What the Darkness Is – Simon Kewin

The howls of the gore-hounds filled the night air. Vanda stopped to catch her breath. Sounds echoed off the trees, throwing noises at her from odd angles. Her pursuers were close. When they caught her it would be the end.

She peeped at the precious cargo she carried, strapped across her chest in the sling she’d fashioned from an old shawl. The night was dark – of course – but there was just enough starlight to see Abha’s tiny face peeping out, wide-eyed in wonder, oblivious to what was happening. Vanda envied the baby. Abha had no idea that the gore-hounds, if they caught up, would rip her to pieces like a rabbit.

Vanda set off again, ignoring the stomach cramps tearing at her. The ground was rising. She’d heard the Chronicler lived in a ramshackle hut on a hill in a wood. That was all she had to go off. It was entirely possible the whole thing was no more than a story. When it came to the Chronicler, the lines between truth and tale weren’t always clear.

She glimpsed a light through the shifting boughs: a single yellow candle shining from a cottage window. In one of his tales it would have been placed there as a beacon for the desperate. She raced into the clearing and rapped on the door, gaze darting around. She expected the hounds, black as night and red of eye, to lope from the woods at any moment. Away over the treetops the thinnest of crescent moons sliced through the night sky. As it always did.

The door creaked open. An old man’s face peeped through the gap, regarding her over the top of his half-moon spectacles. His wrinkled, veined skin might have been the map of an imaginary land. A red birth-mark, a blotch like the shape of some island, adorned his cheek. He didn’t look surprised to see her.

She expected to feel the foul breath of the Lady’s beasts on the back of her neck at any moment. “Chronicler. I need your help,” she panted. “The gore-hounds are after me.”

“And you want me to distract them with an exciting story while you sneak out of a window?” said the old man.

“Please. Let us in.”

“Us? You said me a moment ago.”

“I have a child with me. A baby. Chronicler, please. Abha has The Speech.”

The old man’s eyes widened at that. A look of appreciation crossed his features. Appreciation and something like concern, as if The Speech were some terrible disease. Which, in a way, it was.

“I see. Then you’d better come in. No point standing outside in the cold and dark is there?”

It took a few moments for Vanda’s eyes to adjust to the brightness within. Candles flickered from sconces and shelves. A log fire crackled and spat, filling the cottage with the sweet smell of woodsmoke. Next to the fire, upon a cushioned chair, lay a book, a strip of red silk marking the Chronicler’s page. She glimpsed an inner room that had to be his library. She had the impression, before he closed the door, of high shelves of books receding into the dark distance, impossibly far away.

“So,” said the Chronicler. “What do you want me to do? If Lady Lillian has sent her hounds to hunt you down, you need to find a fortress with high walls to protect you. You need an army of fierce guards loyal to the end. Not a tired old man in a hovel in the woods.” His eyes glittered with delight as he spoke. In his stories, old people living alone in the woods were never what they seemed.

“No walls are high enough to keep the hounds out,” said Vanda. “No oceans are wide enough to keep Lady Lillian’s ships at bay.”

“Perhaps.”

“But you can protect the baby. You can take her beyond even the Lady’s reach.”

“I?” Now he sounded vain, enjoying the flattery of her words.

“You have The Speech too, in your own way.” said Vanda.

“No. I can’t shape the world as the Lady can. I can’t banish her hounds or unfreeze the moon. I can’t bring an end to her eternal night. . Would she have let me live if I could unweave her words?”

Vanda glanced to the outside door. Shouldn’t the hounds have arrived by now? “You’re more than that. I’ve heard the stories. Once you came to our village, at Midsummer, when there was still a Midsummer. You told the tale of Siggurd, sent on an impossible quest to slay the Clockwork King. It was … more than mere words. I saw the red roofs of Pirathia sitting in the great desert. I felt the warm air on my face, tasted the sand in my mouth. You took us there. That is your magic; that is what you can do.”

She sounded more sure than she was. The memory of that night was faint. Perhaps, swayed by the balmy air and too much hurtleberry wine, she’d imagined the whole thing.

