What if every time you met someone new, you saw their death in a vision so swift it was like the flash of distant lightning: clear as crystal but gone before you could hardly process what you saw?
My earliest childhood memories are of death — death of my parents, of friends, of strangers I met at the butcher’s shop.
The first people I ever saw were my parents; my first memories were of their deaths.
I cried myself to sleep so many nights, because it was in the future, but it felt present.
The deaths always feel present, but I’ve learned to not cry: to ignore the fear and pain.
On a given day, if I have to go into town, I might meet four or ten new people. Death is ever-present for me. When I was a child, I ran from new people in fear, not wanting to feel more death and pain.
My parents blessed me with their wisdom, and told me that death was never something to be feared. Anaria, they would say. Death should not be feared. Your name means gifted one. One day, you’ll discover why you’ve been given this gift.
Perhaps so. Then again, you’ve never had to watch every stranger you’ve ever met die.
Sometimes, my visions are a gift. I see people dying peacefully and happily. I feel their contentment, their fulfillment of lives well-lived. They have greeted Death as an old friend.
Other times, my visions feel like a curse. There are those people that hold life with a greedy fist, and curse Death’s door, and fight and snarl when she comes.
The hardest visions are the ones where Death comes calling too early, and I see eyes that are filled with remorse. Those are the visions that I have taught myself to ignore; those are the people that I never allow to become my friends.
My parents were right: death ought not be feared. But pain, oh, pain of getting hurt was what I feared above all.
After my parents died, I worked a small farm by myself on the outskirts of town, and tended the cemetery and buried the dead. Tarne was a medium village, a sort of crossroads where the main roads of the four kingdoms converged. Newcomers were frequent as such, but I avoided as many as possible, and kept to myself. As the town’s cemetery was my front yard, strangers mostly kept away. I went into town only a few times a year, and only when absolutely necessary. But there was one day that I always went to town — a day I never missed.
Every year on June 1st, Tarne had a harbor festival. Ships came from the four kingdoms with loads of fireworks and wares; there was music and speeches; poetry and juggling; acrobats and fire-breathers; and strange and wonderful sights to behold in every corner of the harbor.
On this one day, the streets of Tarne were always empty — almost eerily so, except for the sounds of the festival coming from the harbor. This was my day to wander the streets and pretend that I was normal, and I never missed it.
When June 1st came around, I put on my prettiest gown, put up my hair with flowers, and added a smile to shame the sun. No day could ever compare with June 1st. It was always happy — a day to myself, where I could admire shop windows and sunshine, and for once not ever have to think about death.
I nearly skipped the entire two miles to town. As I neared, I could hear the fireworks and music faintly from the harbor, and I smiled and started humming to myself.
There was a shop down the street that I always loved, but never stopped at because it was always milling with people. Today, it would just be the old lady who owned it, and I knew her — she was one of the peaceful ones, who would greet Death with nothing but contentment.
“Hello, Lady Talia!” I called, as I stepped in, savoring the scent of roses and old wood that always hung about the shop. Colorful silk flags hung from wooden shelves filled with everything from toy ships carved from copper to exotic foods from over the Sea. Light spilled in through the large front window, one of the few large glass windows in Tarne.
“Oh, I’ve missed you, Anaria,” she says sweetly from behind the counter, looking up from sorting a pile of purple seashells. “It’s seemed like a year since I saw you last. Always on June 1st, it seems.”
“I don’t like the crowds,” I remind her gently with a smile, for what feels like the hundredth time.
“That’s right, that’s right,” she says, and with a sudden lift of her hand, she suddenly stands. “Oh, Anaria, my sister is visiting me. I’d like for you to meet her! Wait here.”
Before I have time to protest, she’s disappeared with a rustle of silk. Even for sweet Lady Talia, I won’t ruin my happy day. I slip out discreetly, and feel a pang of disappointment at not getting to look through the shop, and for abandoning her. Now that my parents are dead, none know my secret.
“My lady,” says a male voice behind me, startling me out of my reverie of staring at Talia’s door. Before I can stop myself, I whirl around.
