The man woke to someone rapping sharply against the door. He pulled himself up, the ache wriggling in his leg again as he stood. He rubbed the crust from his eyes and acquainted himself with the place not made of dreams.
Slivers of moonlight sheared through the window, cutting deep into night’s curtain, showing the sputtered, smoking remnants of the candle on the windowsill. The body of tallow had collapsed, wet wax and white drippings spackling the wooden wall.
He sighed, realizing just who waited outside his home as he stared at the burnt-black wick. The flame had only ever burned out when she was fading.
The oaks groaned beyond the window, limbs creaking in the wind, scant patches of moon dappling through their branches. His shack was tucked far off from any main-line road, surrounded by great stretches of old and forgotten forest. And yet she still found him.
The door rattled again. He played with the idea of leaving her to knock all night, but already he could feel her pulling at him, invisible hands tugging at his shirt-collar. His leg throbbed warmly, unaccustomed to moving so early in the morning as he passed from room to room, finally reaching the small distance that led to the door. The air grew warmer as he approached it, a swell of heat washing over him as he set his ear to the wood.
“It’s me,” she said.
Despite expecting her, the sound of her voice still shook him, unlodging old memories, digging up dead things he once held dear. He shut his eyes, trying to hide from them.
“Leave,” The man said.
“He’s coming,” she said. “He’s caught my trail.”
“There are others out there you could go to.” His hands ached to throw open the door, even as he bid them still. “You do not need me.”
“You were different.”
He fought the words as they burrowed and bit into him. His leg rattled, old and badly mended bones retracing their breaks and fissures. Her scent wrapped softly around his throat.
“Go,” he told her.
“Would you not let me see you again?” she asked. The door pushed inward, hinges screeching, warm air pouring through the growing gap.
He pushed his weight into the door, the wood-grain hot against him. “No,” he said. “Now leave me be.” She was stronger now, he realized, or maybe he’d just grown weak. Weak and old and lonely, all the while she stayed so young.
“I’m fading,” she said. The door pushed open again, her fingers found his. “The Mares have my trail, he isn’t far behind. If you don’t help, he’ll have me.”
“I tried helping once,” he said. The man looked down at the mangled remainder of his leg. “Didn’t work then, won’t work now.”
“I never meant for him to hurt you,” she said.
“Better him than you,” he said. “At least my leg still works some.”
She waned in that moment, and the man felt tears bite at him. It felt good to hurt her, felt right, but his heart wailed at her recoiling, howled at him for possibly driving her away.
She didn’t leave.
“I don’t love you,” the man said.
She prodded at him with those phantom hands, felt out where his will was weak. “You don’t mean that.”
“Then why can I still find you?” she asked. “Why do you still draw me to you clear as day even in the darkest night?” She squeezed her hand on his. “It might be enough this time,” she said. “Enough to beat him back for good.”
His teeth chewed the inside of his cheek as he struggled against the ideas and old dreams that came back to bay like wolves in winter night. “There were others you could’ve gone to,” he said. “Others who loved you.” Tints of copper filled his mouth as his cheek began to bleed.
“You were different,” she said. The house shook as he felt her force her will against it. “You fought. You lived.”
The hinges shot out from the archway, two bits of metal red-hot and warped. The door smoldered and snapped open, a flare of sparks emerging like a nest of fireflies from the slab of wood. Sun-white smoke came before her as she passed through the glowing gash.
The shift that covered her pale skin was charred around the edges, hanging limply from shoulders scarred and marked. Snaking coils of mist trailed and twirled around her, heat radiating in great and pulsing ripples. He avoided her face, even as the sight of her flesh stirred him.
“Would you not at least give the thought a chance?” she asked. Gossamer fingers settled beneath his chin. “Isn’t it worth it?”
“For you it might be,” he said, “But you didn’t sit there all those nights, waiting with a broken leg, hoping like you fool who should’ve known better.” He shook his head. “How many years has it been?”
