Rhianon-4. Secrets of the Celestials

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Flower and Weapon

Raising the purple curtain, Rhianon watched the battle from his marching tent. Madael had positioned it on a steep cliff so that she could see everything. Rhianon had wanted it that way herself. She’d developed a keen sense of sight. His abilities were partially transferred to hers, as if they had truly become one being. They were a princess and an angel. She wondered who was bossing who. Rhianon saw the carnage and the power of her chosen one. His hand in the gleaming gauntlet that artfully clutched his sword was feared by all. The unknown warrior’s power in battle knew no equal, and she could control him. She was the fragile golden-haired girl. She could give him orders. Love is a powerful weapon. He would obey her. Rhianon felt herself an evil genius. It turns out that she is the demon, not him. She shook her curls stubbornly. She loves him, not uses him. And how could anyone not love him.

“But you play him, as God played him before you; he too thought himself a benefactor, and his favorite, but made only a toy,” whispered someone’s poisonous voice in her ear. “Kill yourself and then you would set him free. He would have cast off his chains if it were not for you. You are his last chain and his strongest. If you are gone, he will be free.”

Black claws playfully touched the earring in her ear, rocking the sapphire pendant in a way that made Rhianon feel pain. She did not know who was speaking to her, but she heard a low hiss and smelled burning. Her nostrils flared. She was familiar with that stench of fire and ashes.

“Why did you come? He’ll chase you away again,” she said without turning around. She was afraid, on the one hand, that the black claws would snap her neck, and on the other she was disgusted to look at him.

“No, don’t tell him I was here,” the voice warned. “I was on my way out. I only wanted to advise you what’s best for the one we both love.”

“Oh, yes, he told me of the manifestations of your love.”

“So he did,” the claws that caressed her earlobe broke off for a moment. “And he didn’t mention that I was considered his best friend up there in Heaven, his comrade-in-arms…”

Rhianon was wary, what a greedy voice. He would have eaten her and him alive if he could. But he did not have the strength.

“Apparently he doesn’t value friendship as much as many to mention it.”

“So he didn’t say. Wouldn’t you like to know?”

“What’s in the past is in the past.”

“Like that boy Ron you’ve already forgotten,” his voice became husky. “Do you think the others have the same short memory?”

“Don’t you dare touch Ron,” she tried to sound stern, but her tone was frightened.

“Maybe I wouldn’t. He’s already dead.”

“Why is it?” She was really scared now.

“You’re like a chain, a golden chain.” He wrapped his claws around her strands and tugged lightly, obviously enjoying the effect he was having. “You’re a handicap to women and men alike when you’re in their lives. It makes you like us, the way we used to be. It captivates Madael. You know him by that name, don’t you?”

Perhaps he implied that she was not as close to him as he was to know all his names, including the secret ones. Rhianon was not taken aback by this.

“Passion is a nice chain. But you kill everyone you feel it for because you are afraid they will become your fetters.”

“I don’t have to worry about me anymore. All I care about is him.”

“Since when did you become so protective?”

“I’ve always protected him. I’m his chief warrior and bodyguard, you sissy. Do you understand?”

He tugged her strands tighter, but Rhianon didn’t cry out as he’d hoped. Proximity to Madael had softened all her sensations, and the pain was an almost forgotten feeling.

“That’s why he was ignoring it. You protected him so well that you let him lose and fall.”

“It wasn’t my fault.” He could have taken umbrage, but he knew that she would turn on him before he could turn on her.

Rhianon felt the hoop press against her forehead, and her curls felt as if they were moving on their own and becoming golden snakes. No, it was all an illusion. She pulled herself together.

“You’re being kind. Since when were you being kind?”

“Ever since I saw that my idol and leader, once he was free of some bonds, was already climbing into other ones. I am only guarding the honor of my leader, belle. I want to serve a god, not a prisoner.”

“He would be a god if he didn’t take you into his ranks.”

“All right, that’s enough. You know you’ve become a burden to him. God sent you to him as punishment, he couldn’t get it or get it back himself, so he chained you, little fire witch. You are his new chain.”

“No. I am his flower. I am the first beautiful and desirable thing he saw on this earth.”

The battle went on, and they continued to bicker. Now the battle would come to a close and Madael would burst into the tent. What would happen if he saw them together? Would he bring the fire to the writhing black puddle of slime again? Or would he do something more terrifying? Rhianon felt the satisfaction of such a beastly thought. It turns out she really is getting bad. Perhaps she should. Only the bad can defend themselves against demons, and the innocent will believe their evil speeches and lay hands on themselves. He wanted to lead her to do just that. He was offering her a stiletto or a dart.

“You need to disappear, and not just run away, but die. Then he will free himself and fight without fear of anything happening to his ward. All lovers are weak. They have something to lose. You don’t want to make him that weak.”

“No,” she answered with a quiet, fiery gasp. A trickle of fire shot upward, and the tent canopy nearly burst into flames. But the black creature backed away from it. I could see it was afraid of fire, too.

“There just lies a knife, take it, bring it to your beautiful chest or wrist. It’s cruel, I know, especially for someone as beautiful as you, but at least you’ll never know old age or a slow, painful death from disease. If you think fire will keep you from wrinkles, you doubt very much. Let him remember you more as young and beautiful than as old and sick. You will be gone from his eternal life, but you will remain a flower in his memory. Believe me, he will have no other lover but you, dead you will take his loyalty to the grave, but his hands will be untied and he will fight like a lion…” the vile laughter was already drowning in the darkness of the tent behind her. “Die and you will set him free. Hurry, he’ll be back soon. The knife is on the table.”

Rhianon turned around. Behind her, only the darkness was dissipating. Clouds of blue-black smoke floated toward the ceiling, giving off a hint of ash and an odor of burning. She was frightened. The knife on the table was really there, calling to her. It made her want to hide it somewhere. It was a singing steel. Madael had told her about dwarves forging such. Only this time it wasn’t the blade that sang, but something malevolent enveloped it. The sharpness frightened now more than the steepest mountain peak. No height could compare to that fear. Rhianon looked at the battle unfolding below. Not even the swords and spears and darts hurling there made such a frightening impression on her.

Why was that damned man coming? Why was he talking about the knife? Why was the cold song of steel beginning to seem so appealing to her?

Rhianon thought she should hide the weapon somewhere far away. It tempted her. But they say that steel forged by the Zwergs can do far worse than dream. There are swords that spit their own blood, and in battle to stop them already impossible, taken from sheaths they cut and stabbed all in a row with an unquenchable thirst. They might even turn against their master if there were no one else left to kill. And now it seemed to her that to reach for the knife and spill her own blood would be unbelievable bliss.

Rhianon was afraid to touch the blade or even the opal-encrusted handle. She took a velvet shawl and threw it over the tabletop. Now she couldn’t see the knife covered by the cloth, and the call of the steel would no longer be so appealing. She’d rather listen to the sounds of battle from outside than this insidious temptation. And they were intensifying. The jubilation before victory was so great that it drowned out even the roar of war. Rhianon didn’t want to cover her ears at all. She could hear swords crossing with swords, steel jingling against steel, arrows being fired whistling. These sounds reminded her of how she herself had once stepped onto the battlefield. She wouldn’t mind doing it again. Instead of a shield she would use Orpheus, who would remain invisible to repel the blows aimed at her. And she wanted, of course, a sword like Madeel’s. His sword would strike without mercy and demand blood itself. With a sword like that it would be hard not to win. The only thing was whether she would be able to convince the dwarves to make such a thing for her. Orpheus seemed to say that it is forbidden. But Orpheus is such a liar. She does not even miss him, though she has not seen him for a long time. He has no right to approach her while she is near the lord of all the damned? So be it. There must be some way to punish him for his willfulness.

If he had been a mere mortal servant, Rhianon would have had him flogged. It was a pity that he was only a disembodied spirit, not in pain or remorse. She chose not to think of him, and concentrated on the battle. It was nearing its end. Her lover was winning again. She had no doubts about the outcome of the battle. She only wondered if any of his victories would be laid at her feet. He could give her the world. But would he fight only for her, and not at God’s behest? A knight must win for his lady, and only for her. Rhianon gripped tighter into the tent canopy, her knuckles turning white.

“You must fight only for my sake!” She whispered insistently, as if he could hear her from so far away. Somewhere out there in the thick of the battle his golden helmet was gleaming. Somehow she was sure he could hear her.

“Well, what did you manage to find out?”

Douglas regarded the prince’s angry tone with icy indifference. Conrad grumbled uncertainly on the threshold of his tower and hesitated to move. He was startled and frightened by everything in the place, from the retorts, where multicolored liquids were swirling, to the white owl perched proudly on a stack of books that almost reached the ceiling. It hardly bothered the prince that the sloppily stacked volumes would fall right on top of him, and the fact that the bird was not in a cage was also quite usual for a wizard’s chambers. And Douglas could have sworn that the pyramids of folio books, stacked so casually, would not crumble as long as he supported them with his charms, just as the dogs that went wild today in the kennel would not bite anyone, because next to a fireplace with sparks dancing in it, animals felt a little sleepy. Douglas gathered all the dangerous creatures around him, and not only of animal origin. Had anyone known of the tower’s other inhabitants, they would never have come. One nosy servant who peeked through a keyhole to see what the wizard was doing had already was blind. His friends who had bet with him fell ill with a strange illness, but no one but them. Douglas had repeatedly hinted to the young heir to the throne that he kept his charms under control and that it was not his habit to torment royalty. Yet the door, which had slammed shut behind him as he crossed the threshold, and the black toad which crawled out from under him, made him incredibly wary. Now he squeamishly looked down at his boots, where a sticky stain was spreading from contact with the toad’s skin, and kept his hands folded across his chest to avoid accidentally touching anything. Douglas didn’t accuse him of cowardice at all. The boy had already proved his courage by finding the strength to cross the threshold. He’d been warned more than once that it was a dangerous place, the lair of a court wizard. And, of course, he had watched the torment of those to whom the same sorcerer had repeatedly cast spells at his father’s behest. It seems that in order to win Rhianon back, he is ready even to step on the threshold of hell.

Was it courage? Douglas snorted dismissively. Since when are such effeminate boys called men? Conrad looked more like a pretty girl. And a thoughtful father had seen to it that his child was dressed by the finest dressmakers in Loretta. Merchants with the finest fabrics came here from distant lands. The camisole and shirt with ruffles worn by the prince could well be called a model of tailor’s art. Here and there in the intricate patterns of fabric glittered small rubies and topaz. The lace jabot around the neck was slightly loose, as if Conrad had wanted to take it off, and the buttons were unbuttoned. The prince’s chamberlain had, after all, overlooked something. Also Conrad should have combed his hair. His dark hair was tangled in strands over his unbuttoned collar. He hadn’t thought of washing it or taping it up at the back of his head. Douglas almost asked venomously if this was a way to keep the prince from grooming himself, or the memory of his runaway queen. But he had enough sense to restrain himself. Though he hated such lanky, pampered sons, to whom his father’s efforts could get everything. But after all, Conrad might one day be king. True, the stars told him somewhat different plans for the future, but there is always an alternative. And one day Conrad may become an important pawn in his game.

