There is a girl who goes between the worlds.
She is gray-eyed and pale of skin, or so the story goes, and her hair is a coal-black waterfall with half-seen hints of red. She wears about her brow a circlet of burnished metal, a dark crown that holds her hair in place and sometimes puts shadows in her eyes. Her name is Sharra; she knows the gates.
The beginning of her story is lost to us, with the memory of the world from which she sprang. The end? The end is not yet, and when it comes we shall not know it.
We have only the middle, or rather a piece of that middle, the smallest part of the legend, a mere fragment of the quest. A small tale within the greater, of one world where Sharra paused, and of the lonely singer Laren Dorr and how they briefly touched.
One moment there was only the valley, caught in twilight. The setting sun hung fat and violet on the ridge above, and its rays slanted down silently into a dense forest whose trees had shiny black trunks and colorless ghostly leaves. The only sounds were the cries of the mourning-birds coming out for the night, and the swift rush of water in the rocky stream that cut the woods.
Then, through a gate unseen, Sharra came tired and bloodied to the world of Laren Dorr. She wore a plain white dress, now stained and sweaty, and a heavy fur cloak that had been half-ripped from her back. And her left arm, bare and slender, still bled from three long wounds. She appeared by the side of the stream, shaking, and she threw a quick, wary glance about her before she knelt to dress her wounds. The water, for all its swiftness, was a dark and murky green. No way to tell if it was safe, but Sharra was weak and thirsty. She drank, washed her arm as best she could in the strange and doubtful water, and bound her injuries with bandages ripped from her clothes. Then, as the purple sun dipped lower behind the ridge, she crawled away from the water to a sheltered spot among the trees and fell into exhausted sleep.
She woke to arms around her, strong arms that lifted her easily to carry her somewhere, and she woke struggling. But the arms just tightened and held her still. “Easy,” a mellow voice said, and she saw a face dimly through gathering mist, a man’s face, long and somehow gentle.
“You are weak,” he said, “and night is coming. We must be inside before darkness.”
Sharra did not struggle, not then, though she knew she should. She had been struggling a long time, and she was tired. But she looked at him, confused. “Why?” she asked. Then, not waiting for an answer, “Who are you? Where are we going?”
“To safety,” he said.
“Your home?” she asked, drowsy.
“No,” he said, so soft she could scarcely hear his voice. “No, not home, not ever home. But it will do.” She heard splashing then, as if he were carrying her across the stream, and ahead of them on the ridge she glimpsed a gaunt, twisted silhouette, a triple-towered castle etched black against the sun. Odd, she thought, that wasn’t there before.
When she woke, he was there, watching her. She lay under a pile of soft, warm blankets in a curtained, canopied bed. But the curtains had been drawn back, and her host sat across the room in a great chair draped by shadows. Candlelight flickered in his eyes, and his hands locked together neatly beneath his chin. “Are you feeling better?” he asked, without moving.
She sat up and noticed she was nude. Swift as suspicion, quicker than thought, her hand went to her head. But the dark crown was still there, in place, untouched, its metal cool against her brow. Relaxing, she leaned back against the pillows and pulled the blankets up to cover herself. “Much better,” she said, and as she said it she realized for the first time that her wounds were gone.
The man smiled at her, a sad, wistful sort of smile. He had a strong face, with charcoal-colored hair that curled in lazy ringlets and fell down into dark eyes somehow wider than they should be. Even seated, he was tall. And slender. He wore a suit and cape of some soft gray leather, and over that he wore melancholy like a cloak. “Claw marks,” he said speculatively, while he smiled. “Claw marks down your arm, and your clothes almost ripped from your back. Someone doesn’t like you.”
“Something,” Sharra said. “A guardian, a guardian at the gate.” She sighed. “There is always a guardian at the gate. The Seven don’t like us to move from world to world. Me they like least of all.”
His hands unfolded from beneath his chin and rested on the carved wooden arms of his chair. He nodded, but the wistful smile stayed. “So, then,” he said. “You know the Seven, and you know the gates.” His eyes strayed to her forehead. “The crown, of course. I should have guessed.”
Sharra grinned at him. “You did guess. More than that, you knew. Who are you? What world is this?”