The Chronicler didn’t reply for a moment. His eyes narrowed amid their nests of wrinkled skin. “How can you be sure the child has The Speech? She is a baby. It is too soon to know.”

“She uttered her first word when she was six moons old.”

“That is not so unusual.”

“A ball she wanted rolled away from her so she spoke a word of Making. It took her a few attempts to get her tongue around it, but soon she held a new ball in her hands. One she’d created.”

“She found the toy on the ground beside her.”

“When she’d finished playing she spoke the word backwards and the ball in her hands was gone.”

“She dropped it.”

“She is six months old and has already spoken words of Making and Unmaking. Would Lady Lillian have unleashed her hounds if this wasn’t so? The baby is a threat to everything the Lady has wrought.”

A frown knitted the Chronicler’s features. “Who is she? And who are you? Is she your blood?”

“The girl’s parents died, lost at sea. We found her, took her in, a family of wheelwrights. When the Lady heard about her and the hounds were sighted I took her and ran.”

“I see.”

“Chronicler, please, you are our only hope. The beasts were at my back. I don’t understand why they aren’t here already.”

The Chronicler nodded his head in something like appreciation. “I have some small magic, it is true. The magic of the fireside tale. A moment like this when imminent danger presses can be made to stretch out longer than should be possible. It suits the shape, the need of the story, and even the Lady can’t deny that power. I can hold them back for a minute or two, although they will break through eventually.”

“So you will help? You will take us to one of the distant lands where the Lady does not hold sway?”

Outside, from somewhere in the trees, a howl filled the night. The Chronicler peered at her over the top of his reading spectacles. “You truly believe this baby will be the one to defeat the Lady? She’s the one chosen to save us all?”

Vanda sighed. “Yes. Although I’d settle for her surviving. Growing up, falling in love, making mistakes. Doing whatever she chooses.”

“I see,” said the Chronicler, his face thoughtful. “Less satisfying as a story. The helpless baby destined to defeat the Lady and restore light to the world: now that’s a tale I might be able to work with.”

“Can’t you weave a different yarn for her?”

The possibility seemed to amuse the Chronicler. “The needs of the tale cannot be denied; that’s the way it works.”

“And if she chooses a different path?”

“Then we are in a different story to the one started. We shall see. It doesn’t always do to know the ending when we’ve barely begun, does it? But … I can’t take you. The orphaned baby alone in a strange world: that has power. Resonance. You must stay behind. Your part is played.”

“She is a baby. She’s helpless.”

“I will deliver her to those who will care for her. I may be needed again later. The enigmatic stranger offering cryptic advice. That could work.”

“Have you experience of looking after a baby?”

A smile of delight flickered across the old man’s face. “Little. We make an unsuited pair, our chances of survival small. You see the power of it already? I will prepare myself for the journey. The hounds will be at the door soon, and the candles need snuffing out. Will you attend to them while I prepare?”

The Chronicler bustled off, stooping through a low door in the shadowy corner of the room. Vanda, rocking Abha in her arms, crossed to peer out of a window. In the brittle cold she could see yellow eyes glinting from the trees. Many, many eyes, brighter, somehow, than the moonlight they reflected. She set to work, licking the finger and thumb of her spare hand and pinching out the candle flames. Each gave off a little twist of smoke as it was extinguished.

She worked her way around the room to the Chronicler’s chair. Unable to resist, she opened the book at the page marked by the slip of red silk. The pages were blank. Puzzled, she turned over more pages, and more. All were empty.

“That is our story,” said the Chronicler, reappearing behind her. He wore a long grey coat, a pack slung over his shoulder, stout boots on his feet. He had the air of a man used to travel. “It is the tale of our land.”

“The words stop.”

“They stopped when the Lady wove her magic and froze us in this night. That is what the darkness is. Words unwritten, lives unlived. It is the story stopped in its middle, the ending never reached. Now, hand me Abha and we will proceed.”

Vanda held back, reluctant to release the baby. “Why has the Lady worked this evil? You of all people must know. This land was beautiful. She gazed upon it from her tower with a mother’s love.”

The Chronicle considered, his brow furrowing. “Who can say? Perhaps she learned to hate the coming light. She foresaw what the day would bring and despised it. That might make the start of a passable tale. Now, please, we must leave.”

