He walks in Beauty
Disclaimer: I don't own either the Coldfire Trilogy or Lord Byron's 'She walks in Beauty'.
Author's note: Not much plot except an eye-opener for Damien and a bit of angst and fluff on their way to Mount Shaitan, but I've always treasured the poem, and I think the first verse fits quite well. Might be a forerunner for a series of snippets drawing inspiration from famous poetry of even songs, if I can find the time to write them. The longer stories are quite time-consuming, especially for a slow writer like me, but sometimes I just have to get away from them. One more reason: I still hope we can breach the '100-stories-margin' on this year ;-). Hint, hint…
Damien was panting with exhaustion, but forced his weary limbs to move, one painful step after the other, his eyes locked firmly on the Hunter's straight back. Long legs clad in grey worsted marched on tirelessly, and if he hadn't been given away by the slight tremor passing through the lean frame now and then the warrior knight would have assumed that his companion didn't give a damn for leading them to their bloody meeting with eternity.
The ascend of the treacherous ravine in addition to twelve arduous hours on horseback and the horrible death of their animals had taken their toll on the priest, and for a moment Vryce stopped to catch his breath and wipe the sweat from eyes burning with fatigue and despair alike. Looking up at the night sky alight with innumerable stars he tried to gauge the time, dreading the result of his calculation. They still had to traverse the pass, a dark cleft looming threateningly ahead of them, and find shelter for Tarrant before the first rays of the rising sun condemned their suicidal mission to a premature end. He hadn't dragged the damned bastard back from hell just to witness him burning to cinders at this godforsaken place. Or anywhere else, for that matter.
Damien squinted and allowed himself a small sigh of relief. Dawn was approaching with rapid strides, but judged by the constellation of the stars they still had 30 minutes left at the very least until the situation got critical, maybe even more, and Tarrant had been certain that finding an adequate refuge from the lethal sunlight beyond the pass would prove one of the easier tasks of their journey.
Uncomfortably shifting the straps of his pack on his aching shoulders Vryce got off his butt and grumblingly attacked the slippery stones and large boulders blocking their path on leaden legs, his want of the effortless, catlike gracefulness displayed by the lithe adept made up by his unflinching determination which carried him on despite his bone tiredness.
As strenuous as the ride on their dying horses had been his crushing desperation presented the real threat to Vryce's waning endurance. He had promised himself to save Gerald from his terrible fate, but had failed on a large scale, and now his doomed companion was running out of time. Either he would be killed in their attempt to bring down Calesta, or he would die for good when the thirty day deadline set by the Unnamed expired. Anyway Gerald was in for a renewed trip to hell, and remembering the adept's torture in the hands of pure evil cruel beyond mortal reckoning the warrior knight had to clench his teeth to keep them from clattering.
During the final hours of their ride into death's gaping maw Vryce had repeatedly tried to find some consolation in prayer, offering the Lord his own life in exchange for the salvation of mankind and Tarrant's survival, but his pleads had died on his dry lips like the last roses of summer perishing in a chill autumn night, the religious fervour which had once formed an integral part of his self suffocated in a treacherous quagmire of guilt and remorse.
Shivering Damien had remembered how steadfast his beliefs had been prior to his encounter with the being who had once been the founder of the Church of Unification, how clear the division between good and evil, night and day, the Hunter and himself. The purity of his faith had been undermined by Tarrant's malevolent presence until black and white had merged into grey, until the initial hatred and abhorrence had been transformed into grudging camaraderie at first and then into a kind of twisted, fire-forged friendship. Loosing the very friend he had sworn to kill once was inconceivable notwithstanding their vast differences and Tarrant's irksome antics, but very likely he would die at the Hunter's side the following day anyway and accompany the adept on the road to perdition, so worrying about a future without vulking Gerald Tarrant to drive him up the walls was pretty futile after all.
To keep himself going and his mind off the dire events to come Damien had finally replaced his fruitless attempts at prayer with the more secular occupation of memorizing bits and pieces of each and every silly ditty or poem he was able to dredge up from his overwrought mind instead, and in his utterly exhausted state the warrior knight was just remotely aware that he had started to mumble the same words over and over again.
"Of cloudless climes and starry skies, of cloudless climes and starry skies…"
The sky was definitely both starry and cloudless, but try as he might Vryce wasn't able to remember the corresponding lines, although he was sure the words were part of an ancient love poem brought to Erna by their Terran ancestors, a veritable treasure of poetry and stories prevailing, safely filed in human brains, when Casca's sacrifice had robbed them of the colonists' wondrous technological achievements.
Damien trudged on in a haze, cursing under his breath and stubbornly trying to utilize the faces of lovers long lost as a memory aid, but to no avail. Even his reminiscences of the loremaster Ciani or the deplorable pilot Rasya who had been killed by an enraged mob were dimmed by the ache in his tired bones and the rather grim future prospects, and their once treasured lineaments were as wan and insubstantial as wraiths dissolving at the first rays of dawn.
Nonetheless the warrior knight was plagued by the mind-boggling idea that in a way remembering those blasted lines from a poet who'd been dead for centuries was of utmost importance for his future, if he somehow survived battling a sadistic Iezu, that is, but he couldn't lay a finger on the reason for his absurd conviction.
Distracted by his pointless reverie Damien stumbled for the umpteenth time, but was saved from a potentially neck breaking tumble by an icy hand closing around his arm like an iron-wrought vise and steadying him until he had found his balance again. "Tired, Vryce? It's not far anymore, and you can rest soon."
Vryce faced the adept quizzically, unhinged by the unfamiliar hint of concern in Tarrant's smooth voice, and his breath hitched in his throat.
Against the background of the slowly brightening sky with its myriad of glittering stars Gerald's delicate features were smooth ivory, flawless and ethereal, and the mesmerizing, unearthly eyes flashed like diamonds, more dazzling than any heavenly body Damien had ever seen. Drowning in those pools of silver the former priest at long last remembered the rest of the famous poem, and everything fell into place.
"He walks in beauty like the night, Of cloudless climes and starry skies, And all that's best of dark and bright, Meet in his aspect and his eyes."
Damien didn't even realize that he had spoken aloud until the adept's eyes widened in stunned disbelief, the marble mask softening into a very human expression of unveiled affection and longing, and he forgot how to breathe when the slender fingers loosened their hold on his upper arm and touched his face softly, almost tenderly, their caress as light as a feather.
The last barriers sheltering Vryce from the true reason for his despair crumbled into dust, and he wrapped his arms around the Hunter and pulled him close, clinging to the tall, lean body like a man drowning in a veritable ocean of yearning. Then cold lips met his own, tasting of the last drops of Gerald's iron ration and the frigid, utterly silent darkness preceding a winter dawn, but yet so soft and tempting that the warrior knight abandoned himself to the kiss without hesitation.
After a few moments Tarrant stepped back and regarded his companion pensively, the usual glacial cold in his eyes molten by all too human emotions Damien had no problems to decipher for once. "The poet voiced his admiration for a beautiful woman, not for a man, Vryce, but I'd suggest we discuss your lack of familiarity with Lord Byron's poetry in a more sheltered surrounding. Dawn is near, and I'd rather not progress from the flames of passion to a more literal fiery inferno."
The pale face had regained its familiar composure, but the slight hitch in Gerald's light tenor and the bright twinkle in his eyes told Damien everything he wanted to know, and smiling he followed his companion to the valley of Shaitan and their destiny.