Douglas reached forward and held Rianon’s scarf, which was already quite frayed and stained with blood droplets.

“I had to work with it to get the results I wanted, but you can still have it, if it’s of any value to you.”

He pretended to throw the lump of cloth into the flames of the fireplace.

“No, don’t!” Conrad sprang forward at once and snatched the scarf from him.

Douglas almost laughed. So the right bait will make a coward a daredevil too.

“So you’re ready to step into hell itself,” he answered his own thoughts aloud.

“What do you mean?” Conrad clearly didn’t understand him, but he got worried. “What did you say?”

“Nothing,” the wizard shook his head. “I have much to do besides seek out your betrothed, but it so happens that all the paths in my complex magical map of the world are woven together in the end. Knowing where to look for one thing leads me to another. Have you heard anything about setting nets on stars?”

“And I don’t want to hear,” as Conrad was not stupid, but he realized that he was being bullshitted and became embittered. “Where is Rhianon? Did you promise to find out?”

“Isn’t Rhianon a star you could set your net on?”

Conrad did not understand that. For all his smarminess, he was clearly a stranger to poetry, but no stranger to the pains of love. If only his current state could be called infatuation rather than madness. Douglas was pleased to note that his cheeks looked sunken after long sleepless nights, and that a kind of feverish glint had settled in his tired eyes. A little more worry like that and he would no longer be so handsome.

Douglas tried not to remember the days of his own splendor and the loss of his blond hair. He didn’t regret having to change his own appearance for the worse, nor did he regret opening his heart to blackness. You could even tell that he felt a sense of satisfaction. Beauty and brilliance was not the most important thing in his life. He realized that what mattered most was strength. It was a sorcery power, not physical power. With it, one could control warriors and even representatives of earthly power. That was exactly the trick he was going to do, first with Manfred and then with Conrad. He was already beginning to succeed. Rianon has been a wonderful gift. As long as he is the only one who can find her, the heir is in his power.

“First you should have asked me, is she even alive?”

“What do you mean by that?” Conrad drew his fist sharply toward him. Douglas easily intercepted his arm and held it, even though their physical strength was not equal. The well-developed and muscular Conrad might well have defeated him in a fair fight. Even now, after many nights without sleep and days of starvation, the boy was quite strong, while Douglas had traded his physical strength for witchcraft talent, but as soon as he looked into the prince’s eyes he managed to compel him that he could crush all his bones if only he wanted to.

“She’s alive, don’t worry,” he released Conrad’s hand and he stepped back, rubbing his wrist nervously. “It’s not her health, welfare, or safety you should be worried about, though that’s what lovers should be most worried about.”

“Yes, what do you know about love?” Conrad twisted in disgust, revealing in an instant all his hitherto carefully concealed feelings for the wizard.

Well, Douglas was used to being treated that way. His powers are feared. It was the squeamishness of the weak. That’s what he called it. They would dream of acquiring what he alone possesses, but they do not have it and pretend to despise the other’s skill.

“My love is a charm, not a woman’s slender body. It’s more likely to grow old and you’ll never drag her down the aisle.”

“Don’t talk about her like that,” Conrad threatened.

“What’s wrong with that?” Douglas’s eyes sparkled slyly. “Young maidens are like flowers, beautiful one day and withering the next. And one day, when you wake up in bed with an old witch, you won’t know what you fought for.”

“One more word…” Conrad grabbed the hilt of his sword impetuously.

“Are you trying to kill me with this toy?” In a moment, the space where the wizard stood was empty. Conrad looked around until he saw his skinny body sitting on the rung of the ceiling, another moment and it had already moved into the opening of the arched window above the second floor of the tower. Douglas sat on the window sill, lazily looking down.

“Chill out, or I’ll have to pour a bucket of cold water over you,” he remarked, leaving no room for doubt that both bucket and water were to be found in that tower, appearing directly from the void at his command. “You hesitate,” Douglas cocked his head slightly to the side as he watched the prince’s reaction, “and every time you see Rhianon, don’t you ever think that she might scorch you, on or before your wedding bed, with her flame?”

“You speak as if you envy me because she will be with me and not with you.”

“That is a moot point,” Douglas, not at all frightened by the height that separated him from the floor, jumped down and stood before the bewildered prince. “All I can say is that I’ve never seen her before, and I have no idea if I’ll like her.”

“I can’t help liking her,” Conrad protested confidently. He was stupid, like all lovers. Douglas gave a contemptuous chuckle.

“She is not a book of witches. I only get passion from books.”

“You can have as many as you like if you help me.”

There was so much the boy didn’t understand. Besides, he was entirely in his hands. They must have looked strange, the overdressed but so tired prince and the ever-young sorcerer with the dyed-black hair. Two young men with different destinies and Douglas sensed someone else standing beside them, remaining invisible and impossible to drive him away because his name was Fate. The wizard could only hope that this fate was following the young prince and not himself. If they were bound together by a common cause, it did not mean that their fates would soon be intertwined so closely that the black menace that loomed over one would shadow the other. In addition, Douglas did not consider a small sorcerer’s favor to be a big deal. He often did petty favors, casting spells, casting spells, depriving people of their minds, making them sick, punishing those who did not please him, or fulfilling the orders of others. It was all nonsense. He could do so much more. Each service had its own price. What would he charge Conrad? Douglas smirked carnivorously as he pondered this.

“Well, you’ve ruined her scarf,” Conrad said as if he’d just now noticed the bloodstains, and he looked discouraged. “How could you.”

Douglas exhaled sharply. The stars say this whole kingdom could soon go to hell, and this clumpy boy is bemoaning the fact that some rag is ruined.

“You know, sometimes you have to make sacrifices to get what you want,” he hinted cautiously.

“But not like this…”

“What do you want to have, the girl or a ribbon of her hair? If only the latter, I can get it for you now without difficulty.”

“Indeed you can?” Conrad looked up at him with interest.

What a fool. Douglas almost cursed. Even the spirits circling the distant ceiling seemed to be laughing at his stupid client. Good thing they weren’t throwing scraps of books at him. They like to make fun of those whom they themselves have almost driven mad. With some experience in casting spells, Douglas had no doubt that something supernatural could be the cause of such love. He could have offered his help and slightly cooled the hot blood of the lover, but it would not have been to his advantage. Sick of his dream, Conrad was willing to do anything. If he were cured of it, he would be harder to control.

“Yeah, I wouldn’t want to meet this Rhianon, if she’s capable of depriving others of their willpower,” he muttered to himself. He wondered if she was a fairy. They were the only ones who could make mortal young men go mad, but he shrugged the thought off instantly. There was something even more dangerous here than an encounter with fairies. The stars revealed little to him, but everything. Yet even that was enough to make Douglas wary.

“You won’t want her ribbon or herself when you find out what she’s done?”

“Oh, come on…”

“I mean it,” Douglas gave the prince a long look. “The scarf you’re clutching in your hands now has the blood of several birds and other creatures that had to be slaughtered to attack the trail. You know spells require a relationship. But that’s not what I mean… The price of those tiny lives is nothing compared to what your princess can bring to Loretta.”

Conrad could barely restrain himself from speaking angrily.

“I told you I don’t care what it costs,” he grumbled.

“I remember. I have a good memory. I don’t forget anything that’s happened in the past, but I can also tell the future.”

“Then predict that I will succeed. And if you can’t predict it, then conjure it up.”

“I wish it were that easy.”

“It’s complicated for you,” Conrad said angrily. “Have you even found out where she is? You still haven’t told me where she is.”

“It would have been better if you hadn’t known,” Douglas shrank back, and the stiff dark strands fell to his forehead and covered his eyes. And well, his interlocutor wouldn’t see the golden spark that flashed through his pupils.

“Where is she?” Conrad darted forward, catching the wizard by the shoulder before he could even look away from the multicolored, magnetic eyes, one dark and the other blue.

Douglas grinned faintly at the corners of his lips.

“She’s with someone else. Do you understand?”

The news struck like a sword. Only Conrad recovered quickly. Passion gave way to rage. He squeezed the wizard’s shoulder as if the man were his rival. He could kill now.

“I don’t believe that.”

“You just don’t want to believe it.”

For a moment Conrad looked away. He tried to calm himself, and he couldn’t. His fingers clutched frantically at the hilt of his sword trembled a few times.

“Very well,” the prince said, as he struggled to contain his outburst. “Now I have two questions for you: where is she, and who is he?”

“Well, he has blond hair and blue eyes…” Douglas didn’t know how to lay the whole truth beside him. “It began here.”

He led the prince to a map spread out on the table and pointed to the right place.

“You see this path, highlighted in red. I underlined it for you. This is the path she took, even though your warriors didn’t find anyone there, but she passed through here. At this point, right in the deep woods, she managed to find friends. I drew a campfire at the place where they first met, because they met at the campfire. And this dot, in the shape of a drop of blood, marks the spot where Rhianon met him.

“And then the line breaks off,” said Conrad judiciously. His eyes were suddenly unfamiliarly focused.

“Yes,” said Douglas. “That’s because she did not go further. She has a friend and she has nothing to run away for. She relies on his protection, and rightly so. She doesn’t even have to walk the earth anymore, because he carries her in his arms. You know, all lovers feel like they live in heaven.”

“I get it,” Conrad stepped away from the map and headed for the door without even saying goodbye. Obviously, he thought they were unnecessary.

“Where are you going?” Douglas guessed, but decided it was not unreasonable to ask the question.

“Where do you think?” Conrad turned around, showing a frantic look. Now there was no doubt that he had a demon inside him.

“You’re tired,” Douglas reminded me condescendingly, “you’re hungry and insomniac. You’d be better off taking care of yourself than running around the woods after some couple. I could give you an elixir to restore vigor and sound sleep.”

“You think I can’t kill in this condition?” The prince grumbled so angrily that there was no doubt of his certainty.

Douglas immediately gave up and took a step back. This was not the time to dictate terms yet.

“I think, Your Highness, that you can make that decision yourself without me,” he said, bowing in a courteous bow. Only the departing Conrad did not see his eyes flash insidiously. All he heard was the click of the lock opening unassisted. But the whirr of an owl, more like a chuckle, did not reach his ears.