“I don’t see time the way you do,” she said. “Years don’t feel so long when you know you will not die.” She touched his thigh, tracing along the knotted scar beneath his trousers, following where the blade had carved him open so many years ago. “But even for me, this thing has gone on too long.” Her hand cradled his chin. “I don’t want to run anymore.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Look at me,” she said.
She spoke again, an edge hardening in her words, some thick and heavy chain stringing from between her lips. “Look at me.”
Veins rose beneath his skin. His teeth grated, muscles stretching tight against their sinew anchors. It hadn’t mattered how weak she’d gotten or how old he’d grown. Her voice commanded him, her will crashing against his, seeping through the cracks, breaking down the walls. Her words paged through every inch of skin and unsaid secret, all the memories and long-forgotten fever-dreams peeling back for her to see once more.
“You always did fight the most,” she said.
Blood filled his mouth, his teeth having come down on his tongue. She clawed through him, searching. His heart called out from its cage, bleating like a long-forgotten fawn. She leapt upon it, breaking through the bars his will had set, gathering it up like a thing she’d always owned.
Slowly her face appeared. Angled and thin, nestled between trailing locks of smoking coal that draped her neck. He set a trembling hand on her cheek, losing himself in glowing-ember eyes.
“Even now, after all this time,” she said, “It’s still the same.” A slight smile appeared.
He shivered despite the heat.
Her arms snaked across his neck, drawing herself closer to him, pushing her unnatural heat against his old and aching bones. Her shift began to burn, flaking off in glowing strings. His own clothes ignited, cotton shirt dissolving away in shreds, socks unraveling in a thread of flame.
“Promise me,” he said. “No more running.”
She leaned forward. “I promise.”
He shut his eyes.
“We do not have long.” Her lips hung a whisper’s width from his own. “He will be here soon.”
And then her mouth met his, and he was lost. Forgotten in twisting shapes, numb with heat and blind with smoke. A tongue flitted across his teeth, flames licked and danced across his flesh. Melted wax ran along the wall, sweat and ash slicked his skin, and reason gave way to more foolish things as she once again poured into him, razing his heart like frost upon field-clover.
The wick stayed dead. The room ebbed smoke that soaked into the walls. She was nestled at the edge of the bed, feet tucked beneath her chin, burning eyes set at the door.
“He’s coming,” she said. “The Mares are close.”
He sat up with her, wrapping his arm around the small of her back.
She said nothing.
“The candle’s out.”
The quiet continued to seep in between them, cold and hard like ice. The smoke formed into jet-black flakes, the Mares howled some ways from beyond the window.
“You can’t be fading,” he finally said. “How is there so little?”
“I have to save what you gave, In case-”
“You have to run,” he finished. A weight settled in him, dreadful and familiar.
She nodded. “It wasn’t enough, what you gave me.”
“Did you know?” he asked. “Did you know it wouldn’t be enough?”
She said nothing.
“You promised me,” he said. “And you lied.”
“Your heart’s no good if it’s guarded. I’d have gotten nothing if you knew.”
She stood from the bed, the arch of her spine made clear, the notches of ribs protruding against plaster skin. The thrumming sound of the Mares emerged from the quiet, a slow and steady drum. “I have to go.”
“No.” He stood, leg snapping back at him for the sudden movement. “No, you don’t get to do this.” He snatched her wrist, turning her to face him. “You promised me.”
Her eyes were burning, sclera lit with fire. Smoke poured from her, thick and fragrant. She took a step towards him, leaving a burning footprint stamped into the wood. “You don’t understand,” she said.
“So, tell me,” he said. “Tell me why you run and why he chases so close behind, why you break down my door and ruin my bed and make promises you know you’ll never keep.” His face had fallen close to hers, his voice having risen into some raw-worn scream. It was all he could do to stop himself from weeping.
Her own tears fell freely. He felt her recede, pulling out the strings she had latched so tightly into him, their barbed ends tearing so much away. His heart screamed for them, calling him a fool and demanding he set thing right.
