the window behind him. “One way or another, it will pass.”

It was raining over Hayesford Hall, and Raine sat reading by the window. Despite the weather, her mother was out in the gardens, tending to the little patch of flowers that they had taken to calling “Deena’s corner”.

Olyssa was soaked when she came back in. A servant was quick to come and help her out of her cloak. “I cut some of the gerbera daisies,” said Olyssa, putting the flowers in nearby vase. “It seemed a shame to leave them out to be battered by the wind and rain.”

“I think they’d still prefer to be in the ground than cut,” replied Raine.

“Oh, stop it,” said Olyssa, flapping her hand. “They’re just flowers.”

Raine smiled. “I’m teasing, mother. They look lovely.”

Olyssa sighed as she wrung out her hair and took a seat opposite her daughter. “I wish the skies would clear,” she said. “I miss the sun.”

“So do I,” said Raine. “Do you suppose it’s sunnier where Aunt Avenel and Deena are?”

Olyssa hesitated. “They—they’re off doing very important things, Raine.”

“Mother, I’m not a child,” said Raine.

“I know, dear,” said Olyssa. “Truthfully, I don’t know what they’re doing. Something about this end of the world thing, I suppose.”

“Do you really think the world will end?”

“I don’t know,” admitted Olyssa.

Raine turned to gaze out the window. “I hope it doesn’t,” she said. “I would have liked to see the world before it ends.”

“Itiina?” called Prince Greoore from his bed. “Itiina, are you there?”

It was a moment before his door opened and Itiina entered. “You should be resting,” she said. “It was kind of the monks to let us stay here until you’ve healed, but you’d heal faster if you stayed put as the doctor asked.”

“What’s the point?” asked Greoore, gesturing at the stump that had once been his leg. “I’ll never heal.”

“Your leg isn’t what makes you a prince and a Lord Paramount,” said Itiina. “Plenty of men with lost limbs have gone on to become kings, but no dead man ever has.”

Greoore sighed. “Help me stand,” he said. “I want to go to the window.”

“What for?” asked Itiina.

“Just help me walk there,” said Greoore.

Itiina complied, letting Greoore put his arm around her shoulders and use her as a crutch.

At the window, Greoore put out his arms to steady himself against the sill. He looked out at the sun, its thin crescent shape and the halo around it. “Do you think Garthniiel’s alright?” he asked.

“You shouldn’t worry about him so much,” said Itiina. “People will talk.”

“He’s my brother,” said Greoore.

“That’s exactly the problem,” said Itiina.

Greoore sighed. “I agreed with you that I need to distance myself in public, but in private—can’t a man worry for his little brother? He’s out there, fighting against the end of the world, fighting for all of our lives, and I’m—” he gestured down at his leg “—useless.”

Itiina put her hand on his arm. “You’re aren’t,” she said. “You raised him.”

He looked at her, surprised. “I didn’t think you liked him,” he said.

“I’ve never disliked him,” said Itiina, “only what he does to your image. Sometimes sacrifices must be made.”

“But is it worth it?” asked Greoore.

Itiina sighed. “You’re being sentimental,” she said, taking his hand in hers. “Come back to bed. We’ve already done all we could.”

Flame examined the clay pot. “If this is over a thousand years old,” he said, “is it right to be cooking with it?”

“It’s a pot,” said Frost. “Isn’t that what they’re for?”

Garthniiel turned to Nicholas. “It was your people who left this behind. Do you think they would mind?”

“Hm?” asked Nicholas, turning away from the window. “No, no I don’t think they would care. Besides, we still have to eat.”

“That’s true enough,” said Flame, scooping a handful of snow into the pot. “Nicholas, do you mind?”

Wordless, Nicholas waved his hand and lit a fire beneath the pot.

The salted jerky softened nicely in the boiling water. Frost put her feet next to the fire to warm them. Flame took a look at what food they had left then crumbled a piece of hardtack into the water.

“How long do you think we’ll be here for?” asked Frost, leaning back in her chair.

“Until Deena decides what to do, I guess,” said Flame. He glanced at the window. “She’ll have to choose soon.”

Frost raised an eyebrow. “We’re leaving it to a child to choose? It’s the fate of the world.”

“What else can we do?” asked Garthniiel. “It’s her life.”

Frost sighed and shook her head. “Seems like an awfully large burden to put on a sixteen-year-old.”

“You were making hard decisions at sixteen, too, Sister,” said Flame. “Before that, even.”

“But not about the fate of the world,” said Frost. “I just had to worry about you.”

They sat in silence as the soup cooked. Garthniiel unwrapped a wheel of cheese and cut it in half. “We should save some for Avenel,” he said.

“Have you spoken with her at all?” asked Flame.

Garthniiel shook his head. “I think she has enough on her mind. The best thing I can do for her is leave her alone.”

“Where is she, anyway?” asked Frost.

“She said she wanted to speak with Izra,” said Garthniiel.

“And Deena?”

“Still asleep, I think,” said Garthniiel. “Her fever’s gone down, at least.”

“Has Izra taken a look at her?” asked Flame.

“What for?” asked Frost. “She’s going to die soon anyway.”

“Sister!”

Frost shrugged. “We were all thinking it,” said Frost. “If the choice is between Deena and the rest of the world, then there isn’t really a choice, is there?”