Immediately after the battle, Madael took her to his tower. He said he had urgent work to do here. It seemed strange to Rhianon, but she was no longer afraid of being alone in his tower with the ifrites and crawling creatures. Maybe she was just used to the strange surroundings. She settled down on a gilded chair, more like a throne, and waited. The fire in the great yawning fireplace danced in tongues of black and orange. She had never seen flames like that before. It seemed to form into bizarre shapes, frightening facial expressions and even grimaces. Inside the fireplace, as if some sort of spectacle was unfolding, depicting a tournament or a battle, she could see everything in the glimpses of the scenes: fights, quarrels, crossed swords, rage, anger, and oddly enough, even an embrace. Passion and strife, it was as if they were one inseparable unit.

“First the embrace, then the battle, that’s how love always ends.”

Rhianon turned sharply away from the fire. She never understood who had said it, but she expected to see an evil charred creature crawling toward her on the marble slabs, but there was none.

She watched the flames again and listened to the echo of ghostly voices. With such interest she would not even look at the scene. The flames did not give clear visions or outlines, but the blurry scenes were suggestive of certain thoughts. The flames whispered and showed her something. And surprisingly, the heat from this fire did not awaken the flames in hers. Could it be that the fire here was unusual? In Madael’s tower, anything could happen. She no longer felt in danger here. Even the flames only showed her fascinating pictures and whispered something in a multitude of voices, but did not arouse unpleasant feelings.

She listened to the chorus, so quiet not even a whisper, but she could hear the screams, the threats, the clang of swords and groans of pain, and the terrifying cries of those who were struck.

“It is the echoes of war in the skies,” someone said above her ear.

Rhianon looked up and saw an ifrit in the high wall archway. She nodded at him, not knowing why.

“I see.”

“Yes?” the monster’s claws clawed at the archway, its leathery wings fluttering gently, fluttering against the flames of the candle in the nearest lamp.

“I can see them, bodies pierced by swords but still alive, wriggling on stakes or spears,” she frowned, the images fuzzy. “They were beating in agony, and their wings were blackening. Even blacker skin, burning angelic curls, eyes blazing from within, like shards of heaven, from now on they will be black as coals, and full of such hatred. I even understand the source of their anger. To endure such pain is no joke. Anyone gets angry. You live and feel like you’re burning alive.”

“Like you?”

“Yes,” she thought and nodded. He was right. That was how she often felt because of the fire living inside.

“What else do you see?” The ifrit flew a little lower and sat on the carved decoration of the fireplace, like a bird on a perch. His sharp claws circled the carved panel above the mantelpiece. It was so huge, but it hung on the thin rung with ease.

Rhianon stared at him and didn’t answer at once.

“I see you as you were before, translucent and delicate and so vulnerable. One call from your master made you follow him. You didn’t know you would lose your golden curls, blue eyes, and ethereal body. It was a loss of innocence. Innocence is what I call beauty, inner and outer, not something else,” she hesitated. “I look at ugly bodies, and I imagine you as you were before.”

He looked at her skeptically.

“What do you imagine me to be like?”

She squinted as if she was looking at the sun and it might burn her eyes. She struggled to see his essence beneath the standing blackness and ash and burns.

“The blond strands below his shoulders, that rare golden hue that no mortal had, the eyes slightly less bright than those of your brethren, and the lack of that angelic austerity on his face that was common to the others. It was not even innocence, but naivety. You followed the others, even though you didn’t always understand what they wanted. You were always a little simpler than the others, so you were cuter. You didn’t care why you were there or who was going to be the master. Thus others drew you into their circle. And now that circle has become black. When I see you in a pack of others, I may not even recognize you, but now, since I have managed to snatch your former appearance from the past, I can see that I like it.”

That’s all. She couldn’t detect any other noteworthy features. The acolyte, who had listened to her, was dejectedly silent. She seemed to have hit the nail on the head. She didn’t know how. She’d just spoken her impressions out loud, and they seemed to be the right ones.

“I didn’t want to wake up the pain.”

He nodded his ugly and perhaps too big for his thin, long neck deformed head. Even noticing the rows of black teeth and bifurcated sting in its mouth didn’t make Rhianon shudder. It could hiss and spit venom or fire, and she was not afraid, for she saw the world as in an upside-down mirror. In his reflection, the monster was still an angel, and Rhianon smiled condescendingly at him, as if she were a queen in a tournament, encouraging the competitors.

“It wasn’t your fault,” she remarked, smoothing the brocade folds of her robes. “It wasn’t your fault for the war, nor is it your fault that you want to do something to hurt me now. Anger and resentment and anger at anyone who possesses all that is taken from you are but a consequence of being burned. I have no grudge against you. Even if you say something disgusting now, you still won’t hurt me as much as you went through yourself. And so it turns out that your revenge is meaningless.”

She herself didn’t understand why she was so selfless. Actually, she was not prone to pity or philosophical reflection. It was her own trials that robbed her of sympathy for others. It used to be that way. When you suffered too much yourself, you didn’t believe anyone else could be worse off. Now she was convinced of the opposite. These creatures had suffered far worse than she had.

“Do you always pity the disease that comes to torment you?” He asked arrogantly. “If plague or death touched you and tortured you, would you treat them with royal indulgence?”

“I don’t think so,” she answered honestly. “Self-sacrifice is not my virtue. I’m like you, and I don’t usually feel pity for anyone. But now the circumstances are extraordinary.”

He snorted, but kept silent. There were many unpleasant things that could be said, and there was much more to bicker and argue about, but both the ifrit and the princess remained silent. Perhaps they both should have realized long ago that the majesty of the heavenly war and the horror of its consequences here on earth brought them both closer together. They are both like two parts of the same grand fresco, he a former warrior, she an observer who has come too close, so that the fiery wind from heaven is already blowing over her face. Having known one hell, they have become too close.

“You have no idea how close,” he responded.

Oh, he must have read her mind. Rhianon whistled softly. If his voice echoed dryly, like ashes, hers was a musical whistle. She wondered if there was ever music within these walls. Perhaps if ghostly musicians dropped by, though their efforts here were of no use to anyone. Here, silence was more welcome, the echoes of hell and the cries of those unfortunates being mowed down beyond the infected valley by a terrible epidemic. Rhianon was somehow certain that if you listened hard enough, you would realize that the cries and moans and pleas of all the unfortunates suffering all over the world reached out to the power. In part they caress the ears of the local inhabitants, in part they only make them laugh and feed the black sorrow. For the inhabitants of this place are convinced that no one will be stronger than they are.

“Everything is proportionate to guilt, isn’t it?”

She perked up again when she heard his dry but heartfelt voice.

“I don’t think you’re to blame? Isn’t it a crime to stand up for your own independence?”

“We did it for him.”

“Everyone wants to be independent.”

“Would we have been like that for him?”

“What do you think? After all, it was you who followed him, not me. Only you can tell how and why you did it.”

“Why did you do it?”

“I don’t count. I was unhappy, deprived, pursued by enemies. It’s impossible not to follow someone who promises you deliverance and at the same time captivates you just by looking at him. To love such a creature is freedom. Chains are its absence.”

“Do you think we have not felt the same?”

“I…” Rhiannon looked away. She couldn’t understand why they felt so unhappy and deprived, but perhaps there was a reason. She was also surprised that there were those who had managed not to succumb to Madael’s seduction. After all, there were those who had become his adversaries. Could it be jealousy or envy? It could have been anything.

“When someone who looks like the golden dawn calls you, you can’t help but follow him,” she said out loud the phrase the ifrit would probably have wanted to say to her as well.

He was still perched proudly on the mantel, looking at her with a stern, impenetrable gaze. So handsome before, and so ugly now. Rhianon sighed as she looked at him.

“Don’t be sorry, Princess.”

“What do you mean?”

“Don’t be sorry about us. We chose our own way.”

“And me? Am I being tempted? Did fate leave me a choice?”

“You want to be burned, too.”

“My burn is inside me,” Rhianon answered angrily, referring to the fire in her blood. It could make her feel like she was on fire. Just a moment and something could flare up, but not just next to you, but in your body and then it would hurt.”

“You have no idea how right you are,” the ifrit said thoughtfully.

Rhianon said nothing. She was tired of idle speculation. She was just trying to pass the time while she waited for Madael, so she got into a dialogue with the infernal creature. She should have gone and searched the tower for some magical wonders instead of talking to demons. No good would come of it. He had already managed to upset her, and he wasn’t going to stop. Rhianon never thought she would ever stoop to talking to such a creature. However, everything in her life changed abruptly and the most unexpected things happened. Now she was beginning to feel sympathy for all the creepy creatures that were nesting here. And it was only because they were the black army of her golden choice. Dawn is followed by darkness, and so a dark army crowded behind the shoulders of the radiant warrior. Rhianon could almost see such unimaginative creatures swooping on the bodies of fallen knights, tearing at the dead flesh and preparing to engage themselves on occasion. The mere sight of such creatures would frighten legions away, and yet Madael took his time leading them into the fray. He simply didn’t need to. He alone was stronger than them all, and he alone remained light. Maybe there was an injustice here, but this construction of things involuntarily fascinated Rhianon. She imagined the scorching burning sun and the immense darkness behind it. Oh, yes, that was exactly what a coherently plausible picture was. A scorching sun capable of burning everything around it and the surrounding clots of darkness. Rhianon had chosen the sun, but in the obligatory addition of it, she had also received the twilight. And now the beings who appeared from the darkness warned her that she could burn in the arms of her chosen one just as they had burned. Rhianon even thought of encouraging him, of asking some provocative question so that he would finally speak up about why he had turned to her.

The minutes passed, and she still pondered. Before she could make up her mind, the ifrit spoke suddenly, flatteringly and ingratiatingly.

“He’s like us,” he said, his voice sounding convincing for the first time. No name was needed to be given. Rhianon knew who he was talking about.

“No,” she said sharply. “You are not as beautiful as he is.”

“But inside…” Her interlocutor said thoughtfully. “Why should he be beautiful if he’s like us?”

“Perhaps he is more worthy,” Rhianon said, bravely defending her lover even though he did not need it. If he had heard that from any of his subjects he would have been a handful of ashes, but no one would have dared say that to his face. She is another matter, she can be tempted and tried to deceive, but Rhianon has tried to show that she does not succumb to lies.

“Is he?” the ifrit flicked his claws over the carving of the mantelpiece. He could have damaged it, but somehow there were no scratches, as if all the things here were enchanted, or if these dark claws could do no real harm, only frighten.

“And more honestly, at least he’d said from the beginning that staying with him would ruin us both,” Rhianon blurted out, only to remember moments later that Madael had never said such words. He had never threatened or implied tragedy, but there was a sudden sense of unseen, crushing doom. Rhianon looked around anxiously. She heard the words as clearly and distinctly as if they had really been spoken by her lover.

