Verses excerpted from "The Lay of Volund" in "The Poetic Edda" translation © Carolyne Larrington 1999.
Author's Note: Spoilers through episode 20. This is with the assumption that at least a day passed between the events of 20 and 21 - artistic license. Fakir's version of "The Lay of Volund" is abridged and adapted from the original. ;;;
by Fushigi Kismet
the strange, young creatures, to fulfill their fate;
there on the lake shore they sat to rest,
the southern ladies spun precious linen.
The morning mist had not yet risen from the fields and groves but lingered late, caressing the land with insubstantial fingers. Vapor rose from the surface of the lake. The grass was shiny with dew and a thin shimmer of leftover nighttime frost. It was not very cold.
Fakir had worked up a sweat.
His fingers gripped the hilt of the sword - slick with perspiration - hard, as he brought it in a clear arc before him, slashing through the mist with practiced ease.
It swallowed him up and he let it. It was one thing to fight against actual opponents; he tried to avoid struggling against intangibilities. Otherwise he would just end up hurting himself more in the process.
So the mist took him and he turned in a precise circle for a moment, the sword held in a defensive position, before his eyes sighted the indistinct shoreline of the lake and the line of trees that marked the edge of the forest. His nerves settled a bit once he had ascertained his position and directions. It was still early and he had plenty of time to get to class, but it would be unfortunate were he to lose his way for lack of landmarks.
The sun was impossible to sight and he knew from experience that the sound of the clock did not reach through the mist - nor did anything else, for that matter. He didn't wonder at the lack of noise - even birds rarely ventured here. Perhaps the lake was cursed. More likely there was simply not enough food to attract them. But he himself believed that it was too gloomy a place for anyone - so much past history.
It suited his mood perfectly.
He lunged, invisible, faceless opponents dancing away from him through the mists. He ignored them, brought the sword around in a neat twist, and began on another maneuver. The reality of the weapon in his hand was a link to the here-and-now. Its solid weight was a comfort, the familiar exercises now pointless but still a welcome part of his customary routine. At least they served as an outlet for his emotions.
Yesterday had drawn a line between his past and present. Yesterday had become, in truth, just that.
It had come and it had gone; and even as the pain lingered, he embraced it calmly. He would no longer run from the things he feared. Being alone. Being forgotten. Being at fault. Others had tried to free him from his past and his guilt when he alone was fit for that task. He had clung to it, as he had clung to everyone in his life - Charon and Rachael. Mytho.
He was afraid of being alone.
Was it the truth, perhaps, that he needed Mytho more than Mytho needed him?
Even so, he had vowed to protect him. He had sworn on his honor as a knight.
Even if you don't need me, I can't forsake you.
In the end did it matter at all what his intentions were? Regardless of his actions, the people in his life were all steadily pulling away and breaking apart from him.
He had seen her yesterday morning and despite how simple it had been to fall once more into an atmosphere of easy familiarity, she had been a stranger. Still gentle, still kind, but the mothering hand that had once tended to his innumerable hurts was no longer the same as it had been. She herself was different, having grown apart from him, and secretly, selfishly, he hated it. Her separate happiness ached like an open wound.
Rachael's smile had hurt him, but it hurt him still more now to know that she had been hurting as well. Looking at him that morning, how much those words must have cost her to say! 'I think you must have met a nice girl by now. You like her, don't you, Fakir?'
He had never once seen her love for Charon as anything more than his own for the man - a child's love for a father. He realized that he had been a fool.
How can you understand your own feelings when you can't even understand anyone else's!
He had been unable to understand the feelings of anyone around him - not Charon, not Rachael, not Mytho! - oh, certainly not that gentleman! and yet he had acted as though he knew what was best for everyone else. Perhaps, he snorted, he had even misunderstood Kraehe. Could a raven have any feelings worth understanding? And yet, when she had been Rue, he could not be certain of what or if she felt for Mytho.
And out of everyone who surrounded him, he understood the last remaining the least. Perhaps the best. She was so transparent, so simple - a gentle, unassuming love. A blind, accepting faith! But how she could be that way was beyond his ken. It was as though the essence of her flowed over and around him but he did not possess the ability to touch it.
They had brushed against one another a time or two; she had seen his tears, he had seen hers on many - far too many - separate occasions - she cried so easily - that he had felt himself beginning to weaken against the clear light in those blue eyes. She had seeped in through the chinks in his armor; his mask had even broken into pieces . . . but still, he had yet to let that last invisible wall fall. If it fell, would he not cease to be himself altogether but become a stranger to himself? Perhaps he was just a coward, after all, who refused to see - who had not the power to reach out and embrace all that she was and let her settle into his heart.
And yet, Rachael had smiled at him and said gently, 'You like her, don't you, Fakir?'
He could not deny it.
