Disclaimer: I own none of the characters mentioned. I do, however, own the settings.

Notes: An AU answer to my own birthday challenge. Warning: very strange. Many thanks to Claudio for beta-reading.

I dare my –potential– readership to guess who the Old King is.

The Wastelands

There is a forlorn wasteland

Where not a weed does grow –

With burgundy seas and indigo sands,

And a wind which never blows.

"Art thou not cold, little one,

Who walketh down unreal paths?"

There are mountains that spring from the inclement ground,

And shallow riverbeds; and ghosts

Gliding through the ethereal towns,

At once crossing towers and forests of clouds and stones;

Singing mutely an altered song,

And marching on and on.

Unreality plays a game with inexistence

And sends vivid shadows to fool the blind;

Placid and serene, with pride in their stance,

And resignation, they walk on through fantastic mountains

Yet upon waters deep –

"Willst thou not warm thy guiltless hands

By a welcoming hearth?"

Yet sometimes though there is a twist in the fabric of the world,

And two shades happen upon an intended crossroad;

They nod –

And see, for one,

A linear horizon ornate with hills and castles' silhouettes;

For the other, a wasteland –

And not a word is said.

"I am cold," the Old King said.

"I would welcome a candle's flame."

His regal robes are dashed with gold

His wrinkled hands clutch a velvet cloak fast around his slumped shoulders

A crown with gems upon his brow

And old age sleeps upon his face

And in his eyes –

The child wears unseemly rags

And leans upon a crooked stick.

"The fire burns."

His hair is long, spun from copper and from flames;

In his eyes a darkness swirls,

On his face the mask of youth,

His lips are red; his skin as pallid as the dead –

A hint of colours in the grey –

"I have been scorched." His eyes wander to somewhere far

Beyond the dusty road. "It is a gently licking flame

A warm embrace, a cordial hearth;

It is Pandemonium's unrest disguised as fall's unearthly shades,

An innocent and playful dance

Of death and dearth upon the wind."

"What beauteous words," the Old King sighs.

"I see them every year in my lands

The fallen leaves of autumn;

"But the storm is with them that stirreth the Heaven's ire

And bringeth the frost of winter."

The child blinks.

"I have been drunk upon the flames,

The changing flames;

I have loved their soothing touch and craved their hungry craving –

I have learnt their ardent ways

And wept upon a pyre –"

His eyes are dark,

Unyielding and resolute.

"We have borne his body limp from the deserted battlefield,

Strewn with broken swords and shattered shields,

And he would yet have lived –

As many wounds as his flesh had been dealt,

Marring his flawless form,

For the strength of his spirit and the fire in his heart

That fed upon the thoughts of war;

And for the fey light of his eyes

I saw that he would yet live –

"He knew it too, as I carried him in my arms,

He smiled his eerie smile which I used to love;

But it was changed –

And then I knew, maybe, as he looked beyond my face into the indifferent stars

Sown across the boundless night,

That he was changed;

For he gazed into my eyes

And smiled his eerie smile,

And did not say that I was wrong."

The Old King beams.

"There is a fire that devours,

And another that laps;

From the first there comes death,

From the second apathy,

From none turning back."

A shiver upsets the child's spine and a blush colours his cheek

As he stares into the sorry distance.

"He would live, I thought him dead;

He was dead, I thought he lived –

No thought was nursed within my frenzied heart

Or a myriad –

And I saw not the fervent fire I knew

For generous and passionate;

But a darker delight that brewed beneath his obscure eyes;

Warm no more, but cold like a frozen Hell.

"And I was soaked with his blood and with the blood of fiends,

Red and black upon my garments,

Terrible and fair a mingling of darknesses as had been the mingling of lights;

But many wounds had pierced his flesh,

And on his face a smile froze,

And in his eyes;

'Twas maybe then that the love in my heart

Was changed and fouled –"

The strangest smile lit up his traits.

"I had known,

From childhood days,

Through dimming light,

To fire leaping in the night;

I had known,

That in the end,

The end would come from him to me,

From me to him –

"But many wounds had pierced his flesh,

And one more gash would never show;

An elven knife can after all stab just like an orcish blade –

I drew my dagger from its sheath

And fit it in another –"

His voice is flat,

Bland and dull like the lifeless wasteland,

Gray like the stagnant clouds.

"He stared at me for all that time

And my gaze was set in his;

If the smile from his face vanished as a trail of blood spilled forth from his lips

Laughter blithe was in his eyes –

He bade us stop,

Stood upon the cruel soil

And took my bloody hands in his –

"It was as Mercy –"

"I am cold," the Old King said.

"I would welcome a candle's warmth."

The child wears unseemly rags

And leans upon a crooked stick.

"There lays a fiery chasm ahead

Where I must stumble to my doom. It is the Will,

That I must burn;

And all sins burn with me."

His hair is long, spun from copper and from flames;

In his eyes a darkness swirls,

On his face the mask of youth,

His lips are red; his skin as pallid as the dead.

Silence rests a heavy grip

On wastelands barren, still and cold;

For not a word is to be said.

The Old King bows a weary head.

"Fare thee well, then, little one,

Thy journey's end is nigh."

They turn away and do not move,

Unsaid words keep fast their feet.

The child holds a steadfast eye with an unswerving brow;

"And thou, wise one, with a kingly crown,

Wanderer of other days,

Whither must thy path stray?"

A smile stirs the Old King's lips,

His eyes are turned towards the sky;

His arms open wide as if offering his embrace to one unseen

And showing an empty scabbard at his waist –

"My heart awaits a child's sword."

Then low they bowed, and walked away,

Fading into the paysage;

And parted thus with not a word.

Hark the tolling of the bells,

Then, weary ones, and fare thee well.