Sundark and Winterling

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Sundark awoke to rain drumming on the windowpane and dripping from the eaves. In the street below, the footsteps of early risers splashed along the cobbles. None paused outside her house; the house that was once the dragon, Winterling. It was almost as though most of the people had all but forgotten it was there; a splash of jewels and dragon-skin against the shadowy gothic spires and crooked mansions that spread through the old district. They were used to living alongside the fae, so many people thought the music that rilled from the roof and rained down from the eaves on moonlit nights was just a clever trick, when they bothered to notice it at all.

It was no trick. In the gray morning, Sundark listened for Winterling’s song, but there was nothing but the patter of raindrops and the faint shouts of the early market opening down by the pier. Then, snatches of conversation between two of her charges floated down from the rooftop:

“I don’t think she’ll ever come back.” Gutterblood’s tone was obstinate.

“Nonsense,” Bellibone replied. “How else will songs be written, poetry set to Winterling’s glorious notes, if she stays away forever?”

Sundark smiled and pulled her mind up toward them, hovering at their shoulders as they sat on the edge of the roof, their feet dangling over the edge. Gutterblood and Bellibone were two of the word-ghosts—the erutisi—who haunted the city. They were the fragile echoes of forgotten words who had found refuge with Sundark, the fae charged with guardianship of forgotten words, lost language. As small as children and nebulous as mist, erutisi faces flickered and changed constantly, shaped and reshaped by all the mouths that had ever spoken them. While the other erutisi awoke in their nooks and crannies within the house, Gutterblood and Bellibone’s chatter comforted Sundark in the face of what this day meant. Of what she had to do, now that a year and a day had passed since Winterling’s death.

Gutterblood sighed. “But we will have to learn to look after ourselves—”

Bellibone silenced him with a stern look. “The house is all we need for now. She has to avenge Winterling’s death, now that the mourning period is done. I was there, you know. When it happened.” They both began to swing their feet excitedly. Ghosts they may have been, but words are always enthralled by a good story. “After the fae-king Rakmore had slain all the other dragons in the country, he came for Winterling. Even though he was the lover of Rakmore’s sister, Sundark. Even though it was the day of the lovers’ wedding, on the winter solstice . . .”

The image carved through Sundark and she pulled her mind downward, back into the room. The downpour grew heavier. Winterling had loved to fly in storms, whipping through heavy clouds, the rain on his scales ringing like far-away bells. Against the gray sky, he was a flash of dark light, a flame in an ocean of ash. His music came from the elements hitting his body and his mood as he cut through the air. The thunder was his beat and bass, the crack of lightning the crash of cymbals. The music that sparked off Winterling on those fragile days was a fierce fight against the storm, which then faded to melancholia as the storm marched on.

But that was in the days before dragon-music was outlawed; before they were slain and their bodies burned on pyres that hissed and sung funereal dirges as the scales burned; before Winterling’s brother discarded his own skin, shifting into his man-shape forever and eloping with Rakmore’s wife. Rakmore: Sundark’s brother and her bane.

“Good morning, Winterling,” Sundark said under the sound of the rain. The house sighed gently in return. She rose and began to get ready for the day, wanting to remain as long as possible in that room lined with the soft moss and basalt rocks from her tribe’s land. Who knew when she would return?

The house sighed again, this time a little mournfully.

“You know that I have to leave—but you must also know that I’ll be back, don’t you?”

There was no answer. She looked out of the arched window, framed by the smaller of his ribs, watched as the cobblestones and buildings began to steam as the morning sun hit the soaked city. Smoke curled on the back of the early morning breeze; it reminded Sundark of a funeral pyre, and she pushed away thoughts of the great fire she had used to render Winterling’s flesh from his bones. It had been worth it, though, hadn’t it? The house was a glorious and sturdy construction. The triple spurs from each of his hind legs were used to anchor the foundations deep into the earth; the vertebrae of his snake-like spine for the wall struts, fibula and tibias for the rafters; the larger of his ribs formed the curve of the roof and walls. The spires topping the house were his talons and claws.

“I know that it’s been a poor substitute, but at least we’ve been together this last year.”

The house that used to be Winterling didn’t respond.

As she left the bedroom, a cape of raven feathers, each with its own gleam of violet and emerald light, waited for Sundark at the bottom of the staircase; a dark memory against the pearly whiteness of the balustrade made from Winterling’s teeth.

“Gifts, my love? This was my wedding mantle, as you well know, and I put it on your pyre.” The last time she had worn it, Sundark had flown across the skies with Winterling, a dark raven and a flash of bright song-scales over snowy peaks and the vast city. Only a few hours later, those same scales shone crimson with Winterling’s blood.