That girl had seen more than his tears. She had seen his smile, just as he had seen a thousand of hers that varied from being as brilliant as an electric light to as soft as the glow of a lantern in the darkness. Or the smile that made his heart skip a beat in that queer way which made him feel as though he had just lost a moment of his life for the sake of that smile - made him feel as though he would give up a lifetime in exchange for a lifetime of those smiles.
And then he would look away and silently curse himself for being a fool and worse.
Again, he heard Rachael's sweet, knowing - she had always understood his feelings so much better than he himself - voice, 'She's changed you, Fakir. I'm glad.'
What good was change when he was still so powerless! Mytho needed him - he had seen that last night. More remained than the Raven - there was still hope for Mytho.
This sword may be useless, but these hands can still save him . . . Surely Drosselmeyer had not intended an unhappy ending for the main character?
But knowing that man, tragedy was as likely as comedy in any situation. He had chosen the unlikeliest of princesses for his heroine, after all. Worse than a servant girl-turned fairy-princess. What could a duck hope to accomplish?
Nothing. At first.
But from that most unpromising beginning she had grown. He had seen that with his own eyes. She could change.
Could he change? Had he changed? Could he change the wayward course of the story?
'I thought I would try writing Mytho's story.'
Was he insane?
But that surge of knowledge, that return of his shaky confidence, had not been a lie. He had the power to do something if he chose. Did it really matter if he ended up as a sacrifice again? As long as the story went on and came to the proper conclusion, as long as the prince and princess were happy - now why did his heart twinge at that thought? - surely he would be content with that.
He could do nothing else.
'If I could do something to save Mytho, I wouldn't ask this of you, Fakir! But right now I can't do anything . . .'
He shut his eyes at the remembered pain in that voice. Wasn't she always crying, always speaking with that pain-filled voice? And yet, wasn't she always smiling? Electric smiles, candle smiles, lamp-lit smiles like a touch of sunshine in his eyes.
Weren't her eyes always full with love?
'It's painful because it is a true feeling!'
he set red gold closely with gems,
he closed all the rings up well on a bast rope;
so he waited for his shining woman
if she was to make her way back to him.
Bastard, he thought, going through the fifth and most complicated exercise of the morning, why didn't you go with your brothers and look for her?
But he knew the answer before he thought the question. Knowing hurt.
That, too, tied him to the present - his own pain.
For a moment, he would allow himself to forget it. For a moment he would allow himself to dwell in the dream that had woken him before dawn that morning.
A mist-covered lake, a flurry of swan wings, a woman standing at its center. Still, in a pose of love in the midst of the water. His own incautious step into the water sent ripples across the surface of the lake. An inadvertent message from him to her. She thrust her head up, eyes opening with surprise, and a storm of white feathers blew through the air like wind-torn flower petals.
He halted, his armor feeling bulky and awkward, his sword clanking against his side.
Her eyes softened as she beheld him, and she swept one leg up gently behind her and bent her head in greeting. Her hands motioned gracefully and he found himself staring at her outstretched hand.
Let us dance.
He strode forward through the water, and she took several skipping steps across the surface. He could see the color of her eyes now. They were a clear, luminous, blue.
Then, as he reached forward to take her hand, a cloud of raven feathers obscured his view, and when they had passed he beheld the woman surrounded by a party of ravens.
He clutched his sword tightly, and, pulling it out, ran forward in a rush, swinging it down at the nearest raven-
-as the mist and memory of the dream faded away together. With great strength of will he stopped mid-swing as he found himself looking into a pair of familiar blue eyes.
The wind stirred her bangs and the wisps that had escaped her braid to frame her face. She did not move.
"Ahiru," he breathed, then lowered his sword, silently cursing himself for falling prey to illusion. "Sorry - I mistook you for someone."
She looked up at him in some confusion and a little bird hopped impatiently on her shoulder.
"Oh," she stroked the bird's sleek head with two fingers. "A leftover from this morning's breakfast crowd."
The bird chirruped contentedly.
He looked at it for another moment before stretching out a hand. It eyed him critically, hopped into his hand, pecked at his palm, then ruffled its feathers and flew off.
Fakir brought his hand back towards himself, his fingers curling in on empty palms and he felt the faintest twinge of - what? Disappointment? That once again he was left holding nothing?
"I guess it was expecting breadcrumbs," Ahiru said neutrally.
"Maybe," he said in reply as he sheathed his sword and turned away. "Greedy little fellow, isn't he? He reminds me of someone else I could name."
"I wasn't really hungry that time, you know!" she said defensively. "I was just trying not to look suspicious! And I can't do anything about your bread being tasty!"
He tried but couldn't quite suppress the chuckle.
"You're laughing at me!" she said accusingly, crossing her arms, but she was smiling as she said it.
"Yes," she said, peering around to look at his face. "You really are!"
He wiped his expression clean and flopped down onto the dew-covered grass. She seated herself gingerly next to him and it was only then that he noticed the handkerchief-wrapped parcel she held in one hand.