Strangely, the vision of death doesn’t start right away. I have time to stare into his soft brown eyes, and notice his wave of dark brown hair, the stubble that defines his jawline, and his genuine and perfect smile.
I have time to notice the slightly-wilted purple flower that he’s holding out to me, and his clothes that are travel-worn but fit him well.
I have time to notice the leather greaves strapped to his articulate forearms. I have time to notice the way his shirt falls open, revealing a necklace with a charm shaped like a sail.
It’s as if time actually slows, because the vision of his death still doesn’t start, even when he offers me the flower with a mock bow and winning smile.
“I believe you must be the flower princess, and therefore, this must belong to you.”
Before I could stop myself, I touch my hair — remembering the flowers entwined there — and the laughter bubbled out of me. “You’re quite mistaken, but I thank you,” I reply, and make to step past him.
“Please, it’s a gift. As a thank you!” he says, following me as I turn.
I barely glance back, hoping against all hope that I might escape the vision.
“Really? Why is that?” I ask, continuing to walk.
“For allowing me to see such happiness.”
I stop dead in my tracks, and look at the ground, the smile frozen on my face. A smile wilting into sorrow — if only he knew that I was not happy — and against all my will, I look back at his earnest and beautiful face.
A flash. Rain. Thunder. Another flash, illuminating the ground.
He’s in chainmail, and a cloak, fallen on the ground as a broken toy that a child has cast aside. Blood seeps through his fingers, which clutch his stomach; water runs in rivulets down his mud-covered face. There’s no telling if they’re tears or raindrops.
A figure crouches beside him: a woman, by the size and movements. She presses her forehead to his and fights back tears.
“Not now, not now, please don’t leave me now,” she groans, her voice barely heard through the rain, but eerily familiar.
“Everything happens for a reason,” he gasps out. “I suppose, I finally found someone worth dying for.”
His face comes slowly back into focus as the vision fades. I feel weak, and can tell I’ve gone pale. A single tear squeezes from my eye and drips down my face, sliding down my jawbone and across my collarbone.
I dash it away with my thumb. “I’m not a lady,” I respond. “And believe me when I say, you’ll waste your flowers and your time on me. I’m sorry,” I say earnestly, and turn.
But the vision was a hard one, and took more of a toll than I realized. My knees give way, but I feel myself caught.
“Please, let me help you,” he says. “Is there a doctor?”
“No, no,” I struggle to say. “Just home, just take me home. It’s two miles…” I lift my hand and point out of the city, at which point everything fades into darkness.
When I wake up, I’m lying on my bed. The afternoon sun seems bright through the window, and my head throbs gently. Sitting up slowly, I look around, certain that I heard rustling.
He’s standing by the window, studying some drawings I had made and propped up against the pane. The sun casts the side of his face in shadow, and he looks pensive as he fingers the edge of the drawings.
The drawings are rough and gestural, but they carry their point heavily enough. The images that I have in my head have to come out sometimes, or the sorrow becomes too heavy to bear. The one he holds is of a little girl — her face drawn and contorted with pain — being held by her father. She was one of those that Death took too early; I had just buried her last week.
I swing my legs over the side of the bed and he glances over at me.
“They’re sad, aren’t they?” I ask, standing and walking over to him.
“Very.” He looks back at the drawing, and then back at me. “How are you?”
“I’m fine. I get these vi—“ I bite my lip. “Headaches. I get headaches.”
He looks at me for a moment too long, and then nods. “I see. I’m surprised you recover so quickly from such painful headaches,” he says, putting careful emphasis on the last word.
“And the drawings — why such deep sorrow? Why live in a cemetery?”
“I enjoy the company.”
“I imagine it might be pleasant,” he says with a troubled smile, and replaces the drawing on the windowsill.
I try to smile, but it comes out as a grimace.
“Are you a knight?” I ask suddenly, thinking of my vision.
He barks a humorless laugh. “No. I can’t stand the thought of serving under someone who cares nothing for the lives of their subjects, who would make me fight battles I care nothing for. Royals are all the same.”