“My world,” he said evenly. “I’ve named it a thousand times, but none of the names ever seem quite right. There was one once, a name I liked, a name that fit. But I’ve forgotten it. It was a long time ago. My name is Laren Dorr, or that was my name, once, when I had use for such a thing. Here and now it seems somewhat silly. But at least I haven’t forgotten it.”
“Your world,” Sharra said. “Are you a king, then? A god?”
“Yes,” Laren Dorr replied, with an easy laugh. “And more. I’m whatever I choose to be. There is no one around to dispute me.”
“What did you do to my wounds?” she asked.
“I healed them.” He gave an apologetic shrug. “It’s my world. I have certain powers. Not the powers I’d like to have, perhaps, but powers nonetheless.”
“Oh.” She did not look convinced.
Laren waved an impatient hand. “You think it’s impossible. Your crown, of course. Well, that’s only half right. I could not harm you with my, ah, powers, not while you wear that. But I can help you.” He smiled again, and his eyes grew soft and dreamy. “But it doesn’t matter. Even if I could I would never harm you, Sharra. Believe that. It has been a long time.”
Sharra looked startled. “You know my name. How?”
He stood up, smiling, and came across the room to sit beside her on the bed. And he took her hand before replying, wrapping it softly in his and stroking her with his thumb. “Yes, I know your name. You are Sharra, who moves between the worlds. Centuries ago, when the hills had a different shape and the violet sun burned scarlet at the very beginning of its cycle, they came to me and told me you would come. I hate them, all Seven, and I will always hate them, but that night I welcomed the vision they gave me. They told me only your name, and that you would come here, to my world. And one thing more, but that was enough. It was a promise. A promise of an ending or a start, of a change. And any change is welcome on this world. I’ve been alone here through a thousand sun-cycles, Sharra, and each cycle lasts for centuries. There are few events to mark the death of time.”
Sharra was frowning. She shook her long, black hair, and in the dim light of the candles the soft red highlights glowed. “Are they that far ahead of me, then?” she said. “Do they know what will happen?” Her voice was troubled. She looked up at him. “This other thing they told you?”
He squeezed her hand, very gently. “They told me I would love you,” Laren said. His voice still sounded sad. “But that was no great prophecy. I could have told them as much. There was a time long ago—I think the sun was yellow then—when I realized that I would love any voice that was not an echo of my own.”
Sharra woke at dawn, when shafts of bright purple light spilled into her room through a high arched window that had not been there the night before. Clothing had been laid out for her:a loose yellow robe, a jeweled dress of bright crimson, a suit of forest green. She chose the suit, dressed quickly. As she left, she paused to look out the window.
She was in a tower, looking out over crumbling stone battlements and a dusty triangular courtyard. Two other towers, twisted matchstick things with pointed conical spires, rose from the other corners of the triangle. There was a strong wind that whipped the rows of gray pennants set along the walls, but no other motion to be seen.
And, beyond the castle walls, no sign of the valley, none at all. The castle with its courtyard and its crooked towers was set atop a mountain, and far and away in all directions taller mountains loomed, presenting a panorama of black stone cliffs and jagged rocky walls and shining clean ice steeples that gleamed with a violet sheen. The window was sealed and closed, but the wind looked cold.
Her door was open. Sharra moved quickly down a twisting stone staircase, out across the courtyard into the main building, a low wooden structure built against the wall. She passed through countless rooms, some cold and empty save for dust, others richly furnished, before she found Laren Dorr eating breakfast.
There was an empty seat at his side; the table was heavily laden with food and drink. Sharra sat down and took a hot biscuit, smiling despite herself. Laren smiled back.
“I’m leaving today,” she said, in between bites. “I’m sorry, Laren. I must find the gate.”
The air of hopeless melancholy had not left him. It never did. “So you said last night,” he replied, sighing. “It seems I have waited a long time for nothing.”
There was meat, several types of biscuits, fruit, cheese, milk. Sharra filled a plate, face a little downcast, avoiding Laren’s eyes. “I’m sorry,” she repeated.
“Stay awhile,” he said. “Only a short time. You can afford it, I would think. Let me show you what I can of my world. Let me sing to you.” His eyes, wide and dark and very tired, asked the question.
She hesitated. “Well … it takes time to find the gate.”
“Stay with me for a while, then.”
“But Laren, eventually I must go. I have made promises. You understand?”