He sighed and gently took her into his arms, buried his face in her hair as the two of them swayed in that ever-growing silence.
“I wish it could be different,” she said. Her hands reached up behind his shoulder-blades. “I wish I could stand against him and be done with all of this.” The floorboards around them began to blacken, the scent of pine resin cloying and thick. “But he’s still too strong, even after all this time.”
“Why does he chase you?” the man asked. He glanced to the window, seeing a thick, heavy mist beginning to creep in from between the trees.
“He was the first I stole from,” she said. “But things went so wrong.” Tears wet his chest. “I left a great deal of him undone, and his wounds have not healed well.” She tightened her grip on him. “And so he’ll chase me, thinking I can fix him.”
“Give back what you stole,” he said.
She chuckled mirthlessly. “When have I ever taken something that could be given back?”
“Then let’s run together,” he said. “We’ll find some way to beat him.” He held her out to stare into those eyes again. “We just need time.”
Her eyes glanced at his leg and she shook her head. “I can’t risk you, and he wouldn’t suffer you slowing him again.”
“You don’t get to decide this,” he said.
She leaned in and kissed him once.
“Yes,” she said, staring at him as her eyes began to glow, “I do.”
Her nails turned into claws as they burrowed into his back. His breath stopped in his throat and his heart went still.
“I won’t let you die,” she said, “not for me and not for this.”
He choked and gasped, stunned by the fire running in his blood, limbs frozen as she continued binding his nerves and bones. His hands went numb and useless, clutching at locks of her hair. Her fingers twisted beneath his skin, pulling at the strings of his arms and peeling them away as she stepped free
The Mares screamed again. She looked towards the ruined door, listening to the growing thunder outside.
“Please don’t leave,” he said, fighting against her bindings.
She kissed him on the cheek. “You’ve saved me, and now I have to do the same for you.” She turned from him.
“I love you,” he said.
She sighed. “No, you don’t.”
“I won’t let him take you.”
She smiled again. “I hope I can see you once more before you grow too old to remember me.”
“Please,” he choked.
She bounded through the door, quicksilver in a human shape, leaving the warm air to be dismembered and dispersed in the coming cold.
He watched her go, screaming her name, trapped by whatever she’d weaved. He struggled against the phantom ropes, moving as if in mud. His foot rose, fell, fought to rise again. He made fists, unclenched them, did it once more. His old wound throbbed and stabbed as mangled fibers tried to flex in ways they’d forgotten. The doorway stood a few paces away, the dark beyond taunting him as it slowly devoured the light of her glow. Frost stretched thin fingers into his home, the wind began to rage, throwing tools and knives from shelves and tables.
And then he was free. He fell in a mess of limbs, gasping and sweating for breath as the lashings drew themselves out of his muscles. He collected himself, gathering a rotted cloak and ragged knife before limping out into the ever-growing chill.
He could hear the Mares, their thunderous gallops a deep and dreadful augury, screams cutting deeper into him than the cold ever could. Their master would not be far behind.
The man found the barely burning remnants of her footsteps leading off the trail. Nettles and thorns scratched at his eyes and arms, thick roots threatened to wrestle him down with a poor step. Peppered moonlight let him spot a broken branch or smoking patch of grass that marked her passing. He called out for her as he tracked, filling the night with the many names she’d carried in her long-lived life.
Hooves and heartbeats began to fill the stillness of the forest, trailed by breaking earth and snapping ice. He continued his stumbling gait through the wood, lungs burning, leg stiff, great plumes of breath surging from his body. He could still find her, still save her. He cleared a thicket of young and slender saplings, entering some twilight glade he’d not remembered.
She was nearly through the clearing, the paling glow of her skin hurtling towards the next thicket of forest. He chased after her, sweat freezing on his bare skin. Ice crackled as mist curled into darkening claws. The quaking ground jarred his bones, frenzied panting hung heavy in the air. The man kept on in his hampered stride, seeing only her, even as growing shadows ate away the edges of his vision.