Suddenly Rhianon was angry with the ifrit. It was as if he had spoken to her deliberately and as if he meant to do her harm. She wanted no more quarrels with him. Let him fly out of the tower and have his philosophical debates with one of the victims of the witch plague. If he was so eager to bicker, he might as well do it with the people who would soon take his secrets with them to the grave. Perhaps, as an ex-angel, he is more attracted to the princess than to the commoners, but she no longer cares. Rhianon deliberately pretended to focus on something else. She noticed a small harp with shiny strings behind the mantelpiece and reached for it.

“Now go away,” she said to the ifrit. “I have nothing more to say to you.”

He understood her at once, but he was too sensible to express his anger and resentment in any way. One second his claws were nervously tearing at the decorations on the mantelpiece, and the next it was empty. Something huge and unwieldy rushed upward under the gaze of the dark dome above the hall. Rhianon knew that even if she raised her eyes high she could not see the inaccessible ceiling. It went so far up that a whole flock of such creatures could still nest beneath it. She didn’t care anymore, even if their glittering yellow eyes were watching her from the celestial darkness. She decided to do something to distract her from the unearthly philosophy of these creatures and their creeping temptations. The graceful harp beckoned her to play, and Rhianon touched the strings. Instantly the sweet sounds of music flowed through the silence. She did not think of notes or melody, but it came out by itself. Never before had she been able to play so well. Her fingers used to be awkward and sometimes she even hurt them on the strings. If strict adherence to etiquette had been observed, the court music teacher would have been happy to scold her. But she was the daughter of a monarch, and he had to keep quiet. Rhianon smiled wistfully. Such beautiful harmonies she had never heard before. She could hardly believe it was her own hands plucking something like this from the strings. The music flowed like a silvery stream and enveloped everything. The gloomy tower, which must have never listened to such sounds, was transformed. The moans and sobs that sounded like living walls dissolved into it. Strange, in the earthly kingdom where Rhianon lived, at court they used to say that all walls have ears, that was a hackneyed expression, though it meant that behind the walls there are spies, while the monolith of the fortress itself does not breathe or live. But here in the tower of Madael, each wall seemed to live on its own and, at the same time, to be an organ of a single, independent entity: this fortress. The gloomy tower seemed a sleeping giant, as lost and parched as Madael’s army. And now in the very womb of this creature, magical music sounded. Rhianon opened her lips and sang in time to it, softly but expressively. Nor could she remember any song by heart. The words flowed by themselves.

In a moment she wouldn’t even be able to remember what she was singing about, but of course the song was about the same motif as everyone else, there was passion and love and death, and of course the power of doom and betrayal.

She stopped suddenly, sensing someone nearby. The song broke off halfway through. Rhianon quickly put the harp aside and turned around at the doorway. She feared that Madael was already standing there watching her. It was as if he had caught her at something forbidden. It seemed to her that she should not have played in that tower and now she should be silenced for doing so.

Rhianon waited for some accusing words or a commanding shout, but the dark figure, frozen in the doorway, remained motionless. No wings could be seen behind its lean back. So it was not Madael or one of his subjects. Rhianon looked closely, but could make out nothing in the darkness.

“Please continue, Your Highness,” the soft voice came from the darkness and sounded apologetic. “I did not mean to disturb you.”

“Arnaud,” Rhianon guessed rather than saw. He was still in the shadows. She could see the outline of his shoulders and his voice was familiar. And of course he was the only one who could address her as “Your Highness. Others in the magical world would more readily mistake her for a queen, for she was the companion of their lord. None of them would repeat to her the words she heard in Loretta. Only Arnaud did.

With a nod of her head she invited him to cross the threshold of the hall. He complied, but treaded softly, as if there were traps he knew would be set in the floor.

“I didn’t want to disturb you…”

“What are you doing here?”

He was clearly embarrassed. Rhianon couldn’t imagine how he’d managed to get into a tower where only winged creatures, and not even birds, but those capable of flying much higher than them, could enter. One of Madael’s subjects could have brought Arnaud here, of course. Rhianon shuddered involuntarily. The young man was very handsome. Even the shabby garments he wore did not mar his handsome good looks, but she was sickened by the sight of him. She could only think of how he had come into the world. It wasn’t his fault, of course. It was silly and unfair to condemn him for someone else’s faults. Rhianon suddenly understood what Madael meant when he explained that fallen angels were not supposed to love humans, much less associate with them. Yet he himself had broken that rule. What might have been the consequences in their case? Rhianon swallowed hard and put her fingers to her thin waist. She didn’t want to think about something like that.

“I go everywhere, even to the most inaccessible places sometimes,” Arnaud smiled guiltily. “Some people say that there are no doors that can be locked from me, because I can even go through the keyhole.”

“This tower has no doors,” she reminded him reasonably.

“But there are gaps between the stones and windows.”

She didn’t quite see where he was going with that. To squeeze through a crevice is certainly impressive, but it’s hardly dexterity enough to do something like that. She could tell from Arnaud’s shabby appearance, however, that he had to use both dexterity and ingenuity to get his crust of bread. Thin and unkempt, he was, however, surprisingly handsome. She smiled at him.

“You wanted to play instead of me? Don’t worry, despite my skills I am in no hurry to take work away from the minstrels. At any court you will be welcome, even if they hear my music before you.”

“They don’t like music here,” he interrupted her. “They prefer shouting.”

Rhianon knew who he meant and nodded slowly. Heavy strands of thick hair fell to her forehead, as if they were the shadow of a crown. Only Arnaud did not notice the dainty hoop of sapphires on her head; he reached out to touch the strands. Amazingly, standing far away from her, he was immediately beside her. His hand, as if reaching across the room, easily fumbled with the curls.

“They’re like golden rays,” he whispered with a quiet, enthusiastic gasp. “I wonder if he’ll have the same…”

“Who is it?” Rhiannon looked at him worriedly. Somehow she didn’t like the suggestion. At that moment footsteps sounded in the distance. A piercing echo echoed through the darkened enfilade of the hall. Madael was hurrying this way.

Arnaud could not utter another word as he sensed his approach. He quickly put his fingers to his lips to indicate silence, and then darted behind the drapery. He had already disappeared, and his pleading gaze still haunted Rhianon. Arnaud asked her not to tell anyone about him or what he’d said.

“I hope I do not have to stay here tonight?” Rhianon tried to draw Madael’s attention away from the moving drapery before he crossed the threshold.

“Not if you don’t want to,” he tossed aside his helmet, scrolls of some sort, and began to remove the steel wires around his wrists as if they were fetters or chains. He had never attempted to remove them before. Rhianon was surprised. She had thought the bracelets, so intricately wrought, had become inseparable from his flesh. But it turned out that he could just as easily have thrown them off. The skin beneath the removed hoops was not scarred. He looked at his wrists as if he’d never seen them before.

“You know, in heaven, I wished I’d worn some kind of jewelry, but everyone was equal there. Our only difference from the clouds and the ether was our beauty, not tiaras or crowns. Jewelry was forbidden.”

“And then you wove a bracelet out of the sun’s rays,” she didn’t remember how she knew that. It wasn’t like he’d ever told her about such things.

“Yes,” Madael turned to her and stared at her for a long moment, as if he thought she was someone he’d lost and known, but couldn’t.

“And it was nice to have the distinction that no one else had. It was as if you made yourself the boss, and you were allowed to?”

“I was the favorite,” Madael shrugged lightly. “Everyone’s favorite. But in the end, my jewelry became my shackles.”

“I know that,” she traced the coils of gold patterns that wrapped around his skin like a net. Until now they might have looked like tattoos or gold snakes parasitizing on a living body, but now it turned out that they were all part of a body that would have been perfect without them. He didn’t need jewelry, either. He decorated the dark hall around them with his very presence. It was enough to look at him and all fears were dispelled. Rhianon shrank back; he belonged to her, and yet he seemed so unreachable at the same time.

“What’s in the scrolls?” She asked as if casually.

“So, ancient truths,” he said. “I wonder how to break them…”

“Can I help?”

“I don’t think so,” he said in a startled voice. “No one can.”

Help him? It must have sounded silly, and yet she believed in her strangeness and advantage over even higher powers.

“Sometimes women can be more cunning and resourceful than men.”

“I’m not a man, I’m the devil,” he said innocently. Is he a devil? His surroundings may have made him doubt otherwise, but Rhianon remembered the other things: the tent, the bed, lily petals.

“I know you as a man,” she reminded him, “others remember you as a warrior, and no one knows the truth.”

“Not even myself. Sometimes you can get tangled up in all the things you’ve created yourself. It’s like a golden web, you’ve woven it and now you’re surrounded by it. But I’m looking for ways out.”

“I really can help. You don’t believe I’m capable of anything?”

“I don’t want to risk you,” he looked at her seriously. “This is not a child’s game, Rhianon. This is combat. Not the tiny battle you fought on earth. It can take forever, and it can become more and more complicated. It is difficult to fight forever, even with my powers. And you have such a frail body.”

He put his hands on her shoulders, so thin and delicate. With a press of his fingers he could crush every bone in them. His acquisition, made in a mortal world, was so vulnerable, it would take only a push to wipe it away, and yet he looked at his new toy with unspeakable tenderness. There in heaven he had a bracelet, here on earth a girl appeared. During the battle in heaven, the bracelet twisted from the sun’s rays in the shape of a golden crowned snake came to life and stung him with such fury that he was no longer able to clutch his sword in his hand. Maybe that’s why he lost. Maybe…” Madael lowered his head, unable to finish the thought. What would the girl bring him? His favorite with golden curls and eyes as clear as the sky, would she one day be able to strike out at the one who embraced her? Is she capable of betrayal?

“It is always the most beloved who betray,” his former assistant’s voice whispered to him from the darkness.

He did not want to think about that now. Rhianon may be a copy of him in appearance, but only in appearance. He would not give her cause to rebel against himself. He would be very gentle with her. Though it is amazing how a hand capable of clutching a sword and slashing without mercy can be gentle at all. Perhaps there is a romance. Strength resigned to beauty. Gently he lifted her face by the chin with his fingertips and touched her seductive lips with a light kiss.

“I’ll give you anything you want, just don’t put yourself in danger for anything. Don’t risk, just wait until I bring you what you want. Believe me, in time I can give you everything.”

He tried to put all his feelings into those words. Did Rhianon understand him?