He smiled, gave a helpless shrug. “Yes. But look. I know where the gate is. I can show you, save you a search. Stay with me, oh, a month. A month as you measure time. Then I’ll take you to the gate.” He studied her. “You’ve been hunting a long, long time, Sharra. Perhaps you need a rest.”
Slowly, thoughtfully, she ate a piece of fruit, watching him all the time. “Perhaps I do,” she said at last, weighing things. “And there will be a guardian, of course. You could help me, then. A month … that’s not so long. I’ve been on other worlds far longer than a month.” She nodded, and a smile spread slowly across her face. “Yes,” she said, still nodding. “That would be all right.”
He touched her hand lightly. After breakfast he showed her the world they had given him.
They stood side by side on a small balcony atop the highest of the three towers, Sharra in dark green and Laren tall and soft in gray. They stood without moving, and Laren moved the world around them. He set the castle flying over restless, churning seas, where long, black serpent-heads peered up out of the water to watch them pass. He moved them to a vast, echoing cavern under the earth, all aglow with a soft green light, where dripping stalactites brushed down against the towers and herds of blind white goats moaned outside the battlements. He clapped his hands and smiled, and steam-thick jungle rose around them; trees that climbed each other in rubber ladders to the sky, giant flowers of a dozen different colors, fanged monkeys that chittered from the walls. He clapped again, and the walls were swept clean, and suddenly the courtyard dirt was sand and they were on an endless beach by the shore of a bleak gray ocean, and above the slow wheeling of a great blue bird with tissue-paper wings was the only movement to be seen. He showed her this, and more, and more, and in the end as dusk seemed to threaten in one place after another, he took the castle back to the ridge above the valley. And Sharra looked down on the forest of black-barked trees where he had found her and heard the mourning-birds whimper and weep among transparent leaves.
“It is not a bad world,” she said, turning to him on the balcony.
“No,” Laren replied. His hands rested on the cold stone railing, his eyes on the valley below “Not entirely. I explored it once, on foot, with a sword and a walking stick. There was a joy there, a real excitement. A new mystery behind every hill.” He chuckled. “But that, too, was long ago. Now I know what lies behind every hill. Another empty horizon.”
He looked at her and gave his characteristic shrug. “There are worse hells, I suppose. But this is mine.”
“Come with me, then,” she said. “Find the gate with me, and leave. There are other worlds. Maybe they are less strange and less beautiful, but you will not be alone.”
He shrugged again. “You make it sound so easy,” he said in a careless voice. “I have found the gate, Sharra. I have tried it a thousand times. The guardian does not stop me. I step through, briefly glimpse some other world, and suddenly I’m back in the courtyard. No. I cannot leave.”
She took his hand in hers. “How sad. To be alone so long. I think you must be very strong, Laren. I would go mad in only a handful of years.”
He laughed, and there was a bitterness in the way he did it. “Oh, Sharra. I have gone mad a thousand times, also. They cure me, love. They always cure me.” Another shrug, and he put his arm around her. The wind was cold and rising. “Come,” he said. “We must be inside before full dark.”
They went up in the tower to her bedroom, and they sat together on her bed and Laren brought them food; meat burned black on the outside and red within, hot bread, wine. They ate, and they talked.
“Why are you here?” she asked him, in between mouthfuls, washing her words down with wine. “How did you offend them? Who were you, before?”
“I hardly remember, except in dreams,” he told her. “And the dreams—it has been so long, I can’t even recall which ones are truth and which are visions born of my madness.” He sighed. “Sometimes I dream I was a king, a great king in a world other than this, and my crime was that I made my people happy. In happiness they turned against the Seven, and the temples fell idle. And I woke one day, within my room, within my castle, and found my servants gone. And when I went outside, my people and my world were also gone, and even the woman who slept beside me.
“But there are other dreams. Often I remember vaguely that I was a god. Well, an almost-god. I had powers, and teachings, and they were not the teachings of the Seven. They were afraid of me, each of them, for I was a match for any of them. But I could not meet all Seven together, and that was what they forced me to do. And then they left me only a small bit of my power, and set me here. It was cruel irony. As a god, I’d taught that people should turn to each other, that they could keep away the darkness by love and laughter and talk. So all these things the Seven took from me.