Vanda handed the baby over. The Chronicler walked to the library door and pushed it wide. Vanda, peering in, saw the shelves she’d glimpsed. The endless ranks of books.

“There are so many of them. I had no idea.”

“Many, yes. I have lived many lives. Lived and loved and lost. And won, too, against all the odds, of course.”

“Which book, which world will you take her to?”

The Chronicler turned to block her passage. “I cannot tell you. The Lady must not know. Tell her what we have done, if you must, but you can’t know where we have gone.”

Vanda nodded. “Then, thank you, Chronicler. Look after Abha, please. It is all I ask.”

“I will.” He nodded once and quietly shut the door behind him, leaving Vanda alone.

After a few moments she heard growling and snuffling from outside the cottage, and then the first heavy blow upon the door.

#

“Another tattoo, Abi? What is it this time? More moons and stars?”

Abi rolled up her sleeve so Gemma could see it properly. Her arm was an angry red from the tattooist’s needle. “A wheel.”

“Okay, that’s … boring.”

“No, it’s cool. It’s, like, the cycles of the year. The cycles of life. The end is the start and all that.”

“Hippy shit.”

“It’s clearly not, look, there are flames. I like it.”

Gem shrugged. “Okay, it’s your skin. Just don’t let our Galactic Overlord see it.”

“Galactic Overlady.” The Home was ruled by the fearsome Mrs. Framing, a woman who seemed to know everything that went on among the children in her care. “I’m sixteen. I’m allowed tattoos.”

“You’re supposed to get them approved. And they’re supposed to be nice things. Happy things, things the Inspectors couldn’t object to.”

“You think they’ll object to a wheel?”

“Maybe for being dull, yeah. And then there are the demons on your back.”

“They’re not going to see those, are they?”

“I’ve seen them.”

Gem was her oldest friend. Both orphans, they’d shared a room in Gladwell House until they were ten. Now they were in and out of each other’s rooms all the time.

“You’re different,” said Abi.

“Thanks. I think.” Gem rose and leaned her elbows on the ledge of the first floor window. “Hey, your stalker’s outside the gates again.”

“He is not my stalker.”

“He so is. I hate that dog of his. Growls each time I go past. Think we should report him for, I dunno, sexual harassment or something?”

“He’s just a homeless guy. He’s never even spoken to me.”

“He looks at you.”

“I’m sure he looks at lots of things. People do when they have eyes. Besides, I happen to be a beautiful young woman. You’re lucky I hang around with you.”

“Yeah,” said Gem. “A beautiful young woman with crap tattoos. You know what your problem is?”

“I’m sure you’ll tell me.”

“You always see the best in people. You always want to help people, be nice to them. Honestly, Abi, the world doesn’t work that way. People like you get taken for a ride.”

“And people like you die a lonely, bitter death, afraid of everyone around them.”

“I’m not lonely. Unless you’re planning to move out.”

“No,” said Abi. “‘Course not.”

That night, Gem’s screams roused Abi from sleep. Nightmares had always plagued her friend. They were common enough in the Home. Abi’s had faded over the years and while her dreams were always vivid and often alarming, she no longer woke up sweating. For Gem it was different.

Abi tapped gently on her friend’s door. Sometimes Gem didn’t wake up, but tonight there was a low snuffling sound coming from within. After a few moments the latch on the door unclicked. Abi found Gem sitting on her bed, quilt grasped around her knees.

“A nightmare?”

Gem nodded. “There were shadows moving in the room, creeping across the walls toward me. They had teeth, somehow I knew they had teeth, and they were coming for me. They were sniffing. Hunting.”

Abi did what she always did, putting an arm around her friend. “Shall I tell you a story so you can go to sleep?”

They’d been sharing these night-time tales for many years, something neither mentioned in the day. Gem nodded, and Abi settled in beside her to begin her story. Within ten minutes, Gem’s breathing was slow and peaceful. Rather than disturbing her, Abi curled up beside her, just like when they were children.

