Today we present Part 2 of The Gloaming by M E Garber. Be sure to check out Part 1, first, if you haven’t already.
by M E Garber
At this time I knew the Rules One through Five. They were easy, almost ridiculously so. Except for the “Asking” part, which I found hard.
Rule One: What you truly believe will become real. What you truly disbelieve will fade.
Rule Two: Pride brings unwelcome notice, and testing by the true fey. Guard well against Pride.
Rule Three: The Question must be asked. A lore-tender may only divulge rules once his or her charge has asked after each of them. Some leading is permissible, but pure telling is not possible.
Rule Four: Names prove important in strange, unpredictable ways. Always be careful when Naming if you have the power of fey.
Rule Five: Protect your purity. Loss of that innocence, of purity in your thoughts and deeds, will result in loss of your fey abilities.
My own corollary to Rule Five: It’s well-known that unicorns only associate with pure fey innocents. So, to stay with Azim al-Liajli, I stayed as far from human boys as possible. Easy.
Another goblin rush. The beast on my back eased his grip as he edged his head around to watch his brethren in glory. The hand on my breast even ceased its carousing. I whirled my eyes around to the others holding me. All leaned forward, engrossed in the battle. Their hands were loose, and their leader edged forward to watch the fall of the final unicorns.
A scream heralded another unicorn down. The hands on me loosed further as the goblins guffawed at the beast’s pain. Azim al-Liajli and his remaining companion now stood chest-to-tail, their sides heaving and streaked with blood, mud and goblin ichor.
The goblins were sure of victory–too sure. Their overconfidence was my opportunity. As they began the attack, I reached over my head, grabbed the surprised monster on my back and threw him into the leader’s face.
And I screamed.
I screamed my anger, my outrage. I screamed the agony of watching my protectors die, and the hot pain of knowing it was all – ALL – my fault. My lungs exhaled the storm: all the power of the winds unleashed, the tree boughs rushing and bending before my wind, adding to it their strength.
I believed I could do it, and I did. I shaped that howling wind. It flattened every goblin. The wind struck, knocking them senseless. The winds flattened the cornfield, scoured clean the ditch, sought every last goblin. Only the unicorns it spared.
All my agony, all my rage, all my power, vented into that screaming wind. It lasted a long time.
It ceased as suddenly as it began. The air was still. Clouds covered the sky as a heaviness settled over everything, weighted and expectant.
But I saw and felt nothing.
My trance broke. Devastation surrounded me: cornfields shredded, heaps of goblins lying where they’d fallen, broken branches all around, impaling some of the goblins, and debris and weeds scattered over all. Four white shapes, no longer glowing like moons, lay along the field’s edge, one more by Azim al-Liajli and his companion, both of whom stood leaning together for support. The other’s eyes were dull with pain, but Azim al-Liajli met my gaze.
He snorted again, bobbed his head and struck out with his front hoof. I followed the motion, and saw the Goblin King lying a few feet away. His hands were beginning to twitch. A dagger gleamed in his grip. I kicked him in the chest, and he lay still.
Wooly-headed, I walked away, to the first unicorns killed. They no longer appeared magical, but like small white horses, dead in the mud. My heart grew heavy: a piece of pure magic sullied by the Goblin King and his minions.
Another step and I saw their many wounds, their broken bones, their … what was that? The first dead unicorn had its head turned away from me at an unnatural angle, but it looked…strange. I walked towards it, telling myself that it couldn’t be true.
But it was.
A jagged hole gaped where the unicorn’s forehead had been, and silvery gore was everywhere. It shimmered on the nearby goblins’ hands and weapons. I looked away in disbelief, but my wide eyes flew back.
The unicorn’s horn was missing.
Sticking out from the second unicorn’s side was the spear that’d been thrust through his heart: its companion’s spiral horn.
I doubled over as if I’d been punched in the gut.
The first things Aunt Rosemarie told me were about unicorns; how they’re kind creatures of pure magic, and they protect less-abled fey creatures–like me. That one should be so desecrated, even in death, was sickening.
I clenched and unclenched my fists, my breath coming in great gulps. I felt hot, hotter even than before. That had been self-defense. This was pure fury. A unicorn corrupted after a noble death, another killed with the spiked horn of its companion–it was just … wrong. Worse than wrong; to kill goodness with the weapon of goodness was obscene.
I told Aunt Rosemarie about the unicorns and of my dreams of being with them in the garden each full moon. But I never told her I named Azim al-Liajli. Some premonition kept me from it. I was sure she’d be against it, and I’d have to explain how careful I was in naming and I just didn’t want to argue. Not with Aunt Rosemarie, not about something as silly as that. She was still helping me be the best fey-girl I could be. I didn’t want to endanger that, and my senses told me that this could do just that.
I was keeping secrets. But what teenager doesn’t, I told myself. It’s nothing unusual, nothing dangerous. For once I was glad to be normal. Just your average kid. It felt safer.