The first Mare caught him in the shoulder, its flank smashing him like a cold, coarse stone. Another one of the beasts came to bury black teeth into his arm, tearing away skin and muscle in a jet of blood. He screamed for her as one more swung its great skull into his chest and brought him to the ground. Cold dust showered down as the Mares thundered by, umbral shapes with streaming scarlet eyes.
He choked and spat blood, mauled arm refusing to bend its fingers and find any purchase in the frozen dirt. A hoof crunched into his ankle, grinding open the bones. The Mares flecked him with spittle and screams. Another threw its foreleg, cracking the back of his head against a cragged root. More of the horses were pieced together from the patches where moonlight didn’t shine, eyes wild, shreds of moss and dirt flying beneath their hooves as they continued to trample him. His body twisted upon itself, tumbling and rolling among their legs, bones breaking off inside him to slice into the surrounding tissues, breath forced out with every blow. He shut his eyes.
More screams joined his own as a surge of heat enveloped him, bringing a respite from the striking hooves. Fires rose out from the ground like scattered birds, feathers of blood and rust-colored flames reaching high. The Mares parted around him as a river would a stone. Manes and hides caught fire, the scent of burning horseflesh mixing with dust and ash. They careened off into the shelter of the trees, lighting the oaks and alders. The cold dry bark flared open as the blaze traveled up their branches, leaping in the wind to land on nearby neighbors, snapping up the leaves that drifted aimlessly like lost and lonely stars.
“You damn, stupid fool,” she said.
He fought for breath in his broken ribs, wheezing through cracked teeth, blood pooling in his lungs. She looked down at him, hands cracked with red and glowing runnels, ebony hair pulsing with crimson flares. The Mares continued in their burning, screaming off to set more of the wood ablaze. A tall willow flashed as its silky fronds burst into sulfured flares.
She knelt, taking his head into her hands, leaning down to look closer at him. Tears streamed from lambent eyes, pattering his cheeks.
He tried to mutter something through his desperate wheezing.
She hushed him. “He’s going to find us.” She pressed her lips against his forehead. “Just be still.”
The burning wedge that surrounded them flickered before parting, billows bowing low and away for whatever stood beyond. The man felt cold as he looked through swelling eyes.
Frost was enameled on a gaunt, steel-clad shape. The heavy blade shimmered at his waist. A lightless gaze stared from an antlered helm of elk-skull. The Mares stood behind the flames, nostrils flaring as they scratched into the dirt.
“Leave us,” she said. Her grip on the man tightened.
The Knight took another step forward, mail skirt clinking along bone-white sheets of metal. The Knight pointed to his chest.
The man noticed a fist-sized ruin beneath the Knight’s aegis in the firelight, a scar of black streaking across the steel, so vast and empty and cold.
She bared sharp teeth. “Leave us!” A gout of flame reached from the ring and struck, arcing across the Knight’s faceplate, forcing him to falter. “This has naught to do with you.”
The Knight stood and wiped the char from his helm, watching it rise in a black-feather bloom from his fingers. He said nothing, letting the rutting of hooves and burning wood around them be his answer.
Tears trenched down her cheeks. “How you’ve changed.”
The Knight tapped a finger against the blemish on his chest.
She shook her head.
The distance between them disappeared. He kicked the man away, sending his limp body tumbling through the dirt. His gauntlet was snarled beneath her chin. Her legs kicked furiously and the fire followed suit, rippling like weeds in wind, glowing stalks bending and lashing at the knight, glancing off his armor.
The Knight’s free hand beat slowly against his blackened breast. A deep drone of wind blew out from the helm and across her face.
“I don’t have it anymore,” she said. “It didn’t live out here. It’s gone. Do you understand that? I killed it.” She shook her head. “I’m sorry.”
The Knight continued pounding on his chest, head shaking back and forth.
She reached out to touch the mark. “I wish I could make it stop hurting.”