“I’m not sure that’s all true.” I bite my lip, and study him. Suddenly the sun catches the charm around his neck.
I motion with my hand. “What’s the story behind your necklace?”
Glancing down, he hesitates.
“You don’t have to tell me.”
“My father,” he starts, looking back up at me, “was a knight in Gearna’s army.”
“I’m sorry,” I say. The stories about Gearna’s kingdom were all bloody, and now I begin to understand his distaste for nobles.
“He died in a great battle fought mostly because of Gearna’s bloodlust. When the battle ended, Gearna ordered that the bodies of his own men be piled into great heaps of carnage and burned. He didn’t even have the honor to bury his own.
“I tried to find my father before they did, to bury him. I was just a young lad. I searched all day, while avoiding the parties gathering the dead. When I finally found him, I discovered that he had made the greatest sacrifice, and it would go unnoticed forever. He had attempted to slay a dragon that had come after him. But, his sword had shattered into a hundred pieces, and his body was mutilated.”
I tried to blink back the tears — I hadn’t cried in years, let alone twice in one day — but they were dripping steadily from my eyes by this point. If I had met this man’s father, I would have seen this death before it ever happened. It was worse hearing it from someone who cared.
“At that moment, a search party approached. If I had been found, they would have — I don’t know what they would have done, but it would no doubt be terrible. I snatched a handful of the sword shards from the ground and fled to the forest.
“As I ran, I tripped over a root and knocked myself out,” he sighed and shook his head. “When I came to, my palm was cut into ribbons, and I couldn’t find any of the shards that I had picked up, save for one — this one —“ he tapped the pendant, “that had buried itself into my flesh.” He shrugged. “It’s all I have to remember him by.”
“I’m sorry,” I say again, with a great sniff, swiping at my tears.
He looks at me curiously. “For someone who lives with death, you’re awfully sensitive.”
I laugh through my tears. “Not usually. Today, I — maybe it’s you,” I say with a shrug. “Maybe living with it has made me realize how much pain it causes.”
“Ah,” he says, but looks troubled.
I hesitate, and sniff again. “You should go.”
With a slow nod, he replies, “You’re right, I’m sorry. Will I see you again?”
Shaking my head, I give him a sad smile. “I don’t think so. I don’t make friends. It’s too much to know that they might die someday, and I’d have to live without them.”
He lets out a soft sigh, but then gives an overly-bright smile. “You won’t live with friends, and I won’t die for nobles. We might make a pair.”
“Another day, perhaps,” I reply, following him to the door. “Goodbye, and thank you.” I give him a small wave, and he gives me a troubled smile in farewell.
It’s only after he’s disappeared from my view that I realized I never learned his name. It doesn’t matter, though. I’ll never see him again, so it’s better that way.
The months that follow are troubled. My kingdom and its neighbor are at war.
The war, the battles: they are brutal and incredibly consuming. The kingdoms do not have the power or resources to defend their soil from external enemies and internal enemies: bandits and common criminals roam more freely. Raiders are the most common, looting and burning their way through towns.
Now I sleep with my door barred and a sword within reach. And I don’t know why, but every night before I fall asleep, my mind wanders to the stranger who I had met so briefly. I miss him, but tell myself that his friendship would not have been worth the pain it caused me.
I was awakened one night suddenly, by shouts and crashing, and the flashing and flickering of torches through my window.
Leaping out of bed, I took my sword in hand and looked out the window. Raiders were desecrating the cemetery, burning what could be burnt, knocking over what couldn’t, and trampling all the graves and rested souls of those below.
My face flushed in anger, and I rushed to the door and flung it open. I roared in my anger and rushed with my sword, and what a sight I must have been: nightgown sailing behind me as I pronounced my doom as some patient angel of death might suddenly descend to protect her own. My righteous flight was cut short, however, for I was suddenly grabbed from behind. My sword was wrested from my hand, my arms were pinioned behind me, and a rough voice whispered into my ear, “What a pretty thing to live in such a dark place.”