The shadows came for Abi a day later. She was walking home from school along the ring-road, past a red-brick wall covered in tattered fly-posters. The flickering movement had been there for some time before she became aware of it. Shapes on the wall beside her, patches of darkness that followed her. A shadow-play she was a part of: her silhouette was among the shifting shapes, as if there were creatures all around her she couldn’t see.

She tried slowing and they slowed. She hurried on, telling herself it was some weird reflection, or her overactive imagination. She crossed the road, out of the bright sunshine. There were no shadows there; she’d left them behind.

She made herself breathe slowly and deeply to calm her pounding heart. The stench of something foul reached her nostrils, the smell of rotting flesh. Then, in a shop window, she saw the reflections. Huge, dog-like beasts crowding in on her, snarling teeth bared. A low growl made the hair on the back of her neck prickle.

Someone grasped her wrist, hurting her. “Quick, we must get away from them.” It was the old man, the tramp who sat on the street, the red birth-mark vivid on his cheek.

Abi fought him. “What are you doing? Get off me!”

The old man let go. His gaze darted around, not looking at her. “You can see them, can’t you? The gore-hounds.”

“What?”

“They’re coming. They’ve found you at last. Sixteen years is more than I hoped for. Please, I can hold them off a few moments but they are strong.”

He looked so terrified, like an old broken bird, she lost her fear of him. “What are they?”

“Her hunters. Time is short. Come, I have made plans for this day. We must go to the High Street; we have to travel further in.” He set off, striding with surprising speed, his little dog slinking along beside him.

“But I don’t want to do any shopping,” she called.

The old man turned to study her. “Then your story will stop here. An unsatisfactory ending, frankly. No shape to it, no circle closed.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means those things will rip your flesh from your bones if they reach you.”

“Why would you even say a thing like that?”

“Because it is the truth. I’m sorry, but this is not my story. I’m merely a part-player. A character.”

Abi looked around. There was no one nearby to hear this craziness. “They’re shadows. Why would they want to kill me? I’m just a girl.”

“Because you’re the only one who can save the world.”

She could only laugh. “Me? Save the world. Gem was right, you are crazy. How the hell am I going to save the world? It’s a major triumph getting out of bed in the morning.”

“I’m not talking about this world. I’m talking about the real one.”

“The what?”

“Look, come with me and I’ll explain, I promise.”

“If you are an abuser, this is a pretty bizarre approach you’ve got.”

“Please, Abha, I’m trying to help you. As I have ever since I brought you here.”

“Wait, what? You brought me here?”

The old man made no attempt to hide his impatience. “Yes, as a baby. Must we discuss this now?”

She had to swallow the lump in her throat. “So, you’re saying you’re my, like, father or something?”

“No, no, your father died. I promised I’d watch over you, that’s all. Please, can we hurry? They’ll be upon us soon.”

Movement flickered in the corner of her eye but disappeared when she looked directly at it. The old man’s dog growled, ears flattened against its head. The High Street would be busier. Surely she’d be safe there.

“This had better be good,” said Abi.

They stopped outside the video game store, its windows filled with colourful boxes and posters. The old man peered inside through cupped hands. “This will keep them guessing for a while.”

“What do you mean?” asked Abi.

“Our escape. She’ll expect me to use books, won’t she? In a story, the unexpected is always good.”

Shadows were flickering on the pavement at her feet, overlaying her own. There was a weight to them, a thickness, that hadn’t been there before. There was a rush of hot fetid air on her ear. She raced after the old man into the store.

Inside, he was studying the cases of three different games, shaking his head as if in disbelief. “Such detail, such huge worlds.”

“Yeah, they’re cool.”

“This one,” he said, holding out one of the boxes.

War of the Witch King. Sorry, why are you showing me this?” she asked.

“You know it? You have played it?”

“Sure, we have it at the Home. I’m a Level 12 Weatherworker.”

“Then I can draw on your knowledge. Can I hold your hand?”

“What?”

“Please. It will make it easier when I begin the telling. I mean you no harm, I promise you.”

“Yeah,” she said. “I’ll bet they all say that.”

“I can leave you to the hounds if you like. They will tear you to shreds if they can. They’re becoming more real with every moment.”