Well, I could lie to myself, and to those around me, but I couldn’t lie to the gloaming-world. Things began to change. Slowly at first, so I didn’t really mark the difference. And when I did, it was too late.
The first changes were so subtle – the unicorns became restless in the garden, pacing the perimeter. Azim changed, too. He stared intently at me while resting his gleaming white head in my lap. It seemed like he was asking me deep and serious questions, but in a language I couldn’t understand. After a few moments of the searching look, he’d sigh and relax, eyes drooping into sleep. Waking, he’d snort, shake his head and rise to his white-hoofed feet, then trot over to pace along the wall.
This action puzzled me, and hurt, too. Why did Azim shake his head so that his forelock hid his eyes from me? Why did he leave me only to pace the wall? What was going on?
I longed to ask Aunt Rosemarie, but of course I couldn’t. I’d have to explain too much, expose too many lies-by-omission. I knew she’d have an answer for me, if only I could ask it. So I tried to think of a way to phrase it, to make it seem like any other ‘idle curiosity’ question, as opposed to a ‘burning need’ question. By this point it was closer to a ‘burning need’ question. The signs were obvious.
My nightly walks home – now alone, of course – once so delightful and anticipated, took on a sinister quality. The fairies seemed less common, more wary. No longer did the ward-wolves pad around me, flanking me with their steadying presence and their doggy-minty aroma. Instead, the woods remained unusually still and quiet as I walked by, and small stirrings in the brush behind me raised the hairs on my neck. If I spun around, a swaying branch marked where something had been.
I had the impression of many eyes gazing out at me with malign interest. Nothing showed itself for my flashlight – once more always at hand – to illuminate. My imagination ran along full-steam, sensing a goblin horde trying to trap me, waiting for a moment of my inattention. And in my haste and hurry to protect myself, I forgot Rule Number 1.
My brain boiled over. The only thought throbbing there was repayment for unspeakable wrongs. Revenge. I grabbed the spiral horn and pulled. The pointed tip glistened as it slipped free with a wet hiss. The gold was now cheap and brassy-looking. Hefting it, it felt good in my hand. I smiled as my feet moved of their own accord.
I halted, surprised–but then not–to find myself back where I’d begun. The Goblin King lay sprawled at my feet. A breeze skittered around his hairy chin. The whiskers waved. He made a small, wet sigh.
Azim whickered. My head jerked up as I recognized the first real-world nicker. Azim took two mincing steps and laid his nose on my forearm. His whiskers felt rougher than in the moonlit-dreams, his chin warmer. Freesia drowned out the smells of blood and goblin-stench. His glittering dark eyes captivated me.
The goblins almost stole him from me. My stomach burned.
I thrust Azim’s head aside as I plunged the horn down with both hands. It struck the body where I thought its heart–if goblins had such a thing–would be.
Azim’s scream of protest rent the air.
A blinding light and a sharp “Crack!” extinguished the world. I threw up my hands to protect my eyes, my face … and I remembered no more.
When I woke, I recognized the familiar lace curtains and herbal smell of the room; I was back at Aunt Rosemarie’s, in her guest bedroom. I remember now that I’d hoped she’d have fresh cream and strawberries for breakfast, as when I was seven.
The door cracked open, and Aunt Rosemarie came in, carrying a small tray. It wasn’t the Aunt Rosemarie of my childhood, but an older, stiffer woman–the modern Aunt Rosemarie of my seventeen years. Only then did I remember that something bad had happened. But I couldn’t recall what.
Seeing me awake, her lined face edged into a small, tight smile. “No frowning, dear. You’ll remember soon enough, I’m sure. Now, why don’t you eat this breakfast and gain some strength. You’ll need it, I think.” She smiled again, but it didn’t reach the sadness in her eyes.
I ate the toast, drank the lemon-rosemary tea with plenty of honey. I saw scratches on my arms, on my hands; gouges, even, in places. I held them out to examine them. My shoulders ached when I moved, as if I’d hoed and planted the whole garden in one day, by myself. I grunted, surprised I could hurt so badly. I looked to my aunt who watched me with troubled eyes.
“You got caught in the storm not far from here, out in the cornfields. Lightning struck nearby, and a tornado, too. You were lucky not to be hit by flying debris, like the nearby horses. That’s the official story, at least. From the farmer who brought you here. The non-fey view. But I think something else happened, Sylvie. Yes?” She peered at me closely.
It came back to me, in terrible, jagged pieces. I convulsed into tears, hiccoughing and shaking by the time I finished telling Aunt Rosemarie my story, what I recalled, how I remembered it. All of it, this time, including how I’d named my unicorn, how I’d been so proud, and hadn’t even realized it. How I’d brought it all on myself. How I’d forgotten all about the Rules.