I shrieked and struggled, but something hard then smashed into the back of my skull, and I remembered nothing for a long time.
I woke with death in my mind. I was in a camp with at least thirty men, and I felt them all die. I tasted the metallic taste of blood. Their blood. Their fear, their pain. They were all slaughtered: not one of them came to a good end.
It had been a long time since I had felt that much pain and terror at once, and I cried out: a strangled scream of release and panic.
“Shut up,” one of the men said, glancing at me.
I barely heard him as I fought down those visions, forced them into the back of my mind. Feeling the death was worse than seeing it, and it took several long minutes for my breathing to return to normal.
As soon as the visions were suppressed, I studied my surroundings to take my mind off what I had seen and felt. I was tied to a tree, as were horses and mules here and there. Two fires were burning in a clearing perhaps thirty paces wide, and men lounged or scurried about, all looking equally rough and dirty. The sun filtered through the trees, and birds sang, and my only thought was the irony that nature did not understand the filth that reposed in her safety.
“Where am I? Why have you brought me here?” I asked feebly, focusing on a group of men closest to me, gathered around a stump functioning as a table.
“Ah, well,” one of the men looked up from the map they had been studying. “We burned your house and your town, but thought you were too pretty and fine a thing to let burn with the rest.”
I opened my mouth in silent horror, and then closed my eyes and pressed my lips together. The silent tears squeezed from my eyes and dripped off my chin.
My sacred space, my life, my home. There was nothing to return to.
“Save your tears. You might want them for later when the boss returns,” said a harsh voice, that cackled at the end. There was some jeering and whistles.
“Sit tight, sweetheart,” sneered one of the voices, but I kept my eyes closed shut and eventually drifted into a fitful sleep where I dreamed of running to save every person from death but always arriving the moment after they had just died.
I was awoken after dark by a strong hand around my mouth.
“Shhh, don’t scream. Be still while I loose you.”
My heart leapt, for though I could not see his face, the voice was one that I had heard only once but would never have forgotten.
“It’s you!” I gasped, when he removed his hand.
“Yes. Hush,” he whispered, and swiftly cut the ropes that held me bound to the tree.
“Quickly. Here’s my hand. Can you walk?”
“Yes,” I mutter, crawling to my feet and taking his gloved hand. His eyes glinted in the dark.
“Follow me, quickly and quietly.” He took off at a careful walk, and when we were a distance from the camp, we picked up a steady jog.
After a few minutes he slowed. “Just past this hollow is my horse. Are you all right?”
“Yes, fine,” I said, leaning forward to catch my breath.
“I imagine you might need food and water.”
“I didn’t realize how weak I felt.”
“You’ve been through a lot,” said he, taking my hand again. We crested the edge of the hollow, and there was a beautiful dappled grey horse munching patiently on some low-hanging leaves.
Next to the horse, we stopped. Turning to me, he placed his hands gently on my shoulders and searched my face.
“You’re safe now. Tell me, what happened? Did they mistreat you?”
Even if I couldn’t see his concern on this dark night, I could hear it palpably in his voice.
“No, no. I’m fine. Just sore and my head aches.”
“Those headaches that make you cry and collapse at any given moment?” he asked, with a note of teasing.
That made me remember my home. I took a shuddering breath, and then the tears came hot and fast, blurring my vision and my brain.
I blubbered and shook. “They burned my home, they burned my town, they burned and trampled everything and I have nowhere to go, and…”
He folded me into his arms and held me while I sobbed and soaked the sleeve of his jacket.
“Shhh, shhh, it’s all right,” he said gently. “You’re safe now.”
When my sobs subsided, replaced by hiccups and a hot face, I pushed back. “I’m sorry, it’s all so much. How in Merlin’s beard did you find me?”
“I was headed to Erusaye.”
“The capital? Why there?”
“A lot has happened since the time we met,” he said slowly. “I owe a friend a favor, and I was riding on my way to meet him when I ran across the raiders’ camp. I was about to skirt it when I saw your white nightdress, glowing like a spirit. As I got closer, I recognized you and, well, you were a damsel in distress — I was born for that moment.” His teeth glowed white with his grin in the darkness.