The whole thing was ridiculous, crazy, but there was something in it that made her stomach tingle. Glancing around to make sure no one she knew was anywhere in sight, she held out her hand. His skin was rough in hers. He gripped her tight and his lips began to move.

Dizziness washed over her a moment later …

#

… and she sprawled onto wet grass. The air was colder, the edge of a chill to it. Water chortled somewhere nearby.

She climbed to her feet, head still spinning. They stood on the shores of some vast lake, tendrils of mist threading through the air over it. Except it wasn’t a lake, it was a river, encircling that whole world. The water flowed, carrying sticks and birds and clumps of some sweet-smelling flower along with it. Abi recognized it from the game. “What have you done? How the hell can this even be possible?”

The old man shrugged. “Worlds within worlds, stories about stories. What explanation is needed?”

What did that mean? There were no other worlds. You imagined them when you were a child but you grew out of it. She’d once delighted in imagining all sorts of impossible lands but now she knew better.

And yet, there she was.

“What happened to your dog?”

The old man ran a hand through his straggly hair. “I couldn’t bring both of you. I shall miss him, my only friend in that world. Perhaps there will be a way to go back for him later.”

“And why … why have you brought me here?”

“To escape Lady Lillian’s hounds. I hid you for sixteen years in a world reached through a book and I have kept watch over you all this time. Now we’ve taken another turning through the maze. Hopefully, an unexpected turning. If she takes another sixteen years to find us, I’ll be happy.”

“I don’t get any of this. It’s all insane.”

“I will tell you everything I know, give you the story so far. Perhaps it will help.”

When he’d finished recounting the tale, Abi closed her eyes, her back against the rough bark of a tree, trying to make sense of it all.

“Why does she hate me so much?”

“You are a threat.”

“But these words of Making and Unmaking. I don’t know anything about them.”

“Vanda said you spoke them without thinking when you wanted the ball. I think you only have access to them in the real world. Or perhaps they will come at the right moment, when you have the understanding to use them.” The old man – the Chronicler – smiled his sparkling smile. “At least, that’s what would happen if I were telling the story. Right at the last moment, in the nick of time.”

“But what about Gem? And everything else. You know, my life?”

“It’s all still there. It’s like a book that has been closed. The pages will still be there when you open it up again. Now, I suggest we find something to eat. No point dying and doing Lillian’s work for her, is there?”

“Those creatures, the gore-hounds. They’ll come again. We’ll need to be ready.”

“Yes. Are there many books in this world? Many stories we could escape into?”

“I don’t think so. There’s an island where some witches live that has lots of books of history in tunnels beneath the ground.”

“I suppose that might do. Again, it might be too obvious.”

“Most of the time people sing songs here to tell the old stories. You know, to pass ancient sagas down.”

“Ah. That sounds more promising. Tell me, Abha, can you sing?”

“No. Don’t make me. Seriously.”

The Chronicler seemed pleased with himself. “Just as well I have an excellent voice. We must learn these lays as we go about the land. When the time comes and the Lady finds us, we can use one for our escape. A song can conjure up a world as well as a story.”

In the end, their stay lasted only three years. This time, Abi heard the howls before she saw the shadows. As the Chronicler keened the song they’d chosen, Abi felt the same dizziness she’d experienced the last time.

The stone walls around her faded away.

#

They stepped from world to world for another seven years, always going deeper, one step ahead of Lady Lillian. A painting in a castle gallery depicting an imaginary city, streets thronged with merchants and priests. In that city, a mummers’ play performed by torchlight, conjuring up visions of sunlit islands scattered across a sparkling blue sea.

There, she met Aydan and lost her heart to him. His smile made her melt and fizz inside, both at the same time. They would lie together on the soft beach and listen to the unending hushing of the waves. She loved the way the drops of seawater sat upon his smooth skin, the miniature worlds glimpsed within each. He loved to trace the lines of her tattoos, fascinated by them. Fascinated, too, by her wild tales of other worlds. For three years they shared a simple life of fishing and eating, loving and sleeping. Gemma and Gladwell House seemed an impossibly far distance away. The Chronicler kept to himself, watching and waiting.