She looked anxiously at the spot where the harp had recently been lying. The musical instrument had disappeared somewhere. The drapery no longer fluttered either. Then Arnaud was no longer there. Perhaps he really is capable of leaking into any crevices. Rhianon breathed a sigh of relief. Of course, Madael could have found out about everything. He would have been able to read it in her eyes, but now he was busy with his own complicated business and the intricacies of the world’s laws. So her lie passed easily. She didn’t want to explain to him about the harp or Arnaud. What if he got angry? Would his anger cost poor Arnaud his life? She didn’t want to let the minstrel down at all. Whatever he was, he deserved the right to live. Unlike the rest of her acquaintances, he had never once plotted against her or uttered hurtful words, so she could repay him in kind.

“You said we wouldn’t spend the night here,” she reminded him.

“Are you sleepy yet?”

“No,” she looked at him questioningly, as if he were planning something, or thinking of making some sort of suggestion.

“Then let’s go. If you want a new experience, I have something to show you,” he took her hand and forced her up. “You know, I’ve always wished to wander my kingdom with someone, not alone.”

Rhianon felt someone place the cloak of purple damask with silver edging on her shoulders and quickly unfold it. She did not even have time to look back. The shadowy servant had already vanished into the darkness.

“It’s cold out there,” Madael explained.

“Is it outside?”

“It is outside the walls of that tower.”

He said it casually, as if he were used to being or keeping prisoners. Rhianon shuddered. The walls of this place truly seemed to her to be living creatures, capable of emitting moans and evil energy. She looked around, but she saw nothing strange this time. Everything around her was silent. But she already knew how deceptive that calm could be.

Night was already falling over the land when Madael took her outside. In the tower it was impossible to tell exactly what time of day it was, for there was always darkness, just as in their celestial castle it was always dawn. Rhianon had already realized that in some of the enchanted places chosen for the unearthly to dwell, time could simply stand still. It did not apply to the mortal world. She sensed a sudden change. It was indeed much colder than the last time she had been on earth. A frosty wind blew in her face as they flew into the darkness of night. Above the black valley that surrounded the tower, Madael suddenly descended. Poisonous fumes whiffed in her face.

“What was out there?”

She spotted some creatures wriggling on the ground. The writhing bodies were naked despite the cold, and the pathetic, muddy rags that covered the sores were scarcely what they looked like. From below, cries and moans could be heard.

“They burn like you from within, though there is no fire inside them, only infection.”

“I want to take a closer look,” she saw, even from her height, that some small creatures were climbing up to the sores and gnawing into them. It was hard to tell who was squirming in the potholes on the ground: humans and nonhumans. If human, they had lost their human appearance as quickly as Madael’s angelic servants.

“It’s dangerous,” he warned. “Even immortals get infected from them sometimes.”

“So why don’t you burn them. Leave only ashes of them.”

“It is poison ashes,” he corrected. “It will scatter across the world and poison others, your beautiful fairies, for example. Besides, who told you that when we are dismembered, shattered, or even burned to ashes, we cease to feel pain?”

“But…” She thought it was too monstrous.

“Chop me up into thousands and thousands of tiny pieces, and each of them will retain all my feelings, including my feelings for you. The latter is fine. But they don’t have that feeling. They have only anguish.”

“I pity them.”

“Don’t feel sorry for them. They’ve earned theirs.”

His indifference echoed over the valley of sores like a bell. Even she was hurt by it.

“But they are your army. They went after you.”

“So what is it?”

“Should you feel anything for them?”

“They chose their fate.”

“Stop!” She felt something attached to her belt snap off and fly down to the contaminated ground. It was the mirror she’d been carrying, and it must have shattered, falling from such a height, but she still wanted the golden frame back, even if it had no glass.

“Come down, please.”

He complied with her request and let her pick up the shiny object. Rhianon brushed dirt and lumps of earth from the mirror. To her joy it didn’t break or even crack. The glass must have been enchanted. She twirled it around, catching reflections of the squalid wasteland in the distance and the writhing bodies nearby. She held the mirror up to the moaning creature beneath her feet and almost dropped it in surprise. It reflected not a black, hunched-over creature, but a beautiful creature, wounded, moaning, but beautiful. Blood streaks ran down its white face and the same white wings behind its shoulders, but they did nothing to spoil it. The same two deep streaks also dissected his back at the point between his trembling wings.

“Let’s go!” Madael grabbed her arm. “You can’t stay here much longer, you might get infected.”

“And what if I’m already infected?” she was used to playing with fire, and even feeling it in her, but she found this place truly creepy.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if all the incurable diseases that existed on earth were just the remnants of the contagion that had come down to us.”

Rhianon saw the lights of a village in the distance.

“What is there? Is it a place where ghosts dwell?”

“It is worse,” he drew her to him, as if to shield her from the decay around her. “Come, I’ll show you.”

He led her to the little village faster than she’d expected. It seemed that even now, as he stepped on the contaminated ground, he was not walking, but flying. The golden sandals on his feet didn’t have earth or lumps of dirt clinging to them. He clutched his companion to him as if he wanted to carry her with him through space. Rhianon marveled. She was sure that if she had walked alone, it would have taken her most of the night to reach the mud huts. She’d seen the village so far from the heath that the low, one-story houses seemed like dots against the horizon. Now she stood beside them and could even peer through the windows. It took only a few minutes to get all the way here. Yes, with a companion like hers she didn’t need speed boots. Rhianon walked through the narrow, dirty streets, leaning here and there to one window or the other. Sometimes the light inside was on. People were awake, but they looked so haggard they probably couldn’t get out of bed. The narrow bunks, soaked with the stench of disease, were not even beds.

“What a miserable place this is!”

“They’re all sick,” Madael said. His voice echoed through the dull silence with an unusual golden echo, bringing a kind of magic to the darkened alleyways. Even the pestilence and epidemic vibes that danced there seemed to stop for a second.

“Death was already dancing on these logs, walls, thatched roofs, but people didn’t die for long. And anyone who wanders in here is also infected. After a while, no one will be alive here, and anyway, if, centuries later, anyone who wanders in here accidentally or on purpose and seeks adventure, the same thing that happened to them will happen to them. You can’t clean a place like this.”

“But your tower is untouched by the pestilence, built at the very heart of the pestilence,” she blinked when she realized what she had said was foolish. Of course his tower could not be affected by the disease, and neither could he.

“Why did this village seem so close to your land?” She asked instead.

“You see that mountain range there in the distance,” he pointed ahead. “They call it the Dark Spit, and you don’t want to go near it. There’s a lot of strange and dangerous stuff up there, except for the Ifrit up there, who’d throw stones at anyone, but there’s a lot of gold up there, too. Precious ores, stones, gems, everything valued by mortals, are found in such abundance in that black hole as nowhere else. One day a stranger in a black robe came to the village and showed the people a handful of gold nuggets. He succeeded in awakening their greed and luring them closer to the Dark Spit. He said that he had mined it all there himself and would now live like a rich man, and that there was more treasure left for them in the mountain womb. Enough to make several countries rich, let alone a single village. In a ring of mountains, closing in the shape of a sickle, he suggested that they build a mine. So the peasants abandoned their ploughs, cattle and homes and decided to settle close to the mountain range. No warnings from spirits or ghosts had any effect on them. They even built a village here. The houses turned out so miserable because before they could set them up, the epidemic had already done its work.”

“Dark Spit. Is that the name of those mountains?” Rhianon squinted, staring at the massifs drowning in darkness. She couldn’t see much in the dense darkness until gold sparkles flickered before her pupils.

“They curved in the shape of a braid, you see?”

Now she could really see. A slight glow began to illuminate the darkness in front of her. In spite of the sparks, everything around her remained gloomy, but at the same time it was clearly visible. Was this really how Madael saw the night, dark but full of clear outlines and stars?

It is very much like the scythe of death,” he grinned. “If you like, I can take you above them and let you see for yourself.”

“Better not,” she thought of the altitude they’d have to fly to get around the mountain tops and felt sick with fear. Or rather, it was not the murderous fear of heights that she had felt before, but only a slight tremor. Even that, however, was rather unpleasant.

“I’d rather walk on the ground.”

Even if it’s contaminated, she added to herself. As Madael had put it, death was dancing in every nook and cranny, but Rhianon didn’t see it, and she wasn’t afraid of it. She peered through the windows, noticed the sick, and then moved on to the next house. Everywhere the same thing, only once she dared to go inside. The door was ajar, and the candle’s light attracted her. It smoldered faintly, like a life already departing.

Madael followed her in, wings almost touching the doorjamb. It looked as if it should have left a fiery imprint, but there was none. Rhianon saw another angel-like creature sitting by the dying girl’s bedside. She suddenly wanted to hold a mirror up to it, as she had done the first time, and see how it was reflected in it, but there was no need. The tattered wings and bruised face were still beautiful. The bright white wasn’t black even on the feathers, but it wasn’t ghostly either. More like the color of chalk or paper than a ghostly sheen. Rhianon stopped. The bruises under her eyelids gave the impression that the angel was crying blood. Or maybe he really was crying. The sores-covered girl in the narrow bunk did not wake up. She could not see that a strange guest was sitting by the barely lit candle, as if to catch her last breath.

“Sethius!” Madael froze on the threshold and looked sternly at the man sitting by the candle.

Rhianon was about to ask him why this angel still kept an attractive appearance, but then the head with ruffled curls lifted and the bruises on his face suddenly became sharper, along with them came the burns and bruises. A moment more and he lost much of his attractiveness. The light arcs of his eyebrows turned black, something disgusting that resembled bugs crawled across his skin. Sethius could have been mistaken for a work of marble, so white he was, were it not for these glaring imperfections.

“I don’t…” He could barely move his split tongue, a trickle of blood coming out of his mouth. “I don’t do anything you can’t do.”

“Then keep doing it,” Madael gestured to Rhianon toward the door. He was going to leave and leave the creature here. At the threshold, Rhianon turned around. She saw Sethius lean over the dying woman. He was not frightened by the sores or the supernatural contagion. He almost pressed his lips to her throat, as if he were really going to catch her last breath and the life that was flying away.

“He thinks he’ll regain his former appearance, at the expense of the others’ beauty,” Madael whispered as they left.

The candle, meanwhile, was almost out. There was only a tiny spark in the wick, but it too was about to go out. Rhianon could hear the faint whisper of an angel behind her, and she heard the rustle of wings. This time it seemed ominous to her. The black wings of death must have rustled just the same: wild and dreary. Not even the sound of a requiem would have upset her so.

Walking out of the house, she still felt like she was at a funeral.

“Sethius dreams of having his own crypt, and so do his friends,” Madael grinned for some reason. “It would be hard enough for them to have one, with all their pretensions.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You can’t. People survive on their own terms, and the damned have their own ways. Six of my best warlords have chosen to live on their own. Let them. I don’t need them anymore. Let them survive as they please. Now they have a burden on their shoulders.”

“What do you mean?”