“But I won’t make that mistake anymore. I’ve learned my lesson,” I promised, wiping the tears and snot from my face with the towel she handed me. My face was swollen, my eyes ached, my nose felt three times its normal size, and tears burned my cheeks and chin. But all that pain couldn’t match the misery I felt whenever I remembered the dead unicorns.
Senseless deaths. All my fault.
“Oh, child,” Aunt Rosemarie said, sitting beside me on the bed, and she gathered me into her bosom and rocked me back and forth. “Oh, my poor, poor child.”
Something was going on. She wouldn’t look at me, and she didn’t speak for the longest while. Finally, I pulled out of her rocking embrace.
“There won’t be a next time, Sylvie.”
I stared at her. She grasped my limp hands in hers. Her voice was hoarse with pain.
“Azim al-Liajli, your unicorn. You named him ‘Defender of the Pure,’ not ‘The Pure-White Defender.’ Semantics are important in magic, remember? Rule Four. He won’t defend you anymore. You’ve lost your purity.”
“I have not!” I shouted, pulling away. “Those goblins grabbed me, they felt me up a bit, but they didn’t … I’m still …” My cheeks burned red, and I couldn’t speak, too embarrassed to mention sex and virginity to my maiden aunt. I knew the goblins would’ve raped me after the unicorns were dead. Thinking of those disgusting creatures doing that – my imagination failed me. Fortunately.
Aunt Rosemarie clenched my hands. I winced and met her hard eyes.
“No, girl, not sex – innocence. Despite the fairy tales, they’re different. The Rules state it. You lost your innocence when you killed for revenge. Using the unicorn’s horn as your weapon was the icing; just as bad, in its way, as the goblins’ use of it.”
My mind was spinning faster than my tongue could go. I spoke slowly, trying to concentrate on one single strand of thought. “I was saving Azim al-Liajli’s life. The goblin was going to kill him. He had a knife.” My reply sounded limp to my ears. I realized that Azim tried to prevent me from killing the goblin with his gaze. But the rage flooded me again and I struck. I had killed for revenge.
I slumped in my aunt’s sheltering arms. A long while later, without looking up, I asked the only question that mattered to me.
“Have I … do I still have my fey abilities?”
The slow shaking of her head rocked me as I rested on her bosom. Her old-lady, lavender and herbal scent filled my nose with the motion. I dreaded that answer, even as I knew it was the only true one.
There was a long silence before another question burned its way out of my mouth.
“Will I ever see him again?” I meant Azim al-Liajli.
“No, Sylvie. He can’t see you. Even if he wanted to. He didn’t make the rules, either, you know. But we all have to live by them. Whether we want to or not.” Her soft voice was muffled. I could tell she was lost in her own thoughts. I wondered what had happened to her. Something similar, I was sure. I should’ve asked those questions long ago.
While I knew I would care later, right now nothing mattered. Nothing got through the emptiness.
The space where my strong magic had been was an echoing chamber – vast, beautiful and empty, like a palace for Sleeping Beauty. If only I could believe that a kiss from my beloved could awaken me from this terrible dream. But my beloved was a unicorn, and I was no longer pure in thought.
“Whether we believe in it, or not,” I muttered, half asleep in her arms.
Years have passed since that time. Aunt Rosemarie is long gone. My sister has two children, my brother and his wife expect their first. I am anxiously watching you youngsters for any sign of the fey about you. So far, nothing. But I remain vigilant.
And dedicated. I’ll see to it that the next generation, the ones I teach, will benefit from my pain. Unlike Aunt Rosemarie, who couldn’t bear to tell me her tale until after I’d failed, too. How I wish….
But it doesn’t matter. The past is done. My magic is gone. I sense things, but I can no longer affect them. I can only pass on the lore.
Therefore this tale, written here for any to read. I may not be able to tell the information, but there is no Rule against writing it, or leaving the story out for it to be read. The Rules are what they are, and I must abide by them, like them or not. But, as Aunt Rosemarie and the Rules both have said, ‘be careful when using names.’
Perhaps I can’t use the fey abilities any more. But I can use semantics, dear niece or nephew. Read this and heed my warning.
And, if you happen to see Azim al-Liajli, please, tell him I love him still.
About the Author
M E Garber, who grew up reading about hobbits, elves and dragons, so it’s no wonder that she enjoys writing strange things. She lives in Ohio (in the US) with her husband where, in addition to writing, she enjoys hiking, cooking, travel and chocolate. You can find her blog here.
About the Narrator
Dani Daly is a former assistant editor of Cast of Wonders, and narrating stories is just one of the things she loves to do. She’s a retired roller derby player and current small batch soap maker, for instance. Soaps and balms from StoryTime Soap Company are crafted while listening to audio fiction of all sorts. She rants on twitter as @danooli_dani, if that’s your thing. Or you can visit the EA forums, where she moderates the Cast of Wonders boards.