"Oh," she said, remembering. She dutifully unwrapped the parcel to reveal a round loaf of bread. "I stopped by your house but you weren't there. Charon sent this along. He said you didn't take time to eat this morning."
Fakir grimaced, taking it from her and breaking it in half. "Mother hen." He handed her half back to her. "Eat it. There's too much for me. I could have fed that bird after all."
She didn't argue but broke off a piece and popped it into her mouth. "He's just looking out for you. Why were you in such a rush this morning?"
He took an experimental bite. "I wasn't really. Just exercised the horse and let him out to pasture a little earlier than usual, is all. Besides, I like early mornings."
"Do you like the mist too?"
"I like the lake."
"The lake, huh . . ." her eyes roamed over the shoreline. "I like it too." She looked over at him. "Hey, Fakir, I saw the prince dancing for the first time on this lake!"
He had no response for that, so he said instead, "There's a legend about this lake. About swan maidens."
"Yes. Once upon a time they danced here. Three of them married three brothers who chanced to see them dancing."
"What happened to them?" she asked, curiosity piqued.
"They were happy for some years, then they had to go away. They left their husbands behind and flew far, far away."
"Two of the brothers went to search for their wives. The last remained home and waited for his beloved to return."
"I don't know," he said, looking at the still waters of the lake. "There's no ending to this story."
She frowned. "They must have found their wives! And the last one must have returned! It's too cruel otherwise! Don't you think so?"
He could not answer.
It was then that he heard it, the sound of the bell-tower, and he turned in frank amazement to stare in the direction of the town.
"Oh!" Ahiru exclaimed, swallowing the last of her bread and scrambling to her feet. "It's getting late!"
Fakir looked at the remainder of the bread he held and finished it off in two hurried bites as he got to his feet. "I've never heard the tower before from here."
"Really?" she said distractedly. "I always hear it."
Perhaps that was it, then. That she was here with him and he was not alone . . . She could bring in what he could not.
"I don't want to stay after again!" she was muttering, and he was only glad that their conversation and the time had distracted her from asking the question he was sure she had come with the intention of having him answer.
Have you written Mytho's story yet?
No, not yet. But he would write it. At this point, there was nothing left to do but try. For Mytho's sake - and hers.
As for himself . . . well, it didn't matter. He had no part in the story that was to come.
She turned around and looked at him anxiously. "Come on, Fakir! Let's go! Neko-sensei will tell me to marry him if we're late!"
He nodded and she turned back around, braid bouncing gently against her shoulders as she hurried towards the town.
Again his heart stirred gently, watching her, and he wondered if this was a true feeling. If it was a sign that he had changed. He only knew that his feelings towards her had changed. She was no longer the nuisance and the threat. Now she was something far different. If he allowed her to break through that last wall, he could even name what she was to himself.
You fool, you.
He could keep her out. It was simple. His thoughts were soundly absurd. He wanted to keep her small figure before him always, but even now his steps were slowing and she was rapidly fading into the mist.
Softly, his lips shaped the words:
He sat on a bearskin, counted rings, He sat so long that he fell asleep,
the prince of elves; he missed one.
He thought that the daughter of Hlodver
the strange, young creature, had come back again.
and he awoke deprived of joy,
he felt on his hands pressing, heavy bonds,
and on his feet fetters clasped.
He sat so long that he fell asleep,
"Faaaaakiiiir!" Ahiru called, running back. She came to a stop in front of him and took a moment to catch her breath. "What are you doing! Come on, let's hurry!"
Why can't I . . . ?
He clapped his hands to her thin shoulders, and wanted, for one brief instant, desperately, uselessly, to pull her into his arms. She looked up at him with a confused expression and he turned his face away, afraid of what emotions had shown on his face in that moment, in his searching eyes. "Yeah."
He took a step back, open hands falling limply from her arms . . .
. . . and she caught one falling hand in her own.
His eyes went wide.
"Come ON!" she said insistently, turning to go and pulling him after her as she broke into a run. "We're REALLY going to be late now!"
He watched her, hair flapping behind her, feet flying in an ungainly run, and his chest felt tight as though he had swallowed the world and it was lodged somewhere right beneath his collarbone. He swallowed harshly, his throat gone dry, and sped up until he was even with her.
His fingers tightened around her own.
She looked over at him and again he looked away, passing her by and pulling her after him.
"Wait! Too . . . fast!" she gasped, struggling to keep up with him.
His voice was filled with an irritation that he didn't feel, not really. "You're the one worried about Neko-sensei! Would you like it better if I carried you? It'd probably be faster!"
He heard a quickly suppressed quack of embarrassment from somewhere behind him, and kept running, his face to the wind, where she couldn't see his eyes. They would surely betray him.
He'd known the answer before he'd ever asked the question.
Her hand was warm in his.
That's not how the story goes.