The darkness she seems to be caught in slowly begins to fade. She blinks blearily and she feels herself walk forwards, one heavy step at a time. She feels like she is walking through water up to her knees. Eventually her vision clears and a path comes into view. It rounds the side of a wide lake with trees that flower and weep lining the sides, making the path seem more like a hallway. As she passes, she looks to her left, to her right, to her left again. The white stone of tombs, unobstructed by water, shining in the sunlight; the final resting places of these men are a glorious last tribute and testament. Monuments to the kingly nature of the dead.
She passes by another. And another and another and another. Until she stops near the end and stares up and up, until her the bones in her neck crack a little, at the stone gate that leads into the shining and perfectly whole city before her. Except there are no people here. The air about her is so quiet she can hear a pin drop. Hold on; this can’t be right!
A blink. And then another… A blue lady stands before her.
Another blink and a cool hand is pressed over her eyes, effectively shutting them. When she tries to reach up to remove it, she finds her hands unable to move, as if weighted down by water that now feels as if it is up to her chest. Only, she can still feel the solid ground of the path beneath her.
Then she hears a voice, feminine and stern. It is unlike any voice she has ever heard anywhere before.
“You have wandered far from your nest, little bird.”
She ceases trying to lift her hands remains still, anxious to know what is going on. And yet, it seems that fear does not yet find a home in her. She teeters on the edge of speaking and remaining silent.
“Why did you come here?”
Finchley knows now that she should answer and, from the tone of that voice, that she should answer honest and true.
“… I came to find a friend,” is her reply, her voice quiet and respectful as she feels it probably ought to be.
A sigh is heard.
“That is true enough but it is not the sole reason why you have come here. Speak the Truth of Truths. The hearts of Men are not closed books to me.”
A second passes by and the true answer seems to come to her as naturally as it should. But it hovers on the tip of her tongue before she endeavors to give it voice. And once she opens her mouth, it escapes her lips like a trapped bird.
“I wanted to see the things that are fair and beautiful.”
The air around her seems to grow both hot and cold all at once. The sound of a fierce wind begins to grow in volume and yet she cannot feel it blowing through the short strands of her hair. Nor can she feel it pass over her skin. But she knows that it is there. Then she hears footsteps on either side of her and the sounds of soft weeping. They pass by her back down the way she had come. People are leaving the city?
The sounds build and swell into a overwhelming crescendo until, in an instant, all falls silent again.
“Think you that there are things here that are beautiful?” asks that stern voice again, a hard edge coloring her tone. The hand over her eyes presses in slightly firmer, but not enough to hurt. No, the lady wants her to listen.
Off to her left she hears the sudden, deafening crack of stone falling and splitting upon the ground. The metallic clang of steel meeting steel can be heard to her right.
“Think you that there are things here that are fair?”
The waters rise to her neck now and she can feel the ground underneath her feet slowly eroding away.
The sounds of long dead men crying out in anger and in pain from behind the doors and lids of tombs echo her ears followed by the maddened chuckle of baser men over ill-gotten treasure. A bestial growl sounds off from the space right behind her and she swears that she can feel the rotten breath upon the back of her head.
The lady’s voice comes again, raised in anger and indignation. And perhaps, Finchley thinks silently… sorrow?
“Tell me, what is beautiful about abandonment?!”
She feels a panic rise in her breast as the water slowly starts to climb higher, up to her ears, up to her chin…
“Tell me, what is fair about ruination?! How can you say that there is aught here which is fit for your young eyes? You, who have no ties to the line of kings! You who dares to tread where your betters have trod!”
She feels something cold and leathery grasp her shoulder and finds that she can no longer hold her silence. Her mouth opens again and a frantic answer comes pouring out, high and clear. She speaks with panic but she also speaks with an earnest heart.
“There is! I know that there is much here that is still beautiful! I know that there is much here that is still fair!”
All at once the grip on her shoulder melts away into nothingness and the waters recede until they settle about her ankles. She doesn’t think to find it odd that she does not feel like she has been standing underneath water; her hands and her feet are not damp. The world around her falls silent and all she can feel now is the earth under her feet and the hand over her eyes, which has tensed like a bowstring.
She takes a short moment to breathe before she elaborates; and elaborate she must!
“Th-The city may be in ruins. Even the tombs are not what they once were but they are still there. They are still a wonder to behold. They are still beautiful.” She knows she might be testing her luck but she is compelled to speak. “Maybe I don’t understand it well. Like you said, I’m no ranger. I ain’t got a claim to old kings of the past. Everything that has ever happened in this place should be just stories to me. But… they aren’t. People lived here. They walked these paths and had stories of their own. And even though they’re gone now, no one can doubt that they were here. No one can say that the kings in all the stories are just legends… And, though I can’t tell folk what to feel, I am happy that things happened here and that there is somethin’ left behind for simple folk like me to see afore we pass. I think there’s some good to be found in that.”
Another moment of silence passes as the water about her ankles vanishes completely. Though she now no longer feels rooted to the spot, she doesn’t dare move. And, just when she thinks that maybe she has gone too far and has spoken out of turn, the voice comes again and the hand about her eyes softens.
“…I sense no dishonesty or pride from you. And that is more than I can say for many outsiders who have taken up residence where they should not. But they will soon learn that the line of kings is not to be trifled with… Nor am I.”
The hand is removed from her eyes and, when she blinks, she finds that she is no longer standing upright. She feels earth beneath her back and sees the blurred image of a lightly clouded sky above her, as if she were looking through water. Slowly, but surely, consciousness begins to leave her. She struggles, even as her eyes slip closed.
But, when she feels that abnormally cool hand at her brow this time, she ceases her fight and allows herself to succumb. She hears that stern voice again, though it is softened ever so slightly this time, as everything fades to black.
“You may understand more than I gave you credit for, little bird. I have much to think on… But now it is time for you to face the world once again, for your task is not done.”
The cool hand is removed and, once again, she slips into the dark and the quiet.
(to be continued)