“They were followed by the seventh angel, the one who didn’t fight on my side, but against me. It is wretched little soul. He couldn’t even hold his sword in his hands during the battle. The sight of his friends’ spilled blood made him sick. Lovers… what could you take them for? They are incapable of fighting against each other. And now he was freezing, starving, and losing his former attractiveness along with them in this contaminated land. He followed them himself. I used to laugh at him. Now I understand him.”

“What will happen to them?”

“I told you before, they want their own palace or crypt, a place where they can exist apart, feed off the energy of those mortals who fall under their spell. They want to be separate from my world, from earth and from heaven, but sometimes they need living souls. Who doesn’t want to have mortals as playthings and restore their beauty by taking other people’s lives?”

“Do they believe they can do it?”

“So far, only they believe. They don’t have much success. Perhaps they haven’t found a soul vicious enough to surrender its domain to them. In time, however, someone may seem so greedy for the cursed gold that they will worship the fallen angels and build for them their coveted crypt. It is a crypt for the seven angels. Here will be their fun, someone’s tears and lots of blood.”

“I saw him crying blood.”

“He drinks too much of it,” Madael whistled softly, the whistle like the echo of a string through the sleeping village, awakening a long echo. — And there’s plenty left, but it’s infected. Who knows what leprosy he will bear with it?

“He’s gone right before his eyes,” she still couldn’t imagine how such a beautiful creature could change so drastically.

“It happens,” Madael grimaced. “And more than once. It is sometimes in front of mortals. Some are beautiful, or at least pleasant-looking, for a long time, and then they go bad. People see and are frightened. I make it look like they’re crazy. You never know what a madman will see. I have to put the madman on a chain so that the demons won’t bother him anymore. And those same demons will laugh later. We must not reveal our existence to anyone. That’s the law.”

“And you’re okay with that?”

The question sounded like a punch. Madael looked away sharply.

“And the helmet that you can’t take off doesn’t bother you, does it? Even a sword you can’t draw whenever you want?”

“Even if you read my soul as an open book, stop, Rhianon. Someday things will be different.”

“Is it soon?” She picked up her skirts and staggered away, not knowing where she was going. Above her head something flew noisily, almost clawing at her gold crown. It seemed to be an ifrit, flying down from a distant mountain range, or maybe from the roof of one of the houses behind her. She didn’t get a good look.

Madael stared tensely into the darkness.

His hand gripped the hilt of his sword tightly. “I’ll deal with him later.”

“Later?” She frowned. “Is there anything else you want to show me? Or was this village the only thing you wanted to show me?”

“I didn’t want to bring you here in the first place. You asked for it,” he said, furious. “And there’s a sickness here.”

“So what if I’m with you?”

“Don’t be silly, even I can’t protect you from absolutely everything.”

“I don’t believe it,” she thought he couldn’t believe what he was saying either, but he looked worriedly up at the sky once more. No one else had flown across the gloomy sky, but there was an unpleasant, dark residue, like a comet’s mark, in the darkness. Evil has been here… Rhianon tucked the edges of her cloak tightly around her. She felt cold, though she felt hot inside.

“What were you going to show me?” She thought that an innocent question would lighten the mood, but the darkness echoed ominously.

“There’s a town…”

“Is there a plague that’s killing people there, too?”

“Not at all,” he smiled mischievously, a boyish grin. “There aren’t any people there. From afar, the city can be mistaken for a sprawling island of moss, but come closer and you can see the outlines of the ruins.”

“Do spirits live there?” Rhiannon wondered.

“Spirits like Orpheus,” he confirmed.

“But then it is interesting.”

“Just stay close to me when we go there. I don’t want you to get lost in the labyrinths of the city. There are a lot of precipices and cracks in the walls and dried-up wells. It’s easy to get lost there and never find your way out.”

“I am not afraid,” she followed him eagerly.

A net for the stars

Manfred would have done anything to gain the support of this invincible warrior. He would set snares for him if only to catch him and force him to fight on his side. The war halted, but the king’s passion for the unknown knight only grew stronger. Manfred was almost mad. He was certain that had the faceless fighter been with them now, Loretta would have been celebrating victory. It was useless to remind him that it was not the lack of a warrior that was preventing them from fighting further, but the cold, the hunger, and the epidemic. The winter had been mild in Loretta, but near Menuel they were so cold that weapons froze in the hands of the fighting men, and all manner of provisions were crusted over before they could be cooked. There was no way to build a fire in this cold. Any flame was extinguished by the immediate wind. On top of that an epidemic broke out. The first to fall ill and die was a regimental healer. The cities locked their doors, not wanting to let the lepers in. Moren tried his best, but he could barely keep order, even in his garrison. The people were afraid.

They heard screams at night, saw creepy creatures flying in from the mountains and devouring carrion. Of course, all these visions could only be attributed to hallucinations caused by illness, but those who were not yet sick also saw these things. Riots were brewing, and people were going mad. Moren tried his best, but sometimes he felt himself losing his sanity. Someone kept killing the blond girls. Their corpses were thrown off the walls of the fortresses for fear of contagion. Sometimes as he drove in front of the gates of another closed city he would see bodies in the snow, covered with a hideous plaque of festering wounds and covered with some hideous insects. More often than not these scavenger bugs seemed to him to have human faces and thin black wings, eating flesh from the wounds directly with the pus and buzzing disgustingly. Hunger must have driven him to such visions. He ordered his subordinates to burn such corpses if they saw them, but he could not destroy the contagion. The scarlet pestilence was spreading all the same and the signs of the epidemic were becoming more and more ominous. Moren moved out of camp more and more often to avoid hearing the screams. A few more of these losses and they would no longer be able to fight. If the ice crust on the battlefields melted and the enemy attacked them right now, they would not be able to fight back worthily. Moren did not dare storm one of Loretta’s own fortress cities. First, he did not have the authority to do so. Second, it was unlikely that several regiments could be quartered there at once. The rebellious soldiers could start rioting. There would not be enough room for everyone inside the fortress. Besides, they might have brought a contagion with them. It would have sufficed if the men of the fortress had let some of them in to warm themselves and share provisions, but he could not begin negotiations. No one would open the door for him, and no one would answer his summons. It seemed as if everything around him was dead. The ground before him was as desolate as the battlefield, and the carrion on it was being torn apart not by crows but by ghastly beings like devils. No crust of ice would hinder their fangs from devouring the dead. They would have attacked the living, too, if they had not had the strength to defend themselves with their weapons. Once Morin had driven into an empty battlefield and had to defend himself against a swarm of black creepers that swooped down. He had no idea what to call them. Do the faces of hell have names? They weren’t wounded by the sword or frightened by fire. And the harder the cold became, the more ferocious they became. If this continued, one night they would attack the camp. Moren was lost and did not know what to do.

Early on he rejoiced at the appearance of the irresistible knight. He flashed into the midst of battle, brought a moment’s victory, and disappeared, leaving behind a trail of misery and death. That’s how the devil comes, beckoning gold but causing only pain. But that knight was to Moren almost a god. He prayed for his new appearance. He dreamed of talking to him, of simply removing his helmet and looking into his eyes, of shaking his gauntlet-shrouded hand in a friendly way, without even fearing that one. Incredibly strong and hard, it would just crush his bones. Somehow he was sure that in the eyes of this ghost or demigod, whom he did not even know, he would be able to find all the wisdom of the world and understanding. The nameless warrior would give him answers to all his questions and become an associate. They will fight shoulder to shoulder. And God knows, it is not Manfred but this knight that Moren would have wished to see as his king.

Yes, what’s the matter with him. He is almost in love. How silly and frightening at the same time. Moren felt as if he had touched something forbidden, removed his helmet and armor from a body that must not be exposed. And there beneath the armor instead of flesh was a red-hot piece of steel, an imitation of the sun, scorching hot and ready to envelop you in a deadly embrace.

Moren awoke from his visions. All around him was the winter cold, the wind, the frost, the snow-covered forest, and the uncultivated virgin snow. No cottage nearby, no hut, no village, the nearest town many miles away, the country road long since marked by snowdrifts. He could freeze to death here. And he thinks of the sun, the glowing rays and the hot iron. In his tired, depressed mind the hammers of the Zwergs forge the armor of the deity and it glitters like the dawn. In his dreams this same deity, shining like the sun, comes to his bed, holds out his hand in his gauntlet, and bids Moren become his associate.

“Forever!” utters a beautiful harsh voice, the sound of which chills the blood and sends shivers down the spine. “Forever, my earthly brother, for my term of service to the god is eternal. There will be only battles, blood, and chopping, and no lost heaven. Are you ready to fight alongside me until the end of time?”

Oh, yes, he was ready.

“You are an angel, aren’t you? Or are you God himself? And are there really wings hidden under your cloak?” Moren asked in his dreams, and he awoke in a cold sweat, his fingers still reaching for the golden vision, though the tent before his bed was empty. No golden light, not even a candle burns in the cold, but he was sure that if he stretched his hand forward, he would surely get burned. He dreamed of touching the fire. In his dreams his hands reached out to remove the helmet from the head of the radiant warrior and even if he burned his fingers, even if his hands burned or shattered, he longed to see the face of his new commander and lord. He is sure that this face will be the answer to all his questions. It is in the warrior’s face, not in himself, that secrets lie hidden. This is why he never shows himself close to anyone except those he will pierce with his sword and never reveals his name to anyone. For with a name he must show his face.

Moren could almost see him in his dreams, even through his helmet. The face was more like a maiden’s, so stern and so luminous that it was almost impossible to make out the features. But somehow he was sure it resembled Rianon’s features in some way. Absurd, of course, but a dream is not reality. It could be full of absurdities. Dreams are by nature messy, but you have to be able to interpret them, and then everything comes together into a clear picture. But Moren was no expert at interpreting dreams, and he certainly couldn’t find a witch doctor here to interpret them for him. He could only surmise that the dream, which burned inside him, was momentous and fateful.

Now he dreamed of a banner adorned with the head of a golden dragon and of a warlord in shining armor.

“My earthly counterpart. Earthly, not heavenly,” the voice from the dream was still in his head, calm, commanding, and mesmerizing. He offered nothing and demanded nothing, but Moren was willing to follow him anywhere. He would even gladly give the unknown warrior his place at the head of the remaining troops. He was sure that the warrior-god would not lead him to certain death. The first time he disappeared and they began to lose, but if he returned, things could still be sorted out.