The Knight smashed his fist into the plate, gloss cracking in spiderweb lines. He held his hand out to her, fingers clenching in some expectant gesture. The Mares began to scream.
“I know,” she said, slow sobs filling her. “I know.”
The Knight drew his blade, the edge shimmering like a sliver of moonlight made steel.
The man fought himself onto his stomach. He had no voice, his lungs punctured with bones, throat burned with hot coal-dust. He crawled, sifting through the ash like some slow blind worm. His useless limb dragged him on. His other hand gripped the knife.
The Knight made no sound, but the Mares howled as if in pain. They kicked and nipped and butted against one another, their infighting steadily growing more savage. Shards of gloss fell from where he’d smashed the metal, black ichor leaking from the cracks.
“I’m so sorry,” she said.
The burning walls grew jagged, breaking off and finding other things to devour. Cinder danced around them in luminous schools. Trees broke their old backs and fell, letting columns of ash rise to take their place. Younger sprouts ruptured from inside as their sap caught fire and spewed forth in flaming drops.
The man continued his slow crawl, spitting up blood and broken teeth. His eyes rolled in their sockets. His heartbeat smashed against his skull. The cold chewed at him, bleeding his body’s warmth.
The Knight set the blade against her throat. The Mares reared and bucked.
“You were so beautiful,” she said. “You used to sing to me, remember?”
One of the Mares fell to the ground, screaming and dying as its skin broke into black smoke and its form faded back into darkness.
“We danced until acorns had grown into old and ancient oaks,” she said. “Loved one another as mountains wore away and rivers ran dry.” Her tears froze on his gauntlet. “You told me your name.” She grabbed the sword’s edge, pushing it slightly away, even as her burning blood ran down the blade. “Do you remember mine?”
Cold wind roared from the skull, throwing back her hair, coating it in frost. Small daggers of ice cut across her cheeks. More of the horses fell and died, flesh disbanding into screams and ether.
“I know,” she said, answering some phantom claim. “And I’m sorry.”
The man reached the hoof-shaped boots and grabbed the shin-guard, pulling himself partway out of the ash. He looked at her, bleeding and weeping, things he wished she’d never have to do.
He gathered up the remnants of his blood-filled breath and managed to croak out a single, rough-hewn word.
He brought up the knife and rammed it down between the armor, burying it into the unnatural flesh beneath.
The Knight stumbled, dropping her. He turned on the man, spewing cold and biting breath that sent up great waves of gray dust and burning grass.
The Mares reared and swung their forelegs. The Knight looked to see her running through the immolated glade, a white-hot outline amid ochre and amber. He pointed and the beasts started the chase once more, orphan smoke behind its betraying flame.
The Knight gathered himself up, wrenching the skinning knife from his leg and letting it clatter to the newly-frozen ground. The sword smoked in his hands as he limped closer to the man. The forest continued burning, throwing the glowing husk of its soul up into the sky.
The man sputtered another gout of red as the Knight reached him. The elk-skull shook slowly back and forth, and once he pointed at the wound on his chest, a shattered cavern that let out no light.
The man pointed at his own chest. “Mine too.”
The blade came down in a vicious arc, drawing open the man’s belly. The sword struck again, carving into his leg, unknitting the old and angry scar.
The Knight pointed to where she had run and then back at his chest. He brought his boot down on the man’s hand, silently demanding once more for something that could not be set right.
The man shook his head, and again the blade sank into him, his chest dividing in some fitful mess. And then again. Over and over the Knight cut into him, ripping more and more away, each blow leaving him colder than the last, leaving his fading sight to stare into that ruin of broken glass and blood.
Stark white smoke and crimson flame began to move across the empty dark of metal, growing close and twisting around themselves before parting back and gaining space to do it all over again. They pinwheeled and pirouetted with one another across the void, like ageless things that would go on forever without him, keeping tune to some old and timeless song he could not learn, weaving and winding in patterns he could never take part in, speaking to one another in ways he could never truly know.