Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his godly ones.
Psalm 116:9, 15
Abigail got her wish. Between Earth and Sky, being sorely neglected for some time between editing Adamantine and other idle scribbles, has succeeded in jogging my elbow and getting in a word or two recently. Like a caterpillar it has been hard at work eating vast quantities of dubious plot ideas and, hopefully, having spent some time in its chrysalis state, it will begin to emerge with some semblance of What It Ought To Be.
But don't count on that.
Here, for those of you who care to peep, is a little bit of what I have been working on. Enjoy!
Wing got up and stalked away, his flame-coloured mantle askew in the wind and the beaded ends of his braids flashing with the blowing light. Rede watched him go, a splendid, set-apart figure, then turned back to the burnishing of the spear that was in his hands.
It was a fine spear-head, heavy but thin, shaped like a shooting star with its fanning tail scrolled and etched in beautiful eddying patterns. The white light played wildly along the edges of the thing, and the sky, up-turned and watered blue, plunged into the blade-sides of it until it seemed he was polishing the empty blue and the clouds themselves.
“It is like the sky, and yet another sky.”
He looked up to see Red Branch watching him idly over the methodical movement of her needle, the fierce eyes gone soft under the long mare’s lashes. It was his hands that she watched, and it was all that he could do not to check them self-consciously, and to keep going. “Yes, my lady. I was thinking that too.”
She gave a half-moon smile and attended to her own work. “Sometimes I well believe, when I see my lord the Skylord at his burnishing, that it is another sky like ours, but where the blues are bluer, and the white clouds are whiter, and the gods walk there in country places far sweeter than our own. Yes.” She paused, lifting her head and gazing narrowly into the edge of the wind. It lifted the heaviness of her ginger hair and blew it softly round her face, and more than ever Rede thought with a pang of longing of his own mother.
“Yes,” she said, “it is the gods’ country, and the window into it.” She looked fondly on the spear’s head. “Fitting, I should think, that the window to the gods’ country should be the instrument of death.”
As the sea breaks on the rocky cliffs, the wind broke on the citadel of Ins, breaking and rushing upward in an angry roar, whipping up the grasses and the berry-beaded plants of the garden. Instinctively Rede braced against it, turning his head as Red Branch turned her head, away from the wind into the hollow of it where all things caught in a gale go to hide. If it had not been for the wind, he thought, and the horse-wise swinging into the hollow of it, he wondered if he would have considered her words seriously. The wind passed, the quiet settled again, but though the Dragon Lady took up her sewing again as if nothing had happened, he found himself staring into the up-turned sky in his hands, and wondering. It was quiet and blue and still in that reflection between blade and flat, the iron borderland between the living and the dead, as the back of the wind was quiet and blue and still—and perhaps it was mere marshlight fancy, but he thought it seemed familiar.
A strangely uneasy shudder ran through him that was very cold, and he hastily set to work furnishing the spear with its collar of heron’s feathers. It was ticklish work, threading the tiny beads onto the tiny cat-gut string, and threading the cat-gut through the miniscule slits of the feathers’ quills while the feathers jigged in the slightest wind; but as the thing came together it began to look beautiful under his hand, and the uneasiness wore away, replaced by a sense of satisfaction at a job being well done. Wing would be pleased, and that would please Rede.
They were both very quiet, and very intent on their work, so Rede was startled when Red Branch suddenly put aside her sewing and leaned down to take the spear from his hands just as he tied off the last knot of the thread. He gathered himself up, poised on the balls of his feet, watching her face as she swung the thing into the light and gazed at it, watching the leeward blow of the feathers. The half-moon smile was still there, but the softness had gone out of her eyes. The lashes shaded the eyes from the sun, but far down in their depths an amber light, like the amber light that played in her earrings, flickered like a cat’s tail.
“She is very beautiful, Rede,” she said finally, lowering it back into Rede’s waiting hand. “You have put the magic of yourself into her. She will answer to you now.”
Rede frowned. “She—it—the spear is Wing’s, my lady.”
“Oh.” Her arched look belied her surprised tone. “But it was you who polished the sky into her, and gave her the heron’s feather for swiftness and surety of flight.”
“Any man can trim a spear.”