Of course, such thoughts might have come to him under the pressure of numerous messengers. Manfred sent them every week, later every day, he asked and even demanded that Moren think of a way to not only throw his remaining forces into battle, but to find the unknown warrior. Where to look Manfred did not say, but he promised that he would execute his commander-in-chief for not carrying out his orders.. Rumors have reached Moren that Manfred is already considered mad at court. He scurried about the throne room like a black raven, claiming that he could tame the deity and make it serve him. In the same way, one might claim to reach for a star in the sky and catch flames with one’s bare hands. The courtiers nodded smartly in the king’s face and chuckled behind his back. Many even regretted the fleeing princess Rhianon. Even if she had gone mad, she would have attracted people with her charms and wouldn’t have prevented her advisors from ruling for her. This would have been a place where court intrigues and parties of minions would have been free to snatch a piece of power by befriending the charming young queen. Conrad, on the other hand, was looked upon with either condescension or contempt. Even the prince’s friends ran off to play cards and wander the pubs, leaving him alone. They were tired of hearing him harp on about his runaway lover and his penchant for black magic. Many were also frightened by his complete unwillingness to think about the affairs of the country. No one thought of Princess Hildegard as a potential queen.

Because of her unattractiveness, she was forgotten. But she had her chances. This cunning black lady was capable of much. Moren remembered her scheming and her greedy look when she lured him once into the dark tower.

“You might fall down this steep staircase if you don’t accept my offer,” she hinted to him. He had forgotten her words then, but they came sharply to mind now. She had promised him her advisor’s place if he would help her take her father’s place. At the time he thought it was a game. One of Hildegard’s ladies-in-waiting might just be lurking behind the draperies and laughing at a successful joke. However, the game was repeated over and over again. Again and again the unassuming lady dressed in black lured the knights into the corner tower, offering them seats near the throne if they would help her occupy it. If not, they would wring their necks. In the beginning the threats were empty, but then some accidents did happen. Like a true gentleman, Moren kept quiet about the antics of the strange lady, and who would believe him. Who knows how many she had already lured or intimidated to her side? As he walked through the throne room, he caught the icy glances of her ladies-in-waiting. Even in their bright dresses and wreaths they looked like harpies, daring to leap. They chuckled nastily and joked behind the knights’ backs. And Hildegard, perpetually dressed in black, already looked like the queen-widow in their circle, or the black lady of death. Moren disliked her, but he had no intention of engaging in intrigue.

Of course, he himself, like many, would have preferred to see Rhianon, the rightful heiress and beautiful girl, as queen. But where is she? Does she know what is happening in her country? What if she is too far away from Loreth and has no idea that a rift is brewing at court? Now would be a good time for her to return. Manfred is mad, he can easily be overthrown and imprisoned, the courtiers will support her, Conrad cannot oppose her, and probably will not want to. He is naturally passive and easily sidelined. And the golden-haired princess is said to have a strong character and an unwavering will. Some have even predicted that she could fight with a sword in her hand, not just lead a weak-willed husband. But Moren was certain that if she took the throne, and if she rejected a foreign prince, she would choose the best of the knights of her land, the one who could truly defend herself and her power with his sword.

“Like you,” a mischievously mocking voice rang out, and then someone nearby laughed, lightly, mockingly, and at ease, as if it had become a pleasure to drive one to madness with jokes.

He turned around abruptly. There was no one around, only silver snowflakes trembling and flying from the branches of a lone fir tree. If someone unseen was talking to him, he would have to fit on this branch, right on the spruce needles or the snowflakes falling from them.

Moren shook his head wearily. He hadn’t rested or eaten properly in a long time, and no wonder his imagination was playing tricks on him.

It was better not to give in to black fantasies, but to think of something pleasant. What if Rhianon came back and really chose him as her husband? For that he need only find a nameless knight to help him. It turns out that he will win, and Moren will only be his right hand, but after all, the deity will not even marry a beautiful princess. He will give his reward to Moren, as his mortal companion.

“And then we’ll have to fight forever,” the voice from his dream repeated, but it was really just a playful imagination.

Moren knew that he’d painted a far-reaching plan for himself, and that he had no hope of fulfilling it. He ruffled his curly blond hair with his hand. He’d lost his hat a long time ago, and he was afraid to put his helmet on because of the cold. The hard iron would just freeze to his skin, leave scars on his cheeks. He’d seen knights this had happened to before. They became disfigured. And he would have liked to present himself to Rhianon in a better light. He was said to be rather handsome, but there were so many handsome and noble young men at court. And there were always so many knights fighting at tournaments, even over the princess’s shawl or scarf. He wanted to win at least such a tournament to touch her hand holding out the scarf for once, but he failed. Once he was badly wounded and lay in oblivion for a couple of days. It seemed to be during that period that he began to have visions. He had strange dreams. He saw dark creatures pressing against his chest to drink blood from his wound and ripping off the bandage.

“You could be like us, but you won’t,” they hummed, driving him almost insane.

When he recovered from his wound it was springtime, the May fair had begun, and he walked to the fortuneteller’s tent to ask her if his feelings could become mutual, but he did not have to go in to the fortuneteller. A dry hand caught him still at the entrance to the tent. The fearful fortuneteller merely glanced at the lines of his palm and whispered in a squeaky voice that he would never get what he wanted unless he died. It was more like a mockery. Now every time he looked at the colorful ribbons and tents of the fairgrounds he remembered that occasion. The fortuneteller’s voice reminded him of the vile squeaking of his dreams. Now he thought that her words might not have been true. The wretched old woman might have laughed at him. The knight had just recovered from his wounds and was looking for someone in the crowd, a perfect target for impertinent jokes. You could tell he was in love.

That day, after all, he had seen Rhianon. She rode by on a raven stallion, escorted by her retinue, and didn’t even look in his direction. But her mere sight was already like a sunrise. Perhaps now in these thickets and snowy heaths he would meet her and she would let him bring victory to her feet. They will return to Loretta together and she will let him take his place beside her.

Moren shook his head stubbornly. He felt it could not be, and he hoped anyway. Sometimes the most impossible things happen, after all.

Just now, someone was chuckling over the empty snow-covered field and calling to him from the far blackening forest. Moren thought he was going crazy, but what if that wasn’t it at all. In his dreams Rhianon was still returning to the throne, laying a crown on his head, and the treacherous Hildegard retreated into the background for the sake of decency and pretended to share in everyone’s merriment. If he had been Rhianon’s protector, he would have banished the black ogre, for she had squinted too enviously at the princess. She was jealous of Rhianon’s beauty and charm.

Moren didn’t even notice how something in the surrounding atmosphere changed dramatically. It seemed to get a little warmer. He put his hand to his forehead and found droplets of sweat streaming down his skin. Was he hot? The sweat kept streaming and burning his eyes, as if the moisture were red-hot.

“What are you looking for here?” A creeping voice asked from somewhere inside his mind.

“Him,” Moren realized he had opened his mouth and said it out loud. How simple-minded. He was not supposed to tell anyone, or even the emptiness itself, about his plans. It’s a precautionary measure. But on the other hand, how will he find that knight if no one tells him where to look. Even though Manfred’s order to look for him made no sense, Moren did not ride through the wastelands and valleys because he was following orders. He was looking for someone he wanted to find himself.

His horse could hardly walk, and there was something rustling and hissing in the melting snow beneath his hooves. Melting? Moren looked down in astonishment, right under his horse’s feet. Could it really be the end of winter already? But it was only the beginning of February. It had been the worst month of his life. Perhaps he would not live to see March and the first snowdrops. All his troops would not live to see them.

Moren suddenly felt the nearness of fire, as if someone had made a fire right in the snow. After so many weeks of cold, the warmth should have felt pleasant to him, but instead it felt like it burned. It wasn’t even heat, it was intense heat.

Moren struggled to get off the stubborn horse. The animal would not go any farther. Moren had to walk on his own through the melting snow. Sometimes his feet got stuck in hollows and drifts. In some places the snow did not melt after all. The young man noticed a hard crust of ice over a frozen stream, and to his left, clumps of bluish snowdrops nestled right in the melted snow. He took his glove off his hand and wiped the sweat from his forehead once more. The liquid really burned. Maybe his own sweat or tears could scorch his skin. The unbearably bright glow ahead blinded and burned his eyes. He felt his eyeballs tingle and tears as hot as sweat collect inside his eyelids. What is this obsession?

“You have stepped into his territory,” the obliging voice explained. “You wanted to see the deity’s domain, didn’t you? Now look.”

From the blinding light and the hot tears Moren could no longer look. He could really make out a fire somewhere in the distance, the flames crackling and fluttering in the snow, but the heat wasn’t coming from it. Black creatures, remotely resembling fabulous leprechauns, danced around the fire. Catch one, and it will grant your every wish, lead you to great treasures, or tell you a magical secret. All you have to do is to hold it tightly in your hands and not let it out. Leprechaun will start beating and trying to trick you to escape, in any case, you don’t let him go, then the gold magic baby count in your pocket. Well, there, it turns out he still remembered the tales of his nannies and maids from his father’s old castle. He could catch one of the leprechauns, he could hold on to it despite all the tricks and even the bites of the tiny needle-tooth, only it wasn’t the gold he wanted. More precisely, his ultimate desire was somehow connected to the gold, but he didn’t understand how. He needed to find the nameless knight, the god who had appeared to him in his dreams in armor wrapped in the sun. Moren was even willing to catch the Leprechaun if only he could find the knight or say the magic words to summon him. How hard could he dodge now? Moren had already stretched his arm forward, but then someone grabbed him sharply by the shoulder.

“Don’t,” a sly voice said over his ear. “Don’t make a wish for something that is already written in your destiny.”

Moren wanted to turn around, or at least look at his hand, but the man would not let him. It seemed to him that his hand was held not by fingers but by claws, black claws like the ones that ate corpses on the battlefield, but he couldn’t see them clearly. He couldn’t even see them from the corner of his eye, only feel them.

Something scalding smelled on his shoulder. He winced and tried to break free, but then the intruding voice came again.

“I will take you to him,” he promised, “to your knight. You are destined to be together, I know it.”

“Who are you?” Moren found it hard to speak.

The soft laughter that echoed in his ears was more like a rustling noise.

“It doesn’t matter who I am. You will have him, in his full battle dress, with his shield painted with runes and his sword.”

“What does he want?” Moren himself did not remember how he had managed to formulate his question, but that was what worried him the most right now. What if the brilliant knight would not heed his request, and would not side with Loretta this time? What if they had to fight against each other instead of shoulder to shoulder? After all, that may be fate’s judgment. Perhaps these are idle fears, but what if they are true.

“It doesn’t matter what he wants. He himself often does not understand his own desires. His sword must be guided to serve the cause of justice. And justice is on your side now.”

Moren hesitated. He was not sure of the latter. What is justice in battle? They fought only to win, defending the interests of their homeland or the lords who hired them, without much thought as to who was right or wrong. And what principles could a warrior have who neither needed to be paid nor to defend his homeland? He could only fight on the side of the right. That is what they said about him. After all, he himself had no personal interest in anything. He has no homeland and needs no reward. It is likely that he is an elf knight of some magical kingdom, whom his suzerain sends into battle every time to uphold justice. So he has to cross an invisible line to throw into someone else’s battle, in which he himself seeks nothing: neither glory nor profit. His chivalry must surely come from a magical world.

