|Chapter 6: When Her Hunting Song Was Heard|
|The Red Winter Queen - Free|
|Written by Paul D. Batteiger|
|Friday, 04 May 2012 04:43|
Chapter Six: When Her Hunting Song Was Heard
Ygraine left the tower and did not return for days, dwelling in the shadows of the forest in stolen shapes, changing one for another. Now a stag, now a raven, now a lioness white and stalking. She waited for the sound of a horn, seeking out the echo in each crossing nightshade, listening and hearing naught but wind and the stealthy unsound of deepening snow.
Slow, she ventured near the bleak spire, watching it from the edges of the forest shadow, seeing nothing as ever but the winds that wound tight round it and made a mourning song in the small hours. She waited for a sign, and none came. Until at last she simmered with impatience, and returned on her dark wings.
Black and still, the tower seemed less now a place for her, or for anything that lived. All was where she left it when last she turned her hand. The bed lay bare and churned with the last embrace she shared with her darksome sire, the floors still scattered with her neglected jewels, and the red gift of her mother still glimmering at the bedside. She crossed the still room where she had spent her young nights since memory awakened, and reached forth her hand, almost touched the stone, and then drew back.
Her Huntsman said that her mother was a fiend, who would come and drink her blood and eat her heart to become young again. Ygraine did not quite believe it, and in the dark instants when she did, she flared her fingers and felt her strength course along her bones, and she believed that her power was great enough that she had no call for fear. I am so strong now, she thought, smiling. I am stronger than she.
She looked out from the window and through the coursing wind and snow. Now the tower seemed too small to hold her, and the forest, and the valley. Where did her mother dwell? Whence did the Huntsman come? There was a kingdom beyond this place, and she grown too great for the valley's narrow compass. She could go, in any shape, and be free from all of it.
And yet she waited still, poised at the window, a score of shapes quivering in her skeins to be loosed, and she bowed her head and listened one more time. Her father, her lover, the king of the forest. Surely he would come. And over the wind, and the vaults of distant skies, she heard a cry come howling down.
At first it was a small sound, so far-off it teased her. Then it grew again and her heart quickened fast inside her. She lifted her head and held so still, wishing it to be his horn, to be his call, calling himself back to her side, to her bed.
Then it came a third time, and with a sudden stroke the magic winds that bound in her tower broke and scattered. The cry was no horn or call or summons, but wrath and malice made into a voice. It was the sound of the Red Queen in all her fury, coming in war and terrible vengeance from across the sky to this one lone tower hidden here in the last place.
Ygraine looked up and away from the earth, to the sky, and saw her there whole and terrible, with the tatters of storm gathered in her wake like a host at her back. Her mother, the Queen. She beat vast white wings that stretched from sky to sky, her face the death-mask of a winter owl with the tusks of a boar. Her talons were like swords of the earth held ready to tear up mountains, and behind her tail lashed and coiled like a dragon's wake. She screamed her deadly curse a fourth time, and the iron-coiled bars of the window curled and withered away like ash.
The tower shivered around her, the deep black walls cracking apart, and Ygraine was suddenly afraid, as the heart-pounding instant when the earth falls away and there is nothing below but the fall.
The Queen struck against the tower, wings thundering, and shattered the top with a single stroke of her claws. Iron screamed and sparks flashed as the walls were ripped apart, and Ygraine screamed as well, flinging herself out through the crumbling wreckage and into the air. Her arms stretched forth wings and she gathered in her forms and shapes, becoming many, rather than one.
The Queen's doom fell behind her, shattering the black tower like a pillar of ice, and her screams of fury woke the dead beneath their mountain cairns. Witch-fire sprang from a thousand snow-draped menhirs, and the howling of the unquiet coursed on the furious wind.
Ygraine caught herself on her dark wings descending, threshed upward through the tormented air. Above, her mother crouched atop the decapitated tower with wings mantled as over carrion, her eyes red with slaughter-lust. Ygraine felt her power well up inside and put away fear. Strength flowed into her limbs, knotting with the strength of lions, the sharp fangs deepening her mouth. Antlers spread from her skull like swords, sharp and blackened. As a winged lion, spired with the tines of a great elk, she flew upward to meet her mother's embrace.