I snorted a laugh, hiccuped, and then started coughing.
Laughing, he turned away. “Let’s put some miles behind us before you wake the forest with your racket.”
“But,” I hesitated. “My home…”
He looked back at me and said, not unkindly, “You said yourself, your home is gone. It would seem that, whether you want one or not, you have a friend. I know it’s not exactly proper for you to ride alone with a man, but I’d not see you alone in the forest by yourself. Chivalry in this case demands a hard decision.”
“Chivalry? You’ve changed.”
“You make that statement with great authority, having known me for not even an hour before.”
“I know you perhaps better than some,” I reply, remembering seeing his death flash before my eyes.
“You can be mysterious if you like. I will readily admit that I know nothing about you, not even your name. But please,” he added earnestly. “Come with me. I will see you safely out of this forest at least.”
He mounts the horse, and extends his hand.
He’s right: there is nothing left for me at home. I take his hand, and swing lightly up behind him, and wrap my arms around his waist.
“Is that fine?” I ask, suddenly uncomfortable with the proximity.
“Comfortable. Are you?” he asks, nudging the horse forward.
“Yes. And my name, it’s Anaria.”
“Beautiful, like you. I’m Vale.”
We fall silent for a moment. The horse picked its way carefully through the forest, crunching on leaves and sticks, but otherwise all around us was still.
“Thank you, Vale,” I said after a while. “For saving me.”
“You’re welcome,” he said.
“You didn’t have to.”
“You’re my friend,” he replied, and to that, I didn’t know how to respond. I’d never had a friend before.
Morning found us still picking our way through the forest, and as soon as it was light enough to see, Vale pulled the horse to a stop.
“We’ve made enough ground, and I doubt the raiders will really even care that you’re missing, except that their sport is gone. We’ll rest here for a few hours.”
Sliding off, I hit the ground in a flutter of leaves, and Vale followed. I started making a small fire while he hobbled the gelding, and when we were both finished, we sat on either side of the fire and just stared at it for a long time. I was lost in thoughts of my home.
“When they came,” I said, just needing to tell someone, “I was asleep. I heard shouting and saw the flickering of their torches on the walls of my house.” I kept staring at the fire, but could feel Vale’s eyes on me now. “I looked out the window, and saw them trampling the graves and burning the crosses. There is such turmoil in the moments before death, and such peace after, and they were desecrating those people and disturbing their peace and I just felt such fury. I rushed from my house with my sword in hand, but someone grabbed me and it was over before it started.”
“You show a lot of passion for a cemetery.”
“I know how everyone dies,” I said, and then bite my lip.
“As the cemetery keeper, I imagine you do.”
“No, I mean…” I trail off and shake my head.
“Anaria?” he asks gently.
Heaving a sigh, I look up at him and square him in the eyes. “I carry a burden that few could imagine. My name means the gift, but it feels more like a curse every day.”
His eyes searched mine with such earnestness that my heart ached.
Suddenly there was a twinkle. “Are you going to tell me about your headaches, and why you cried the first time you met me?”
I smiled at his perception, but didn’t answer.
“Anaria, this burden — you don’t have to tell me, but if it would relieve your heart, that is what friends are for.”
I rubbed my temples and breathed long before I answered. I had never wanted anyone to know. Always afraid of the pain of getting too close only to watch someone die or of being exploited because of what I knew, I had never told anyone but my closest family.
But Vale had risked himself to save me; perhaps I ought to repay him with at least a little trust. Perhaps it was time I shared my burden. I look up and meet his waiting eyes.
“When I meet someone new,” I say slowly, “I see a vision of their death. Their death always happens exactly as I see it, but I never know when. When my parents died, I could see the events leading up to their deaths. It almost destroyed me: knowing that they were going to die, but not being able to do anything to prevent it.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t know what to say.”