The feathers shook irascibly, as though ridding themselves of water or ash. The other erutisi drifted through the entrance hall, whispering to one another and pointing at the cape. Gutterblood and Bellibone looked down from the landing above.

Market smells of new cut flowers, animal manure, and spices flooded through the window; morning birds called through the mist outside as she walked over to the cape. He had made it whole again, despite the tearing and ripping from being chased, held, made to watch as Rakmore brought down his sword. Despite her trying to burn away those memories.

“Objects of love should be happy memories,” Bellibone called down.

“Put it on,” the others whispered.

The feathers were fine and silken beneath her fingertips, the oil color speaking of soaring and open skies and song. The erutisi giggled as she shed her clothes then threw the cloak around her shoulders. Preening, fluffing, and smoothing like a dove grooming itself in the sun, it fitted itself to Sundark just so. She swung her hips, smiled at the way the feathers brushed her ankles, at how her bones felt light and hollow with the memory of flight winging through them.

“Thank you,” she said. In reply, the front door and those to Sundark’s bedroom, the parlour, and all the ground floor rooms disappeared, leaving behind smooth walls.

Sundark laughed. “Very well, upstairs it is then.”

She ascended the winding staircase, trailing her hand over the balustrade. On the second floor, the same; nothing but adobe walls, splashed here and there with the rough jewels gifted to Sundark and Winterling on their wedding day. Sundark leaned against one of the walls, felt it move beneath her. She rested her forehead against it, in the same way she would lean against him in the sunlight as he stretched out across pebbled beaches or in the desert ravines after his flight. His dragon-shape, his true shape, so different to her own, always fascinated her. Being close to him had never been close enough; so much so that she had often thought she would like to unpick his edges, as though de-seaming a garment, and crawl inside him. After his death, she had done just that.

Sundark continued to the uppermost story, the erutisi watching her with their strange, changeling faces. “Winterling will keep you safe while I’m gone.” She could almost smell her brother’s blood. He may have had revenge in his heart when he murdered Winterling and his brothers, but Sundark had taken her full mourning period to nurture the revenge and hatred simmering inside her, to cool and ferment it into a poison more potent than nightshade. Only a fool kills in rage; only a coward punishes the innocent as well as the guilty.

Gutterblood beckoned to her from the top of the staircase. On the third floor were the map-room and the tiny staircase to the roof. Both doors were open. At the top of the stairs lay a second gift from the house; shoes of bone, moonbeam bright with heels like scythes. Sundark’s breath caught in her throat as she turned one of the shoes delicately in her hands. Shards from a mermaid’s tail supported the sole; the ridged fibulas of satyrs had been carved as the vamp; phoenix wing-bones, like thin flames, licked the shoe’s quarter.

She stepped into the left, then the right. “These belong to the shapeshifters of the Bitter Sea. How did you . . . where did you get these from?”

Gutterblood sank into the wall, reappearing a moment later looking faintly harried. “He says they are to remind you that there is more in this world than revenge and loss. There are beautiful things unexplained—there is life! But if you must go after Rakmore, you are not going alone. You have allies.”

As she walked to the map-room, the heels sparked on the floor, the power of earth, fire, and sea sheathing her feet.

The globe, covered in fine vellum and kept shut tight with an ornate brass lock, was small enough to fit into Sundark’s palm. Cloaked in raven’s feathers, shod in shoes of bone, she stood in the center of the map-room looking with a sinking heart at Winterling’s third gift. She glanced up at the maps lining the walls, with their ever-changing boundaries and cruel seas. The two huge globes that stood to shoulder height and marked the worlds of humans and fae revolved slowly. Here she had the power to re-map all the worlds, remake new language from old with her fragile erutisi, but nothing could change the hollow space in her life that his death had left; the hollow space of an unlived life. And now this.

“You want me to use a memory box?” Anger shook her, for she knew what he intended her to do. “I store my memories of you in here and as soon as I leave this house—you!—it will be as though you never existed to me. I will forget Rakmore and I . . . I will never find you again!”

On the wall maps, on the shore of the Bitter Sea, two fae appeared with armies behind them; armies that cut each other down until the sea ran red.

“His hate makes him ruthless and he will keep killing, anyway—because of me or in spite of me.”

The figures on the wall faded and the house fell silent.

“And what about all the forgotten words, whom I am charged with guarding? They are like my children . . .”

The walls dented and morphed into recesses and spaces that would fit the erutisi. The windows sealed over, making the room snug and dark.

“I know you will look after them.” She turned the memory box over in her hand, feeling its weight. “What do you think they would have been like? Our children, I mean.”

