Legend – Chapter 11
She entered, carrying a tray with roast meat and a cup. He looked up and stood, putting the parchment aside. She put the tray down and stood back.
He did not sit down. “Why are you doing this, Queen?”
The half of her mouth that was visible smiled. “Doing what, my Lord?”
“Serving me yourself, when you have innumerable servants who could do it?”
“It is what you are owed, my Lord. Those who have achieved what you have might be numbered on the fingers of one hand, and still fingers would remain to count.”
He shook his head and studied her intensely. “If I accept that you are . . . what you appear to be, I might almost believe that. Yet still that would simply set me free. And I am recovering, and would be free soon. Are you planning to hold me here?”
“Hold you?” She laughed, and the laugh was at once a silvery chime of beauty and a rasp of something long dead. “My legions entire could not hold you, Lord; I, perhaps, might, but might not, and why should I? You hate the light above as much as I, for you were banished from that world for seeing the truth, the death beneath the faces of the living, the hatred hidden under the ideals, the envy masquerading as admiration, you and I know these well.”
“And so you would destroy the world?” He said it not in fear, or even as one who would argue it, but trying to see what she truly wanted. The world deserved destruction – it had begged him for destruction, to put the arrogant parasites that now exalted themselves above the dirt from which they had arisen back into that same dirt, to perhaps give birth to something cleaner and better one day. But he was the judge, not this . . . being who might, or might not, be what she seemed.
“Destroy the world? Say, rather, complete the destruction which had already begun, yea, even before your father’s fathers’ great-grandfathers’ grandfathers had been imagined.” Now the voice was the cold of northern winds. “These the mortals were spared the doom foretold, and that is not to be borne. Especially not now, not when they have spread to the uttermost corners of the Earth and have forgotten the Powers almost entirely.”
He observed the words, heard the tones of her voice, watched how she stood. She is telling the truth . . . but not all of the truth. “That is history, ancient history, older if I guess right than our own history would have it. What do I care for something that far agone? My anger is for those who claim to be human beings who ignore the meaning of their own heritage, who destroy what is good with their own apathy and arrogance and fear and hatred, for those who think their greed and comfort is worth the destruction of the rest – for the black heart that lies within all humanity and makes it unfit to exist.”
“Ah, so you mean yourself, my Lord.”
He laughed. “I was one such, yes, and if truly the end of the world is achieved then I, too, would fall, and fall fulfilled. But I ask you again, why should I care for your past, what does your ancient battle matter to me? And what do you truly want, what do you gain from the end of the world, when – if you truly are what you seem – you are the last and greatest, the mistress of the final resting –” He stopped abruptly.
The half-smile was cold, cold. “And those who come within my grasp are my strength, yes. I see you begin to grasp it, my Lord. Those who cast me down have been cast down themselves, and with the great powers now moving in the middle world I might gather to me even greater souls, more champions even than those remaining in Fólkvangr, the last reserve held by the Gold Lady for her true Lord, the Wanderer and Leader of Souls.”
Her dark hair and eyes were filled with anger, and he made the connection. “You care nothing for the mortal world itself,” he said with certainty. “Only for the power you might gain to emerge from here, to face those others who survived the end. For revenge, in short.”
“And why not?” she said icily. “Was this not also punishment as well as duty and honor, that I be the judge and keeper of those slain, but not of those who fell in battle, lest my hosts be the equal of those held by the highest of the Nine? Were not my brothers felled in that battle, and did not my father, too, fall, slain by one who once called him friend? And did that loss not cause even my mother, whom they called monster, to grieve until she, too, passed, and so even beyond my ken and calling, so I know not whence her spirit has gone or whether it has merely vanished to the winds of her pain?”
His memory had mostly returned, and he now comprehended more of his own failures . . . and of what hers might be. “I do not say you cannot seek revenge; after all, I care nothing myself for what happens after the world itself is cleansed. Perhaps, even, you might make a better world of it, once your own hatred is gone; I judge my people, not yours.
“But I do care that this time I will not fail. You have chosen to call me Lord, but will you follow my commands? Or will I find that you will be the one giving commands, when the end comes and I have need of your service?” He stood over her now, and he felt the power in his hands again. “I know that I need allies to achieve my goals, but I do not need ones I cannot trust.”
“What do you ask of me, then?”
He smiled grimly. “First, tell me what you can do for me that I cannot do for myself.” He held up his hand. “For know this: I remember my world, and I now can recall my battles, and while you have many warriors here, there are more warriors now in the world above than there were people in the lands that once paid you tribute, in the days from which you awakened, and even their ordinary soldiers wield weapons far beyond those of your ancient hosts. And if, as you say, none of these died in battle, will they not be rather inferior warriors overall?”
She began an angry retort, then stopped, smiled slowly. “It is true, my Lord, that many of those here died not in battle, but of sickness, old age, and such; yet also is it not true that the greatest of warriors do not die in battle, for none withstood them in their strength? Many of these have I in my host, cold but young now, young as they remember themselves to have been in their prime. More, their weapons are not mere steel, their armor not simple boiled leather and forged chain, but mystical, strong and fell. Whatever arms the mortals have devised, they will find my armies not so simple a riddle to solve.
“And when the great battle came, the other halls of Heroes were closed, made fortresses, and whence then do you think those who fell came? Oh, warriors I have, Lord, and you should know well that the best of them have yet to be full tested in battle.”
That makes sense. And if she will follow my orders . . .“A blood-oath, then, swearing that you will serve me until my task is complete and the destruction of the world – of the human world – is complete.”
She regarded him steadily. “There are other worlds, and not just the Nine, and on some of those live other human beings. Your task could be unending.”
More worlds? How could there be more worlds on which we live, when we have yet to pass beyond the bounds of our own solar system? He gritted his teeth. She will not accept an unending task. And I have no knowledge of these other worlds save her own words, and thus no judgment to bring upon them. “So. In that case, it is my birth world of which I speak, the world we call Earth, the world which is, I presume, the birthplace of humanity.”
“Then I shall swear such an oath, if to me you will give the greatest of the powers now born into your world.”
He did not change expression, but inwardly he wondered. Does she know what such powers are to me? Or is it purely for her own purposes?
No matter; in the end I will have enough strength to deal with her, if necessary. “I will give them to you – save one, and one only, as long as you remain in my service faithfully and well.”
Her smile showed clear understanding. “The one who has ever and always been your nemesis and equal. Of course, my Lord; that one is yours alone.”
A dagger appeared in her hand. He did not flinch as she reached out and cut across his palm, and then without expression cut her own. The delicate hand laid itself in his, and gripped with surprising strength. “Then to this mortal man I bind myself, I give to him my loyalty and my armies, my lands, my weapons and treasures, until such time as his mission is complete. So I swear, in my own name, in the name of my realm.
“So swears Hel.”