“You’re almost right, my friend,” the slightly husky voice behind him became a little more gentle, even mellifluous. It was intoxicating, like a poison to the brain.

“Only wait,” he whispered, “I will bring you to your knight. You can even swear allegiance to him. You only have to follow me when I summon you.”

Moren reluctantly nodded. He could scarcely believe it would not be now, but the offer was clear. When the need arises, he will be summoned.

“But when would that happen?” He wanted to turn around, but he couldn’t. The claws weren’t releasing him right away. Now he could turn his head slightly and examine them.

“Soon,” was the same unequivocal answer.

Douglas felt as if he were on the coals of a red-hot fryer. It was as if he was being fried. Not even the pitchforks of hell could be as unstable as his present position in the yard. He kept waiting for Manfred to change his anger for mercy, but the king wanted only one thing: a nameless warrior. He even forbade his personal wizard to enter the council chamber or the throne room until the answer was found: where to find the invincible knight and how to lure him to himself. The king was obsessed with the idea of ruling someone who could not be ruled. And Douglas was sensible enough to hint to the furious monarch that one cannot tame the element of fire. You can only burn against it, but not shackle it. And that must have been what Manfred wanted. Not only did he plan to catch the wind, he also wanted to hold it in his hands and gain obedience from it.

Douglas, too, was setting up nets for the stars at the top of his tower. He fastened them to the very parapet and read spells, but so far the catch was little encouraging. He dreamed of catching spirits in his nets that would serve him, untamed black souls with diabolical powers, or even glittering faeries. He needed all kinds of servants. It could even be said that while the king slept, his court wizard gathered his own little army of nixes, leprechauns, gnomes, brownies, house spirits, and other evil spirits around him. He could capture them in the attics or the castle’s dark labyrinths, by the riverside, in the undergrowths, or in the meadows. All he had to know was the right spells to keep them subdued, and of course he had the skill and dexterity to catch them. Douglas knew how to do all this and had done it many times before. He already had his own cohort of petty servants, the mischievous ones who had been naughty in the castle kitchens, who had stolen courtiers’ things and harassed his ears. They all obeyed him and followed his orders. All of them he caught. That he could do. But most of all he dreamed of the stars.

It was the stars that he hadn’t seen yet. And yet he had already prepared a cage in which to keep them, and made plans for their use. Other wizards dreamed of a tame dragon, a pack of griffins, or a horde of goblins, but he dreamed of shooting and capturing stars. To him they were more important than anything else. Manfred, though he did not know what his court sorcerer did, also dreamed of a star in his own way. Douglas even chuckled contemptuously. Could a tiny rodent defeat a large lion? The comparison was almost apt, except the situation was more acute. That very lion was about to lunge at them all and crush everything here. Douglas feared more for Loretta’s towers than for his own skin. He himself could slip away like a chimney, quickly stowing his luggage in a chest and leading away the hordes of spirits that would accompany a wandering wizard, but take care of himself. Escape is easy when you are nimble, elusive, and can become invisible; it is only hard to leave this surrounding splendor to fend for itself. Even if Loretta’s days were numbered, Douglas did not like to think of losing his luxurious quarters. To him, a cozy and well-appointed tower was a luxury item. He had never had one at home. His family did not like him, nor were they eager to do anything for him, and for that he repaid them all. True, the main thing was taking out potential rivals. Now he was alone with his magical talent. He sincerely hoped that the ghosts of his executed brothers would not bother him. They had made no attempt so far, and he himself had thoughtfully inscribed protective symbols on the door, windows, and threshold. He could not see them at once, but they served their purpose. No unwanted guests could penetrate his shelter, neither spirits nor mortals. Anyone who crossed its threshold without the owner’s invitation would feel so uncomfortable inside the tower that they would have to leave. In this way, Douglas protected himself from all uninvited visitors, even from the king’s guards if such showed up.

Though if they decided to arrest him and send him to the stake, he would know it beforehand. For one thing, he had plenty of his own invisible spies scattered around the castle and even the city below to gather gossip and bring it to his master. Secondly, he could make out sounds from miles around if he wanted to, he just had to gather his strength, whisper a few magical phrases or drink an invigorating elixir, then close his eyelids and listen. A cacophony of sounds, conversations, monologues and dialogues, arguments, quarrels, debates, love confessions and songs would reach his ears so quickly that it would be hard to choose and separate the right one. But he could catch one necessary dialogue out of a thousand and learn of danger or conspiracy. He was very concerned about his own position in the castle, for it was very precarious. Of course, he had managed to gain Conrad’s support, but the boy was too weak. If he had any influence over his father, he was wasting all his energies on allocating more and more funds and soldiers to track down the fugitive. Every fighter was now essential to the war. It was said that the knights were dying like flies out there. Something terrible had settled on the battlefield. Manfred even wanted to send his personal enchanter there, but Douglas, with some help from the prince, was able to dissuade him.

“Let the astrologers go for now,” he suggested, “and the soothsayer who lives in the city. There’s plenty of work for the soothsayers there, too. They’ll predict the outcome of the battle and figure out who caused the epidemic.”

Such an offer was murder, but Douglas also wanted to remove all his detractors, or at least all his competitors. He managed to send almost all of them away from the castle. Manfred lit up with the idea that they could help on the battlefield. And Douglas stayed in the castle and pretended to try to summon an invincible knight. Of course he couldn’t do that. But he tried not to talk aloud about his abilities. Why should he? Manfred was already tearing and tearing. All the courtiers already thought he was mad. They said he opened a window into the cold night at night and waited for a winged warrior, angel or demon to come, but all he waited for was a blizzard to sweep into his bed. And in the morning his bedroom looks like a winter meadow, covered with snow. But the old man himself is not ill from this, but is seeking more and more insistently for information that does not exist, asking merchants and peddlers, travelers from distant fears and even captive enemies. He ordered them all to be brought to the court and questioned them about the nameless warrior. Many knew nothing and were subjected to a barrage of threats, some retold myths. From the brief information he received, the king was no closer to his goal, but he became angry. Rumors were already openly circulating around the castle that the legendary warrior was not human, that he had living wings fluttering under his cloak, claws hidden under his gauntlets, horns under his helmet, and the devil himself helped him, and Manfred dreamed of summoning the devil to his aid. Of course, many people no longer want such a king. Douglas was afraid to even wander the corridors, fearing that he would be attacked with fists as the instigator. He was the one who could bring the ruler to such a state with his instigation and charms. What if the furious advisers attacked him and demanded that his mind be returned to the King? They would need a culprit if they wanted to overthrow Manfred, and his sorcerer would come along. Of course, fists and spades weren’t much use to him. He could have flown to the ceiling beam in a moment and watched from on high, then escaped through a secret door or window, but Douglas had the foresight to play it safe. He had made a secret path in the attic compartments and now used them alone to climb out of the tower. So he crouched on the ceiling beams and watched what was going on below in the throne room. He was not afraid of heights; a special ointment made from the bones and flesh of strange creatures or babies gave him the ability to fly. It was difficult to make and even more difficult to find all the ingredients, but it served its purpose. He felt like a feather flying in the wind when he rubbed it on his body. The unpleasant tangy smell permeated his body and was impossible to wash away, but the sensation of flight was worth it. It was worth dying for a moment in the air, let alone rubbing a disgusting ointment on it. Douglas valued his means of witchcraft. His entire sorcerer’s arsenal consisted of rare and hard-to-find remedies. He excelled at many things. Surely not even the School of Witchcraft had such diligent students as he. He was proud of the fact that he had taught himself everything. He needed no one’s guidance or help. He proved his independence and giftedness. But the legend of the place where black power was bestowed still drew him in. If he had caught the star in his net and clutched it in his fist without fear of being burned, its light would have shown him the right way.

“And if Manfred got his wish, the devil himself would be at his service,” the annoying, snide voice whispered right into Douglas’s ear.

He opened his eyes and brushed the warning aside as if it were a pesky fly. There were indeed some circles under the glass covering the candle, which looked like living beings, but it wasn’t them who had spoken to him. He must have dozed off and lost control of his spirits. That’s why they’re bugging him. Douglas settled himself in a silver hammock stretched high between the bookshelves. Here he could sway to the ceiling and gaze at the spines of his books. One look and a mental command and the desired book flew off the shelf. As if picked up by someone’s hands it sank smoothly beside him. But Douglas did not think of picking it up and leafing through it.

“Find me a chapter on an angel named Mastema,” he told the attendant spirit. “I want to know everything about the heavenly rebellion, about Dennitsa, about his friends, about his associates, and about the task he received here on earth.”

Douglas lazily closed his eyes again, and invisible hands opened the book and began leafing through it quickly. From the outside it might have seemed as if the pages were turning by themselves. Douglas waited for a seductive voice to spread through the silence. The captive nymphs he kept in retorts were excellent singers and good readers. He loved to listen to their voices, but the information they were about to read he was a little afraid of.

Rhianon stopped in front of a town overgrown with moss and vines. It was very beautiful indeed. The desolation and destruction were juxtaposed with the lush blooms of exotic plants. It was also a beautiful garden, albeit a poorly maintained one, in which the outlines of the hidden ruins could be discerned. Nature took care of everything herself. From the outside, the forgotten city looked like a green island of strange vegetation, but it looked enticing. One could even ask the provocative question of whether nature took care of this corner of the world or magic. Rhianon leaned more toward the latter. Why else would there be winter raging around, and here it was so fresh and green. The air smells of summer rain. Behind the hedges of green, you can’t even see the snow. There is only grass growing for miles around. The walls overgrown with moss seem a little ominous and at the same time inviting. She wanted to enter the city, but what if she needed a key. She stared at the gate, nestled between two ramshackle bastions. Enwrapped in overgrown lush lintel, it could hardly even be raised off its hinges, but there was a keyhole between the flowers.

“There!” Madael drew a key from his pocket. It was, of course, gold. Gold is the metal of the fallen angel. Rhianon took the key, worn on an exquisite chain of fine workmanship, and inserted it into the well. Something creaked in the mechanism of the lock, there was a startled murmur of fairies waking up and flying out the other side of the keyhole. The moss slid off the hinges, the creepers slid to the ground, and now the gate was free, it opened inward, and behind it stretched the same flower-covered stone alleys.

“How tempting,” Rhianon hesitated to cross the threshold.

“Come. I am with you. You needn’t worry about the gate slamming shut behind you.”

“And the others didn’t worry too?”


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