She and Aydan walked the whole circuit of their round island, hand-in-hand, the twin lines of their footprints a braided line in the sand. Abi liked the sensation of returning to the place they’d started, the familiarity of it as well as the disorientation of seeing it from a different angle. Sometimes they talked about where she’d come from, leading them to the one subject painful to both of them.

“Will you go back to the sky with the other angels?” he asked. It amused her when he called her an angel. Many of the things they did together were surely things no angel had ever done. Still, she liked it.

“No. We will have to move onwards, go deeper.”

“Why does this demon pursue you?”

“Only I can speak the words to unravel her magic. She has frozen her world in perpetual night.”

Aydan gazed over the sparkling waters and shook his head. “When will it be?”

“I don’t know. Not for a long time, I hope.”

“We could have children.”

She stroked his face. “I’d like that. Truly. But not with this hanging over them.”

They were both silent for a time, lost to their own thoughts. Then the sun filled their eyes once more and they ran together for the splash of the sea.

One day, the villagers found the remains of a small deer, its body torn to scattered shreds. There were no predators on the island capable of such butchery. In the sand all around were the footprints of animals that might have been hounds. The Chronicler, seeing them, nodded his head to Abi.

Aydan pleaded to come with her, but she didn’t know how that might be worked. There was the danger, too. With Abi gone, Aydan’s life would be as safe and peaceful as it always had been. They allowed themselves one final night, Abi always alert for howls and snarls.

“Will you come back?” he asked as the first light found the shadows in the corner of their room.

She lay with her head upon his chest, their limbs entwined. She wanted more than anything in the world to say yes. Here would be a fine ending to the story: an ending that was a new beginning. But it couldn’t be. She could think of no words to give him.

She and the Chronicler sailed in an outrigger to the sacred atoll, home of the people’s few gods, the paradise they all went to when they died. There, among the many offerings sent bobbing over in bottles on the ocean’s currents, they found scrimshaw carvings depicting the fairy palaces of the land that, it was said, the island people had once come from.

Their escape.

#

Barely six months later, they stood upon a final hilltop, so high that the drifting clouds were around them and below them. The old man slumped to the ground, the weariness raw in him. She could see the shape of the bones in his face, as if his features were sinking away. Even his red birth-mark looked faint. He had told his last story, woven his last tale to foil Lady Lillian. Abi saw with sudden clarity how exhausted he was. He nodded his head, as if he knew what she was thinking.

“What will you do?” he asked. His voice was weak. “What ending will there be to this story?”

“There can only be one ending,” said Abi. “I have to go back where it started. I have to destroy her, stop the monsters pursuing me and free the world from the moment it’s frozen in. That’s it, isn’t it?”

“Once, I thought so. But we have been through much together, you and I. I think you can make your own ending, now.”

“What other endings could there be?”

A flicker of delight passed across his features. “Perhaps … perhaps you will tell the tale of how you become the Lady Lillian we knew. How you loved the beauty of that starry night so much you stopped the world. That might be a fine twist.”

“But it’s not right.”

“Or perhaps you will describe how you took a baby girl and rescued her from the gore-hounds, became Vanda to bring her to the Chronicler. A small but vital role in a bigger cycle that leaves those hearing the story guessing, lets them decide the ending. Or you may come up with some conclusion I have not foreseen. In any case you must choose. I can’t hold off the hounds any longer. You can only snatch victory from the jaws of defeat so many times before the story falls apart.”

“How do I get to the real world?”

He shrugged, as if it was the easiest thing in the world. “I have shown you. Tell the tale. Speak the words of Making, then step across. Step further in.”

“But I’m not going deeper. I’m going back to the start.”

The little smile of delight was there again. “You know, I’m never really sure there is a start. There’s just the maze, stories within stories. Maybe, who knows, there isn’t even one real world and they’re all as genuine as each other.”

Did that mean she really was returning to where she’d begun? Or was she creating a new story, a different telling of the same root tale? Perhaps it made little difference.

“If I go, what of you?”

The old man closed his eyes as if he might fall asleep. “My part is played. It has been a fine story, but characters come and go. I’ll remain here to mock them when they come, tell them they can’t win. An amusing counterpoint to the final drama. Hurry, now. They are near.”