Bright flames began to blaze in the enormous fireplace. In their center, the shapes of three children, with long, wild hair like Sundark’s, danced and ran about. Great dragon wings unfurled from their backs and they flew upward, skimming the chimney then coming to rest in the grate. The orange and whote flames crackled and sang in the voices of their unborn children. The children stopped and turned toward Sundark, their intensity stinging her eyes.

One last flare then the fire died, leaving behind gray ashes and the shadows of the three serpentine children branded on the fireplace wall. Sundark dropped to her knees and scooped up handfuls of the still-warm ash, rubbing it onto her face and hands. It streaked her skin the dull silver of loss.

A little copper key appeared on the floor beside her. Picking up the memory box, Sundark fitted the key to the brass lock. She opened it, held it to her mouth and began to whisper into it as the house opened its windows to the sunlight and morning breeze.

Sundark opened the door to the outside for the last time. She stepped out, being careful to move gently in her sharp shoes. The erutisi followed, chasing one another and scattering like leaves across the blue curves of the roof.

Of all the wonder and beauty of the house—its ever-changing rooms, sturdy structure of bone, its moods and magic—Sundark loved the roof most of all. It was Winterling’s hide, carefully removed and cleaned, and stretched over the frame of his bones. Shaped like waves or rolling dunes, it gleamed azure and indigo, undulating gently as the sun hit it or the house settled or tried to soothe his wife.

Just as music had rained from Winterling’s skin during his lifetime, the roof sang under moonlight and sunshine, storm and spring wind. Sundark would often stretch herself out up there on starry nights, shut her eyes and imagine that she was curled next to him as he sang her to sleep. On those nights, the roof would sing of the summer and winter solstices, the two days and nights each year that Winterling and his brothers would take their human form. Even in his man-shape, his skin had had an otherness that drew her to him. Scale and flesh and skin, the exquisite pain of his music running across her. Both skin-hungry and ravenous after the long months of waiting; then the waiting again until he could next take his man-shape. The welts he left on her would remain weeks after the longest day and the longest night had each passed. When she touched one or her clothes pressed against them, the stinging pain spoke to her of his love.

That morning, she lay in a Sundark-shaped depression and pressed her ear to the shining cerulean scales. Each one lifted and settled at her touch, crooning a lover’s tune of farewell.

Far below, over the market and city sounds, came drumbeats and the marching of many feet. Sundark sat up, alarmed at their unfamiliarity. The dragon-skin fell silent. The erutisi crowded together and looked to their guardian. She put her finger to her lips in a shushing motion and crawled over to the edge, peering into the cobbled streets below.

A king’s guard of thirteen men marched toward the house and fanned out around it. Before them, Rakmore walked with his warrior’s stride, smiling grimly. He stopped before the front door.

“One year and one day, Sundark. But I’ve saved you the trouble of coming for me. All you have to do is walk out your front door.”

The erutisi gathered around Sundark, patting her gently on the back and stroking her hair. She had not expected this. She peered over the edge again; below, Rakmore appraised the house, the hatred on his face clear. Even now, the betrayal of his wife with Winterling’s brother consumed him. He reached out and touched the front door. It hissed at him and he laughed drily. His men drew their axes and stood to attention.

“You have two minutes, sister. If you aren’t before me in that time, we will come in after you.”

Sundark drew back from the edge and beckoned the oldest thirteen of her charges to her. Their ancient faces flickered and changed, but their eyes never left her. They fanned out around her as she stood, arms outstretched, the feathers gleaming in the sun. Gutterblood, Bellibone, and all the others huddled by the door.

Mouth wide open in a silent scream, Sundark threw her head back as the thirteen erutisi spun around her, fast and faster still. They thinned like mist until they were no more than a curl of smoke; Sundark drew them toward her with a deep breath, inhaling them until the air was clear again.

Forgotten language, muscular and elegant, rippled under her skin. The roof sang out, a war cry that stilled the city and made Rakmore and his men shiver. Standing on the eaves, Sundark’s shape filled the sky. The toes of her shoes of bone hung over the edge; then a little further. With arms outspread, she fell through the air toward the street below, toward her brother.

Shoes of bone became razor talons. The feathered cape stretched, then shrank, shaping itself into its avian form so it was no longer the fae Sundark falling but the raven Sundark swooping and flying among the invaders. One after another they struck out with their silver broadswords, but she was too nimble for them. She flew upward, opened her beak. And the old language she had consumed found voice again. They were words no longer recognized by any fae or human mind or tongue. Ancient, keening cries, thirteen in all, fell from the raven’s throat and flew toward Rakmore’s guard of thirteen men. As the men cried out, the words made a home of their mouths. They buried themselves deeper; unfamiliar in their throats, the old words choked them.