“True. But not any man can trim it with the sky and the bird of the sky as you have done. It is more than an oiled rag and a handful of blue-grey feathers that you have put to the thing. You have,” she added, taking up her sewing into her lap again, “the way of it.” And then, with a more cunning glance, she added, “I think you know the sky and the sky’s bird more than you let on.”
Perplexed, Rede flashed his most disarming smile. “Do I have wings, my lady? I am as human as you, or Wing, or that man down there in the marsh.” He gestured with the spear at a solitary figure, far down among the purple and blue shadows of the flats, trekking along with a bundle of net over one shoulder. It was a strangely pathetic, human image: a man toiling about earning his daily bread. Rede could think of nothing more earthly than that.
“So, and yes,” said Red Branch patiently. “And you are serpent-cunning, but even a serpent cannot deny he has flown in heaven.”
This was rather more than Rede liked to deal with, and he frowned again, drawing back within himself, making as if to tend to the knots in his thread. To his surprise, Red Branch murmured, “I have upset you,” and she seemed genuinely distraught.
“No, my lady,” he said quickly. “That is—no, my lady.” And they fell into an awkward quiet. An angry wrestling began in Rede. He hated that he had denied Red Branch an answer, but of all people she was the least easy to speak with. Conory, Seamrog, even Wing, could take truth’s blow with equanimity. But his human ache struggled with his compassion, and almost he denied her an answer for the sake of keeping her comfortable; but he knew that, loath as he might disrupting the serenity of a lady, he loathed still more his cowardliness. So, with an odd little gasp, as if he had been stung, he said, “No, my lady, you are right—in a way. The sky is not unknown to me.”
Her eyes quickened with a strange excitement. “So… So! But you are not of my lord the Skylord’s house. You come from east over sea, from the Eagles’ country. Is it that the Eagles teach you how to fly in heaven?”
He quirked a smile and tried to hide it. “No, my lady. The eagle-people, they have had their wings clipped and they do not fly in the east over sea anymore. Here.” He held out the spear between them so that she could see the sky’s reflection in it. “It is this way. Suppose the reflection of the sky, as we call it, really were a world, the country of a god, where blues are bluer and the white clouds are whiter than they are here. Must that not be upward, and this sky—” he gestured overhead “—be downward? Perhaps it is we, and not the mirror of the spearhead, that are upside-down.”
She followed his words and his movements with a gravity of countenance, neither childlike as one might absorb any curious thing, nor sceptical as Wing might have been. She listened, and she weighed, and the eyes she turned on him at last were full of a serious fear.
“I suspected,” she said in a low, husky tone, “but I did not realize the depth of my suspicion. It is not mere heaven that you have flown in, Rede Wingsman—is it that heaven.” She touched with trembling lightness the blade of the spear. “It is the gods’ heaven you have been in. Little wonder…” And her voice trailed away. She stared at him fixedly for a long time while the cool wind played with the tendrils of her hair, teasing them in auburn curls across her cheeks. As caught in stone as she, Rede bore up under that searching, motionless gaze, feeling the desperation of her search as she struggled to peer into him. And as one thinking aloud, she said presently, “But you are firm, firm as earth. In all my years I have not known a soul as set as yours. You have come out west over sea from your land into a land you do not know and you are as though all earth were home to you, and a firmness for your feet. You know both the gods’ heaven and the footstool of their feet that is my earth.” The lashes splayed wide about the eyes, letting a wild, unchancy light into their depths. Rede knew them to be almost frightening, and yet the fear did not touch him. “You are like the heron, who fishes and who flies, and hangs between earth and sky. You walk among us as one who has passed through the valleys and sky-temples of the gods.” Of a sudden she jerked forward, earrings swinging with the violence of her movement, and almost clasped him by the arm. “Tell me!—are you dead?”
A giddy laughter shook loose inside Rede and very nearly escaped before he recovered himself. “Oh, my lady,” he said, and he had to crush his eyes shut a moment to quell the heady shining that was beginning to obscure the edges of his vision. “Oh, my lady, where do I begin? You have asked me the questions of everything, and I am afraid you have asked too much for me to tell in a single sitting.”