Abi cleared her mind. Words came to her, flowing without conscious effort. Yes. She saw what had to be done. How the world she wanted to reach looked: the woods and the seas, the bright stars and the crescent moon, and Lillian’s high tower on its hill looking down on everything. The Chronicler had described it often enough over the years. The words of Making and Unmaking she would need also came to her. She saw what had to be done about the Lady, what the darkness was.

She began to tell the story forming in her mind.

#

She climbed the steps that wound up the hill to the tower. The bright stars blazed down, hard as jewels. The slender crescent moon hung among them. It was beautiful in its cold and colourless way.

The howls of the gore-hounds filled the night air, but Abi paid them no heed. They couldn’t harm her, because the story couldn’t harm the storyteller. At the gates they snarled and snapped, stained teeth level with Abi’s face, their breath the smell of rotting meat.

Abi waved them away with a word of Unmaking, their names spoken backwards. One by one, they melted to the ground to become shadows, become nothing. Pushing the door open, she wound her way up the spiral staircase to where she knew Lady Lillian would be waiting for her.

A single, circular room took up the whole of the top of the tower. Twelve arched windows, open to the night air, looked out over the world. A figure in white lace, white as bone, stood at one of them. She gazed out across a wide sea, the moonlight a shimmering path across it.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Lady Lillian said.

“It is,” said Abi.

“You would destroy it?”

“Stories can’t stop,” said Abi. “They must reach an ending. The pages must be filled, new characters brought in as old ones die.”

Still not looking at her, Lady Lillian shook her head. “This isn’t a story. It’s real life. There are no simple endings.”

“The wheel must turn,” said Abi. “I understand now, after all these years of flight. The hands of the clock must go round. Your world is beautiful but there are other beauties. The smile of a friend. The sun on the morning mist. The frost on the trees. Waves washing through a field of tall grass. The gaze of a lover or a baby.”

Lady Lillian sighed. “I suppose it is only fair you kill me after all these years of pursuit. I would have killed you if I could.”

Abi walked to stand directly behind Lady Lillian. “Kill you? Why would I kill my own mother?”

Lillian’s voice was cold. “I’m not your mother, child.”

“Look at me,” said Abi. “Of course you are. That’s why I have the words.”

When the Lady turned to face her, anger and then confusion and then wonder battled across her features. “I don’t … how is that possible? My daughter died long ago. They told me.”

“I was smuggled away for fear of what you might do to me when you learned I had the Speech. Do you not recall? My father died returning for my birth and you were lost in grief. Perhaps you blamed me for the accident.” It was, perhaps, too obvious a storyline, but the power of it couldn’t be denied.

Lady Lillian reached up to touch Abi’s face. “Is this possible?”

“Yes. It is the truth.”

Lillian looked puzzled, as if grappling with difficult ideas. “I have been so distracted by moonlight and starlight. I have been so lost.”

“I know.”

“I couldn’t face life without him. Couldn’t face another day. I was up here, watching for him, when word came. His ship lost at sea. How you must hate me.”

Abi took her mother’s hand in hers. “No. I haven’t come here for revenge, or to destroy you. Between us, we’ll speak the words of Unmaking. The darkness must end. There will be more nights of sparkling frost, but there will also be days of summer. We can live through all of them. We can give this story a good ending, if you are willing.”

There were tears of moonlight in her mother’s eyes as she nodded her head at Abi.

When it was done, Abi left her mother for a time and walked from the tower to the woods. She picked her way among tall trees grown thick with moss. Her feet seemed to know the path to take. Through the branches, a candle flickered from the windows of a little cottage in a clearing on a hill, calling her like a beacon.

Abi knocked on the door and waited for the old man to answer. A story didn’t only need a finish; loose ends needed to be tied up, too. The Chronicler would understand that. He’d know how to find Aydan and Gemma and Vanda and all the others, even his little dog, so that the rest of their tales could be told and her part in them played out.

As she knew it would, the door opened silently. An old man’s face peeped through the gap, his eyes regarding her over the top of a pair of half-moon spectacles.

“See,” said Abi. “I have found the ending of the story.”

In the east, over the trees, the sky was finally lightening to morning.

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