“When I told you that I don’t make friends because I don’t want to watch their death, that’s not quite what I meant. I meant — well, I have guarded myself from people whose deaths are painful or untimely. As fate would have it, I’ve never met anyone I actually liked whose death wasn’t painful or untimely.”
I swallowed, looked back into the fire, and then added hoarsely, “I’m terrified of the pain.”
When he didn’t answer, I looked up to see a tear sliding down his nose. He was crying.
“Anaria,” he whispered, almost like it wasn’t my name but a forgotten word recalled.
“You’ve seen my death.” It wasn’t a question.
“I won’t ask,” he said, and stood up slowly, still staring into the fire.
“We need more firewood. I’ll go gather some. And Anaria?” he said, turning back before he disappeared behind a large oak.
“Thank you for telling me. For trusting me. I can’t imagine.”
I shook my head sadly. “No, I’m sure you can’t.”
Our journey was easier after that. We talked freely about life and the kingdom, about past times and future plans. We laughed and ate and drank.
When he found out that I could fight handily with a sword, we occasionally sparred with sticks before a meal for fun.
Sometimes we talked long into the night, lying looking up at the stars on our own side of the fire. Sometimes we never exchanged a word, but were comfortable with each other’s silence and our own thoughts.
One day after the sun set and we set up camp, I decided to inquire after his reason for going to Erusaye.
“So this favor you’re doing for a friend?”
He gave a wry smile. “It’s a long story actually. It started several favors ago, when I helped out these two royal idiots who got into a fight in a tavern. They were trying to help the tavern owner,” he added at my quizzical look, throwing some more wood onto the fire.
“I found them again in another pinch a few months later, and helped save their necks again. And then I got a letter a few weeks ago asking for my help. You’d think they would have gotten sick of me by now.” He shrugged.
“Asking for your help? In Erusaye?”
“They want me to become a knight.”
“When you said ‘royal idiots’… Your friend?”
He winced. “Is King Alaric.”
“I thought you hated royals.”
“I did. He’s decent enough.”
“I suppose calling him an ‘idiot’ might be treason,” I smiled, shifting to a more comfortable position and holding my hands by the fire.
“I’m not a knight yet,” he said lightheartedly, but the fire cast his face in troubled light.
“There comes a time, Anaria, when I suppose a man must choose to do something right, or nothing at all.” There was a pensive silence, but suddenly he stirred. “But the ale in Erusaye is the finest in the kingdom, so how could I say no?”
“Indeed,” said I, but wondered if he had finally found someone worth fighting for.
As we drew nearer to Erusaye, I became more troubled. I did not want to leave Vale, for he had become — despite my most guarded efforts — a close friend. There would be pain in leaving, and pain in staying.
He had never asked about his own death. But I had seen him dying — still young — in a knight’s armor, with the crest of Erusaye on his cloak. I had seen a woman wailing at his side, and I did not dare to ask myself who she was.
I jumped, startled out of my thoughts.
“Is there something interesting in the water I should know about?” Vale asked, with a lift of an eyebrow and a twinkle in his eye.
I glanced back at the bubbling brook, with the sunlight filtering through it like cut glass and the leaves laying gentle shadows upon its pristine surface.
Shaking my head, I smiled at him. “No, I just was thinking, that’s all. Are we ready?”
“Ready,” he replied, and offered his hand. I hesitated for just a moment before taking it and following him up the bank to where the dapple waited.
“We’re just two days’ ride from Erusaye now,” said he, after we had been riding for several minutes.
Hardly hearing him, I murmured an assent, still lost in my mind: deciding if I should stay in Erusaye or turn back to find a new life for myself.
“Might I guess what’s troubling you?” he asked over his shoulder, at which point I sat up a little straighter.
“I’m fine,” I protested.
“You are certainly not. You’ve become more distant the closer we get to Erusaye.” His face tightens with concern. “I’ve not asked about my death, but I wonder… I know you’re afraid of the pain. I understand if you want to leave, I do, but,” he hesitated, and grew so concerned that the horse sensed it and stopped, uncertain of whether to go on.
