A/N: A short and very weird AU. Happy Yuletide!
Will you tread the moon paths? Will you sing the lost soul home? -Isobelle Carmody
A chord of three musical notes: triad. The lunatic at the edge of town; the boy with the golden hair; and the woman with the deep scars staining the left of her face.
"I was not expecting you," she told the boy.
"Really? The other one has bells on," he said. "I come when I can. Why wouldn't I?"
The woman carried two woven baskets; both, she set on the table, and began arranging their contents upon two different shelves. Brown bread, cheese, milk, cabbage; the standards of this environment. "How are you?" she said to the lunatic.
"For the moment I do not wish your death," was all he said. Once, the boy remembered, his face had been metal, grey and harsh, strong steel and black iron. Now it was wood threaded with copper, half his face and one-and-a-half legs. The left eye of the lunatic was reddened, but stared unseeing at the two. He was covered in worn and patched labourers' garb, coarse and brown, after the fashion of the village that feared him.
"What else do you need?" the woman said, her shelving complete.
"Nothing from the castle," answered the lunatic; a harshness in his voice was as unyielding as stone.
"Yes," said the boy with the golden hair. He, too, was dressed as an ordinary labourer of the village, which was what he was; the woman covered herself and her scars in a heavy and roughly made cloak, ragged where it almost met the ground. "Do not dare any from there."
"Things are not tainted by their masters." The woman lit a tinderbox; guided the small flame to set a long taper afire, a small glimmer for the approaching evening. None of the three felt much of cold, but the dark was a remorseless shadow. Night and the moon were near. None of the three spoke those words aloud.
"But you were," came grunted words from the lunatic. He did not need to glance at her scars. "Are."
"I attend upon the summons; you know that you also do as you must." The woman was level and calm of speech, and her hands upon the taper did not shake. The lunatic, on occasion, chopped wood and required the woman to take it to the town; the boy was a carpenter's prentice, guiding rare iron tools to turn knotted wood to smooth planks. The burning taper flickered between them, its many-coloured shimmering more fragile than a moon's pale constancy.
"I know what you thought you must do." The boy's voice had gained a low growl to add to its range, since the village had come to him. The woman made no reply.
"He is gone," the lunatic said. "It is three years to the day. I know by my markings."
The wooden walls of the lunatic's cottage were covered in vertical scratches; deep and vicious scores were struck upon the right side of the cabin, and those on the left sketched in gentler indentations.
"Is this what brings you here at this time?" he confronted them.
The woman shook her head. "I am summoned tonight. Hardly."
"Three years and I will not forget," said the boy. There is silence between them.
"Light a candle for memory," ordered the lunatic, amidst the quiet.
"If you insist..."
"I shall." The boy took the tinder and matched it to a second taper, a long white candle more finely made than the other nightlights. "To memory. To saving the world," he said in the tradition of the village. He formally placed it upon the centre of the rough, pitted table. "I remember."
"To save this place, for what it is," echoed the lunatic. The light of the candle strengthened; the night and the moon drew ever closer.
The woman shook her head, seemingly less in negation than resignation.
"I hate what you did," said the boy to her. In his distant memories, he had mostly claimed to hate only things: inanimate objects, classes with the mad teacher, things that were not true hatreds.
The lunatic tried to call him by name. A biblical word; one of two names that had endured in their original form in this small, medieval village, all that remained of a larger world. It was a second game chosen by chance, a spare holding-spot for altered coding, if those phrases had any meaning left to him. A long time ago he might have called a similar thing, 'pseudo-medieval'; the boy doubted he had ever used the word in those times, but it fluttered vaguely within him. So many other things also did so, like his old parents. He had gradually become something different to them, and had been placed here.
"She comes here each week with supplies," the lunatic said. Typical of her to do a--charity--with clockwork regularity, pretending she was motivated by logical considerations. The lunatic had once known something of logic. "It does not make up for him, but..."