Rakmore spun around, eyes wide as the men of his guard asphyxiated and dropped, lifeless, to the ground. Sundark dived toward him, her claws cutting deep into his upper arm as he ducked away from her. With a guttural, raging shout he drew his axe and swung it at the house. Dragon-fire spewed out from its doors and windows. Rakmore dropped the axe and fell backward as the air filled with the smell of burned hair and singed flesh.

As pain distracted him, Sundark dived again. She flapped her wings and shifted her weight as she attacked. He could not grab hold of her. Her talons gouged his cheeks and he screamed a terrible scream as she pecked and pecked at his face. She flew upward again, feet drenched in his blood and her beak gore-slicked. Rakmore held his hand to his ruined face, his now-empty eye-socket, and reached for his axe again.

More footsteps as his first battalion ran through the streets toward the house. The windows and doors continued to flame, forcing all the soldiers backward. Sundark flew once, twice around the eaves, darting to avoid the arrows aimed at her. The wind began to blow fierce from the west and it caught under her. She flew upward and to the east, toward the distant, frozen mountains, leaving the city so far behind, it was as though it had never existed.

Far below Sundark, the green of the lowlands had given way to rocky foothills, then the glaciers and snow drifts of the hinterlands and high mountains. The late sun glittered on the white landscape, turning it rose-gold—the color of Winterling’s fire, driving her brother back. He and his men would have left the city by now, for he couldn’t kill Winterling twice. Rakmore would follow her, but she wouldn’t give him the chance to find her first. Not again.

More ravens joined her, dipping and wheeling in the cold air. A storytelling of ravens could be just as good as an army, in the right hands. She would hunt him on stealthy wings.

A small shadow flitted across the glacier below then disappeared in the gloaming. Flying lower, it reappeared. An erutisi, hardly more than steam, was making her way up the mountain. Sundark landed and took her usual form again. The erutisi stared, then raised a hand to her own chest. “Mab,” she croaked.

Sundark smiled and held out her hand. Silently, they walked across the ice and settled into one of the high, dark caves above. There would be more erutisi willing to sacrifice themselves, more ravens as fierce and black as burning pitch. But the taste of Rakmore’s blood had not cured Sundark of her longing. With Mab by her side and mountain ravens cawing at the last of the sun, she pined for Winterling and her charges, to remake the world with language reformed.

As night closed in, she pulled her mind back to the house that was once Winterling, gently moving as a shifting breeze past Gutterblood, Bellibone, and the other erutisi. She was connected to those forgotten words as though by a fine silver thread, and they felt her with them, across the frozen distance between them.

“I think she wants us to go to the map-room,” Gutterblood said.

So the many erutisi crept inside, and whispered as one to the enormous globe in the center of the room. It opened with a leathery creak and Bellibone reached inside to pull out the little vellum sphere lying at the very bottom. She held it up and they all quietened. Like a far-away bell or the shushing of waves under an autumn moon, something inside it sang and recited poetry, muttered dirges and laughed with light happiness.

“I remember what that felt like,” said Gutterblood sadly. “To be alive and heard and remembered. How has she . . .?”

Bellibone laughed, realizing what Sundark had done. “She is far cleverer than Rakmore or Winterling. A guardian of lost language knows the art of words right back to their beginnings. She knows how to restrain us or make us sing, even knows how to find us from far away. It’s not her memories in here.”

Bellibone held the memory box up to her ear and listened. Ephemeral Sundark hovered at her side, tugging and weaving the silver string of connection so that Bellibone would understand.

“Inside is Sundark’s own language, my dears. To be kept safe until she is ready to claim it again. To go out into the world mute is her sign of mourning and a promise that she will return. So that her words and his music can come together again and be more than what they are by themselves. Just as they would have been, had he lived.”

Even Gutterblood sighed happily. For Sundark there was still revenge, but there was also something waiting for her after, and she would find her way back to it with her shoes of bone carving rivers of words in her wake.

In the darkness, the erutisi fell asleep to the sounds of Sundark’s hidden language. And as they slept, they dreamed of a raven flying high over snowy peaks; of stories made not of words, but of pearls and lucent jewels strung on indigo silk; of Sundark lying on the dragon-skin roof as though cradled by a lover.

Far above, the roof sang softly under the slow path of the stars, its notes falling through the windows and slipping through the little globe’s brass lock to dance with the words inside, in the hope of Sundark’s return to Winterling, in the shape of songs yet to be sung.

end article

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Suzanne J. Willis

About Suzanne J. Willis

Suzanne is a Melbourne writer and a graduate of Clarion South. Her short stories have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Schlock Magazine, Luna Station Quarterly, the British Fantasy Society Journal, SQ Mag and anthologies by PS Publishing, Prime Books, Fablecroft Publishing and the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild. She works full-time and writes in the spaces around it, inspired by fairytales, ghost stories and all things strange.