“Anaria, I’d like to bear this burden with you, if you’ll let me. For as long as I’m able.” He half-turned in the saddle and looked at me, and I studied his eyes: deep pools of beauty and concern, wisdom and humor, strength and safety. I had come to associate Vale with safety, despite the pain he would cause me.
“Think about it,” he said softly, and clucked to the horse.
I laid my head against his shoulder and sighed, and knew in my heart what I would decide, even if I didn’t know it in my head yet.
I pushed the door open gently to the council chamber, and took a deep breath, remembering the first time I had stepped foot inside: the day that I learned how everyone died, and nearly fainted from the toll the visions had taken. But Vale had gripped my elbow and supported me, and comforted me once we left.
“Even if they knew how they were to die, Anaria,” he had said to me, “these men would still protect the king and Erusaye.”
“I know, and that’s what makes it worse,” I had replied, dashing tears impatiently from my eyes.
But now I knew everyone’s fates. I had worked for the king these past three months, caring for the dead. The few live people I worked with generally had peaceful deaths, and I — strange as it may sound — enjoyed my work.
Today, I had merely come to the council chambers to report the cause of death of a scout rider. It had been a strange death, as I explained to the king. The body was broken in several places, apparently having fallen from a great height. His horse was undamaged except for extreme terror.
“Do you have any ideas?” King Alaric asked, fixing his piercing grey eyes on me.
“I would suggest a dragon, sire.”
“A dragon,” he mused, and then turned his attention to Kier, the captain of the knights. “Prepare the men. We march at dawn for the Plains.”
Vale took my hand as they all scattered from the table, and we walked out of that long well-lit hall together, and somehow I knew that it would be our last time in that great hall.
“Your hands are cold,” he says, stopping in an alcove to take my other hand in his and press them to his lips. “You’re nervous?”
“I don’t like to think what tomorrow might bring,” I reply, worry creasing my brow.
“Anaria.” He says it softly, tenderly, and gathers me into his arms and holds me. I can feel the gentle rhythm of his heart beating against my ear.
“Remember that whatever happens tomorrow, we will all be better for it if that is how we choose to respond. If I die, remember that I will always love you,” he says with a clarity and honesty that shocks me like cold water.
“Maybe I’ll be the one to die,” I whisper.
He shakes his head and looks at me with intensity.
“There are things in this world that are not good: death seems to be one. But every act, every word, every plant and animal, every death and every moment of life teaches us. There is deep magic to be seen and felt in this world if we only look for it — in life, and even in death.”
“What are you saying?” A deep ache, a deep longing awakes in me, and I’m not even sure what I’m longing for.
“You have to let it teach you. You have to start seeing death not as an End.” He closes his eyes tightly with a pained expression, and then pulls me close again.
“And when I die, grieve for me, Anaria, and grieve well.”
“You’re not going to die,” I murmur into his breast.
He sighs softly. “I think we both know that’s not true.”
The morning finds us both in armor, mounted, and as ready as we can be for what the day might bring. Vale objects, of course, at my coming, but I’m not going to abandon him in what I’m sure will be his last hours. We ride forth, and for a moment, I feel grand. The sun has burst over the horizon with hope, and the trumpets that commence our departure seem to announce our victory instead.
We are met on the Plains by a formidable army that hardly stops to consider before charging into our ranks. Knights fall on both sides, and all day the neighing, the screaming, the clashing and banging, pounding and roaring never stops. Horses run wild, screaming with fright, their flanks flayed open by wayward strikes. Wounded men hew final laborious strokes. Some thrash on the ground, in the clutches of death —
Death. Within the first few minutes of the battle, the wave of visions washes over me, and I spur my horse toward the trees, to leave the fight before I pass out. Once in the forest, my horse trips, and I fall and strike my head.
When I awaken, it is dark and wet. Rain pours from the swollen sky above, and I can see little rivers forming on the forest floor.
By occasional flashes of lighting, I can see the battle still raging in the distance, with torches burning in the hands of men or starting fires and burning those who have fallen. Even if I couldn’t see, I would still be able to hear the cries for blood that fill the night, only matched by the rings of bloodthirsty swords.