So many things remained unsaid. There was the story of a hero and there was the story of a fool and the story of a hero and the story of a fool were one story, until it came that the hero and the fool was dead and this world was alive in this borrowed and altered form, and the three in this room were enclosed within these shapes. The lunatic and the boy, who had been heroes themselves, would not have called the hero a fool for saving those who should not have been saved. He was not the only hero who had died.
"What is your last memory?" asked the boy.
The woman looked to the taper's light. In the very centre of the flame lay a spot of deep blackness, bordered by a tinge of the brightest blue. "Of his demanding the settlement by programmed--" the word did not belong in this village, and jarred--"contract; failing to notice any number of loopholes, but the castle has been generous to us by its lights."
The boy waited.
"You mean of yourself, then," she said. "What he would have said about you at the last. Well--something about being heroic, no doubt. I know he thought much of you." She paused as if the admission gave her pain.
If the boy who was the carpenter's apprentice was a hero, then the woman was a witch to blight the journey and the lunatic a mysterious figure to whom kindness shown could make or mar a venture. But the road to the castle was blocked to him and beyond the walls of the village lay nothingness. There was no quest to overcome monsters.
The hero should have thought nothing of her, after everything she had done; but he had bargained for--something resembling--her safety. The boy had heard that now she took in plainsewing in the village for a living; her hands were rough and callused, where before he thought he remembered, smooth and strong, reaching for the gold upon his neck. None of them had the power to change themselves any more.
"You betrayed him," the boy accused. He would have used a more ordinary term in older days, such as hurt or double crossed.
"I do believe her, though I know she lies," she quoted. The scars upon her face had once been a virulent, bright green; in this world, they had faded darkly to the shade of grass burned black, deep remnants marking her in a more realistic, everlasting fashion. So many things were faded here. "Apologies are empty words. You also--carpenter--have deeds that you regret."
"You go to the castle," accused the boy. "What does the Lord do now?" The lord of the castle of this town, of each one of the peasants striving in the field each day to support the dark structure. It was instinct now to refer to the lord of the castle with that respect and conceit: not because he remained the master of fear, but simply because it was the rules of this village.
"Every night there is dancing and lit lamps shining almost as brightly as the moon," said the woman. "The shadows of his court clothe themselves in vivid skins, and whirl with each other until dawn in gaiety. After his own fashion, he is victorious."
"This is the world we fought for," said the lunatic. "Small wonder that they banish me from the village as a crazed man."
"And you are summoned?" demanded the boy.
"As a scullery-maid, sometimes," she said. "Summoned to kneel and scrub each stone floor."
Work-roughened hands, the boy knew. "And when not?"
"Then sometimes I am in attendance at these balls," she said, the cast-off mistress of the lord of the castle. "Dressed carefully and presented as what I once was, displayed at a ball in perfume and ornament; sometimes with mask upon my left, sometimes not. He wishes his bright trophies, on occasion." The lord of the castle had maintained since before this world that the boy was insignificant, and the lunatic was of no further use to him. "Yet this is a world unchanging. The shades that inhabit it cannot advance. As though we are insects preserved in amber. Movement is slow and the seasons of this land do not alter from summer. We swim through a pale glass."
The moon approached with the sound of the night. Distant music from the dark castle flowed through the air.
"We are such shades," said the lunatic, "and I shall stay far from the moon's gaze."
The life of the lunatic was the brown bread and cheese, was his crudely fashioned chair and the axe in place of a claw set in the corner of his room. The trees about his hut grew quickly; when he wearied of sitting, upon his wooden legs he walked to them and sliced them to many logs. When he was not himself, the axe flew far more quickly and the wood scattered all across the clearing. The small children of the village feared him as a devil and he would not go into town; he had what the woman and the boy chose to bring to him. His illness was as frightening as the plague, and the role he played of bogeyman and outcast to the village.
The moonlight was a white sea upon the forest path.
"Go," the boy said. A carpenter's apprentice, a steady and reliable sort, expected to wed and live the sum of his life in the village.
He set foot to the moon trail.