The wind thundered as the Queen beat her own wings, rising up into the storm with a scream that scorched the sky. She held her talons out like knives and they glimmered in the red light of her hate, swords in a bloody sea. Ygraine bared her fangs and roared her earth-breaking roar, feeling as for the first time the pulse-beat of the world in her veins - rivers of blood, bones of mountains, breath of the storm.
They came together, and their meeting split the air, shattering the roots of the tower like blackened glass and driving trees to the earth a league away. The snow blasted apart around them in a dancing globe of flickering crystals, blown from tree branch and split stone with a single stroke.
Ygraine cut with her claws, feeling them scrape as across stone rather than flesh. The Queen's wings buffeted and hammered at her, both of them tumbling through the sky over the forest as they ripped and tore at one another. The Queen's talons were scythes of pain, and they drew blood sharp and bright from Ygraine's flesh. The death-jaws gnashed closed almost on her, and Ygraine whirled away, slashing with her antlers only to feel them break upon her mother's iron breast.
Now the wings beat her down, and she fought to stay in the air, curved up and then turned hard, striking again and again. This time she clawed for those red-blazing eyes, but it was as though she reached through mist and cold glass, and her claws found no purchase.
The Queen shook her off with a sound like mountains breaking, ice shattering from her dead-white feathers. She screamed again and her dragon tail cursed down, smashed Ygraine from the air and sent her like a star to the earth. She fell, and her passing burst trees apart and gouged a furrow as the blow of a giant.
Above her the Red Queen reared up like a memory of the primal beast-gods of old, who hunted men when the earth was new-born. She screamed again and the wind came spiraling down. Ygraine struggled to rise, her shapes fleeing her in streams of black ash. She was cut and blooded and now the storm pounced with ravenous hunger and blinded all, coiling snow like white embers from a burning earth.
She could see nothing, reeled away through the shattered trees. Ygraine could not see, could not think, and when she heard the hunting cry of her mother, her heart quickened with the first real drum-beat of fear.
Ygraine tried to call in her raven-shape, but her flesh crept with cold and her heart beat like a forge-hammer, and she could not gather her strength. She fought through the hip-deep drifts and clawing cold branches, not knowing what was before her.
Behind, she heard a sound like coming dooms and then the Queen fell to earth like a thunderbolt. The blow dashed the trees down to lay in twisted rows, flattened Ygraine under their crushed boughs. Now the rage of her mother boomed forth like the wind, like heat from a fire searing through the blizzard.
She crawled, dragging herself from the fallen trees and heaped snow, struggling through the wind that clawed at her. A wing-beat and the broken branches were pulled away in a rising cloud, then driven back down when the wings fell again. Ygraine fell, again dragged herself up, hands hooked into claws as she fought to get away.
Now she heard the deep-cracking sound of the Red Queen's laughter, gloating through graveyard fangs and a throat made for drinking blood. She looked and saw the vast shadow through the snow, wings mantled high, eyes like flames. The footfalls of those talons crushed upon the ruined wood as the Queen hunted through the wreckage for her child.
Ygraine fled through the blinding snow, leaving blood behind her, and she knew that red trail betrayed her. Even to her the silver scent of it was clear and bright, and to her mother it flamed like molten steel. She felt the wind-blast as those great wings beat again, lifting the Queen above her, and she knew the talons would be on her in a moment. Desperate, she reached for a shape, and this time she drew one on, cloaked herself in the skin of that first stag and leaped away through the drifts, foundering.
The Queen descended like a hammer of wrath, and again the trees splintered and fell, again the snow coursed like a sea-wave and the earth shook beneath Ygraine's hooves. She brayed, leaping high, and her mother's talons swept down. She felt them bite and tear her flesh, and then she was hurled through the air, twisting and bleeding as the shape unraveled around her.