“But tell,” said she, drawing back into her seat, grave as one who is about to die herself. He saw that his hesitance confirmed for her the suspicion that he was dead, or at least had died—for was the blade and the death of the blade not the window to that other country, after all? And if he knew the upturned sky, he must know the blade that took one there. So she was grave, and quiet, and perhaps a little fearful, and his heart went out to her.
He settled back and folded his arms close across his chest, searching a moment for his words. “I will tell you, but you must listen to me as you were listening to words that are more alive than other words are alive, even as that sky in the spear’s blade is bluer than this sky above is blue. These are upside-down things, things out of God’s country, and they will not look quite as things from this country do, though they are similar.”
She passed her hand in a silent, inexplicable gesture through the air, and was still again.
His courage wavered, he gathered himself, and began. “It is true, I have passed through what you call earth, and through what you call sky. And I pass through them still. Here,” he waved his own hand, “it is a hard thing. It was not always through the spear’s blade that a man reached God’s country. There was a time when there needed to be no mirror-window, when country and country overlaid each other as the thin stuff of your mantle overlays the thicker. But man thought, ‘I will tear off the thick stuff, and I will keep just the thin, for God does not need anything, does he? He will not deny me the finer country, where the blues are bluer and the white clouds whiter than they are here.’ So he tried it, and he tore it. He did no damage to the thin stuff, for the things of God’s spirit are not damaged by any hand. But well he tore the thicker stuff, and lost the thin altogether, and so he won for himself a bane by the spear’s blade, for having undone what God had made so beautiful.”
“It is a large and unwieldy needle, the spear,” said Red Branch quietly, “with which to stitch up thin and thick together again.”
Rede gave back the other half of her moon-smile. “The little dark thinking folk from east of the Eagles’ eyries tell stories of men lost in Hell condemned to do tasks that they can never finish. There is a truth in that, if you care to look for a truth in that place. Man tore the cloth, and man had to stitch it up again, but man’s hands had learned to do the killing thing and could not learn to heal. It was impossible. So the spear-angel came for man, and many a man went away into the dark void between the thin and the thick where there is nothing but anger and regret and leanness of spirit, and no God’s-light nor hope of light.”
She inclined her gaze to the spear again. “And the window?” she asked. “The glimpse of heaven’s country? If you have been there, surely the glimpse does not mock—unless you are a god yourself.”
“It mocks and does not mock.” He held up the spear and let the blades of it catch the light. “By one side the spear-angel takes away hope forever, and by one side the spear-angel gives it. Divinity—that is a story for another day. But it was only divinity that could stitch up this ravelling cloth, though it was man whose task it was to do it. A high light is mercy, and a high deed to be merciful; so God, whose cloth all this is, took on himself the nature of man, and took on himself the bane of the spear’s blade: so that the two cloths might be stitched up in his body by his own hand, so that man’s task might be done, so that God might be honoured, and so that the thin and the thick might once more be put to right.”
He fell quiet, his throat gone suddenly thick itself, and the feeling in his brain alarmingly thin; it was Red Branch’s voice that brought him back. “It mocks and does not mock… How is it, if the thin and the thick have been stitched together again, that one blade is still the hopeless blade?”
“Because he divides—God divides—by mercy and by justice, and is honoured in both. It honours God—is that not answer enough?”
“It is answer enough.”
She looked away from him, and looked far away, he judged, by the way the darkness played idly in her eyes and under her brows, far into the north and the wind and the things which he had said. The ache came again, jangling like a physical wound, and he did not know why but that it was a desperate sort of ache.
“So,” she said, and did not look round as she said it. “Your thread has gone down into the thickness of earth, and into the thinness of heaven, and you have been stitched up with the spear-needle into the rightness of things. You have tasted death and seen the face of a god—which is death—and you are not dead.” A shudder ran through her, and she said, “What have we done…!”
Rede dropped his eyes. The light played with the wind in gold and amber, silver and blue, and they tasted like sadness to him. The ache had become a strange desolation, so it was like a blow when Red Branch said, softly, “I think that my son Wing must need you now.” And he could not argue, but he had to pick up his finished spear and go, leaving the Dragon Lady behind—the wind in his ears, the hardness of the spear-shaft in his hand, and a cold pit in his stomach.