Suddenly I hear a roar that comes from above and shakes the earth. When I look up, I see a huge shadow sail across the tree cover above me. Staggering to my feet and drawing my sword, I run the direction that it flies, for I know how Vale meets his end.
I dodge tree branches that whip me in the face, and slip over roots barely seen, and suddenly the trees end and open into a small clearing through which a wagon road runs. The night is black as ink, and I can barely see the place where I think the wagon road is.
Gasping for air, I stop, wipe the rain from my brow, and look for the dragon. Instead, my attention is drawn by galloping hooves behind me, coming down the road. I turn to face the sound, and hold my sword at the ready.
A rider gallops into view, hovering low over his horse and looking back over his shoulder. When he sees me, Vale shouts, “Anaria! Get down! The dragon!”
Before I have time to react, the dragon swoops into the clearing with a mighty stream of flame. The fire lights up the clearing, and I see the talons rake Vale off his horse. The horse gallops, screaming, into the woods; but Vale flies through the air and crumples in the mud.
As if time has stopped, I run toward him. I can hear nothing. I feel nothing except the hot tears pouring down my face. They blind me; I can see nothing. My breath comes in ragged heaves, racked with sobs as I see the death vision unfold.
I fall to my knees next to Vale’s broken body. His hand clutches his left side, where the armor is rent and blood drips steadily. Rain pours onto both of us, washing our tears, our mud, our blood away in a relentless cleanse that seems to strip us to our souls.
Another flash of lighting lights up the clearing, and I can see the pain in Vale’s face, but it’s no longer my pain remembered from the vision. There is still strength in him as he meets my eyes, blinking as the rain falls into his face.
“Anaria,” he rasps, his voice gurgling from the blood in his throat. “You told me your name meant the gift.” He paused to gasp for air. “But in the language of my people, it means gifted one who walks alone. But you don’t have to walk alone: you are stronger than you know.”
“Not now, not now, please don’t leave me now,” I groan, clutching his chain mail in my fists and sobbing over his broken body.
“Everything happens for a reason,” he gasps out. “I suppose, I finally found someone worth dying for. And maybe you,” he coughs violently, and blood leaks out of the corner of his mouth. “You found someone worth living for.” With his last ounce of strength, he takes his bloody hand and touches it to my cheek; and then he breathes his last.
“Vale,” I moan, clutching the bloody hand between both of my own, pressing it to my face, watching the rain and my tears wash the blood away. “He was my only friend,” I cry out angrily, tipping my face to the sky. “You took him from me, he’s dead, he’s dead, he’s dead.” My body wracks with sobs, and I start shivering, going into shock.
I collapse into a sobbing heap onto his still form. I stay there for hours, for the whole night, until someone comes and lifts me off of him.
Then there were days that I don’t remember, fevered days where I was ill with hypothermia and shock and passed in and out of consciousness. They told me that I raved on the days when the fever was the worst, that I seemed to be striving with a consciousness, and when I won, I would fall silent. They thought it was the fever.
I knew differently. I had been striving with Death herself.
I awoke with a truth: I was distancing myself from pain, while also distancing myself from friends, and love, and shared burdens and wisdom and knowledge and strength. I was distancing myself from the everyday healing magic that I see woven throughout lives, when someone cares for someone else whether it’s their first day of friendship or their last.
I remember Vale every day. I remember his charm, his wit, his strength and bravery. I remember him for who he was, and for the good that he brought to my life. I still remember the pain, but the magic of love was so much more powerful. He taught me that you have to allow yourself to be loved in order to love. You have to be broken in order to be mended. You have to hurt before you can be healed. You have to die before you can truly live.
So I changed my name.
Anarian. It means gifted one who walks among.
I still don’t understand why I have these visions, but I have learned that though death is deeply sorrowful, it is also deeply transformational.
Vale would be proud, because I found some of the deepest magic of the earth: the power of love and true grief; and it was all because he loved me first.