She fell upon bare cold stone, her blood smoking and splitting it where it fell. Her fingers dug furrows in the rock as she struggled to rise, to move. She looked up and saw the Queen blotting out the sky, white wings and the deep rolling roar of her breath that billowed out like smoke.
Ygraine turned the other way and saw the land gone away, dropping down to darkness below. Again she stood upon the precipice, here where her father had first brought her to bay and claimed her. Her Huntsman, her sire. All she ever wished for now gone. She looked up and her mother's jaws yawned like a dark gate above, glowing deep where fires ground in her heart.
She turned away, looked down into the depths where bones lay unremembered and empty tombs hid themselves from the light. With a last defiant scream she hurled herself from the threshold, and plummeted down into the deep.
She fell through layers of mist like tearing spiderwebs, the air rushing cold as a blade, and then she fell upon the first spire of stone and splintered it with her body. The blow sent her turning, tumbling through the cold breath of the deep earth, and then she struck again, cracking loose an age of ice-sheathed rock that slid down with her.
Ygraine clawed at the stone, leaving blooded finger-trails gouged into it as she was plunged down the slope, deeper into the riven cleft here in the hollow earth. Until at last she fell upon the arched and ancient roof of an empty tomb, and it split beneath her. She fell through in a torrent of ruin to lie broken and bloodied among shattered idols and shards of bloodstained ice.
Even now, she heard the shrieks of her mother, the dread Queen of all, and her wingbeats like the tread of doom upon the shore as she dropped down into this mist-breathing canyon. There was no sound of water, as in the slow-turning dark of the year's night the cold froze all to the quick, leaving unmoving cascades of ice between and among the guarded crypts.
Ygraine shrugged free of the piled wreckage and stood painfully even as her mother came to earth upon the crushed bones and slumped ruins that filled the gorge. The mist billowed and coiled in the beat of her wings, and ice shattered and rang at the weight of her monstrous form. She gnashed her teeth together and her slaver split stones where it fell.
Ygraine ran, and her mother's laughter came following after, then the sound of worlds breaking as the Queen clawed after her, destroying all in her path. Ygraine slithered past ruined doorways and among decapitated pillars, only to hear her mother smash through them an instant after. She crawled up the slick, frozen cascade and talons slashed down around her, tearing the ice, reaching for her.
She crawled upon stone, and looked to find herself in the portal of that dark gate she had seen so long before. Cold smoked from the surface of it, like burning flesh. A look back and she saw the Queen at bay, eyes blazing like stars and her wings stretched forth from wall to wall of the great crevasse, yet she came no closer.
Slowly, Ygraine backed away, until her flesh touched the black doors and even she flinched from the cold. The Queen shook herself with wrath, then shrugged away her feathers and fur, her white wings and talons and the dread seemings of her war-made form.
She stood naked and white, her red hair a twisting cloud behind her, her eyes fierce and blue as Ygraine's own. The Red Winter Queen, dread of all.
"If you pass through that gate," she said. "You will never come forth again. You will be worse than dead, beneath worm and root, gone for all." She held out her hand. "Come. I will make you live in me forever. Give me your heart, daughter of mine. It is all I need of you. You will be a part of me. Grander than you would ever be alone. Come, and do not pass that door."
Ygraine looked on her, shaking all over with fear and pain and the ebbing of her strength. A part of her wished it - to have it all done, all finished. One moment of pain, and then the after.
But she turned away, and set her hands upon the black doors, and pushed. The Queen screamed out with rage and frustrated desire, burst once more into her terrible shape, the weave of her forms wrapping themselves around her. The doors opened, ice breaking and sliding down and they stood open, looking into darkness.
The Red Queen rose shrieking into the air and Ygraine stepped through into the underworld. The doors hammered closed of their own, and then shuddered as the earth shook. Outside, the Queen vented her strength upon the hillsides, and tore loose cascades of earth and stone to pour down and bury the black gates forever, so that nothing remained but ice, and bones.