“Of course there is,” said Flame, “and it’s her choice to make. We’re not—we can’t take that away from her.”

“I just wish there was something we could do for her,” said Garthniiel.

“What about her father?” asked Flame. “How—How is Avenel going to tell him?”

No one answered.

Garthniiel stood. “There has to be another way. The cost of saving the world—it can’t be murdering a child.”

“It isn’t murder,” said Flame. “She’d be choosing to sacrifice herself.”

“That’s semantics, and you know it,” said Garthniiel. He shook his head. “I can’t believe those are the only choices.”

“I can,” said Nicholas. “That’s how the world works, isn’t it? Sometimes there’s only bad choices.”

In Deena’s dream, Taunsgrove was on fire. All around her were orange tongues of flame, licking at the sky. She screamed, but there was no one around to hear her, and her voice was drowned out by the roar and crackle of the flames.

Then she looked again. They weren’t flames, but autumn leaves, drifting lazily down from the top of the great oak tree. Mattieu laughed as he leapt out from behind a pile of leaves, then he and Phea grabbed her by the hand to pull her down into the pile with them, sending swirls of orange and gold into the sky.

“You’re making a mess,” chided Avenel, raking the leaves back into a pile. “If you aren’t going help, at least stop making things worse.”

“Oh, let them have their fun, Avi,” said Olyssa. “They won’t be children forever.”

“No, I’ll help clean up,” said Deena, getting to her feet. “Sorry.”

“Good,” said Avenel. “Your father will be here soon.”

There was the clip-clop of hooves behind her, and Deena turned to see Lord Vallus dismounting. “What are you doing here?” asked Deena before remembering that of course he lived there.

“I’m sorry I’ve been away,” he said. “Work has kept me busy.” He reached into his cloak and produced a doll, with button eyes and pigtails made of yarn. “Here, I brought you a present.”

Deena stomped her foot. “I’m not a child anymore, Papa! I’m too old for dolls!”

Vallus chuckled. “Of course you are,” he said, and bent down to scoop her up in his arms.

Inside their cottage, Deena’s mother was sitting by the fireplace. When she saw them enter, she stood. “Everyone’s here,” she said.

“Shall we begin?” asked Avenel.

Vallus looked down at the baby in his arms. “Must we?” he asked. “She’s so young.”

“It’s what she was born to do,” said Avenel.

Around the room, the others nodded their assent. “It’s what she was born to do,” they murmured, and with a sigh, Vallus pushed her into the flames.

She woke to a cold and empty room. “Avenel?” she called, but there was no answer. A bowl of stew had been left for her by the bed, but it had already grown cold.

She stood and walked to the window. Perhaps it was her imagination, but the light already felt dim and dusk-like. She told herself it was only the time of day—it was sunset—but of course the sun didn’t set this far North.

Soon. She would have to decide soon.

If she died, the sun would recover. Life would go on, but she would not be there to see it. She imagined the world with its myriad lives and loves and losses—they would all continue as before. But if she chose to live, if it were instead the sun that died, all of that would soon cease forever.

But, for a time, she would live. In the sunless cold and dark, yes, but she would live.

The ruins were silent as Deena crept through the halls. The courtyard was empty and still. The ground was covered in a layer of fresh fallen snow, bathed gold by the light of the sun. Inside the throne room, the snow was enough to cover the blood stains on the floor.

She walked up the dais to the obsidian throne. Behind her, she heard the door to the throne room creak open.

“Deena?”

Deena turned. It was Avenel, entering the room and closing the door behind her. The stained glass windows cast strange and colorful shadows across her face.

“I’m here,” called Deena.

“How are you feeling?” asked Avenel.

Deena didn’t have an answer.

She watched as Avenel crossed the room and walked up the dais to join her. Wordless, she let Avenel take her hands and pull her into an embrace.

“What—What happens now?” asked Deena, her words muffled against Avenel’s shoulder.

“What would you like to happen?” asked Avenel.

“I don’t know,” said Deena. She took a deep breath. Avenel’s shoulder smelled of leather and steel. “I… I want to live. I don’t want to die.”

“Okay,” said Avenel, stroking Deena’s hair. “Where would you like to go?”

“I don’t know,” said Deena again. “I don’t care, as long as you’re with me.”

“Then we’ll find a cottage in the woods,” said Avenel. “Somewhere secluded where no one can find us, surrounded by trees and birdsong.”

Deena smiled and closed her eyes, imagining the scene. “Will we have a garden?”

“Of course,” said Avenel. “There’ll be flowers in the spring and vegetables in the fall. And just outside, there’ll be pond behind the cottage with berry bushes on the banks.”

“And I could keep some chickens?”

“Whatever you like,” replied Avenel. “We’ll collect the eggs for breakfast every morning, and in the evenings, we can sit by the fire and read. We’ll have a room full of books—shelves and shelves—every story and subject you could imagine. We could spend our whole life there—years and decades and centuries—and no one will ever hurt you again.”

For a long time they stood there, Deena’s cheek against Avenel’s shoulder, Avenel’s arms around Deena’s body. Avenel’s breath frosted in the northern air, and fat flakes of snow began to drift down to melt in her hair and lashes.

It was a long while before she pulled the dagger from Deena’s back, blood pouring from the wound and onto the throne. She stood there, holding the dead girl’s body until it had cooled, and overhead, the sun was bright and round as a disk.