“And even that is not the worst. For there are other times when I think that I have always been here, that I was born here some endless age ago. And the memories are all false ones, sent to make me hurt the more.”
Sharra watched him as he spoke. His eyes were not on her, but far away, full of fog and dreams and half-dead rememberings. And he spoke very slowly, in a voice that was also like fog, that drifted and curled and hid things, and you knew that there were mysteries there and things brooding just out of sight and far-off lights that you would never reach.
Laren stopped, and his eyes woke up again. “Ah, Sharra,” he said. “Be careful how you go. Even your crown will not help you should they move on you directly. And the pale child Bakkalon will tear at you, and Naa-Slas feed upon your pain, and Saagael on your soul.”
She shivered and cut another piece of meat. But it was cold and tough when she bit into it, and suddenly she noticed that the candles had burned very low. How long had she listened to him speak?
“Wait,” he said then, and he rose and went outside, out the door near where the window had been. There was nothing there now but rough, gray stone; the windows all changed to solid rock with the last fading of the sun. Laren returned in a few moments, with a softly shining instrument of dark black wood slung around his neck on a leather cord. Sharra had never quite seen its like. It had sixteen strings, each a different color, and all up and down its length brightly glowing bars of light were inlaid amid the polished wood. When Laren sat, the bottom of the device rested on the floor and the top came to just above his shoulder. He stroked it lightly, speculatively; the lights glowed, and suddenly the room was full of swift-fading music.
“My companion,” he said, smiling. He touched it again, and the music rose and died, lost notes without a tune. And he brushed the light-bars and the very air shimmered and changed color. He began to sing.
I am the lord of loneliness,
Empty my domain…
… the first words ran, sung low and sweet in Laren’s mellow far-off fog voice. The rest of the song—Sharra clutched at it, heard each word and tried to remember, but lost them all. They brushed her, touched her, then melted away, back into the fog, here and gone again so swift that she could not remember quite what they had been. With the words, the music; wistful and melancholy and full of secrets, pulling at her, crying, whispering promises of a thousand tales untold. All around the room the candles flamed up brighter, and globes of light grew and danced and flowed together until the air was full of color.
Words, music, light; Laren Dorr put them all together and wove for her a vision.
She saw him then as he saw himself in his dreams; a king, strong and tall and still proud, with hair as black as hers and eyes that snapped. He was dressed all in shimmering white, pants that clung tight and a shirt that ballooned at the sleeves, and a great cloak that moved and curled in the wind like a sheet of solid snow. Around his brow he wore a crown of flashing silver, and a slim, straight sword flashed just as bright at his side. This Laren, this younger Laren, this dream vision, moved without melancholy, moved in a world of sweet ivory minarets and languid blue canals. And the world moved around him, friends and lovers and one special woman whom Laren drew with words and lights of fire, and there was an infinity of easy days and laughter.
Then, sudden, abrupt darkness. He was here.
The music moaned; the lights dimmed; the words grew sad and lost. Sharra saw Laren wake in a familiar castle, now deserted. She saw him search from room to room and walk outside to face a world he’d never seen. She watched him leave the castle, walk off towards the mists of a far horizon in the hope that those mists were smoke. And on and on he walked, and new horizons fell beneath his feet each day, and the great fat sun waxed red and orange and yellow, but still his world was empty. All the places he had shown her he walked to; all those and more; and finally, lost as ever, wanting home, the castle came to him.
By then his white had faded to dim gray. But still the song went on. Days went, and years, and centuries, and Laren grew tired and mad but never old. The sun shone green and violet and a savage hard blue-white, but with each cycle there was less color in his world. So Laren sang, of endless empty days and nights when music and memory were his only sanity, and his songs made Sharra feel it.
And when the vision faded and the music died and his soft voice melted away for the last time and Laren paused and smiled and looked at her, Sharra found herself trembling.
“Thank you,” he said softly, with a shrug. And he took his instrument and left her for the night.
The next day dawned cold and overcast, but Laren took her out into the forests, hunting. Their quarry was a lean white thing, half cat, half gazelle, with too much speed for them to chase easily and too many teeth for them to kill. Sharra did not mind. The hunt was better than the kill. There was a singular, striking joy in that run through the darkling forest, holding a bow she never used and wearing a quiver of black wood arrows cut from the same dour trees that surrounded them. Both of them were bundled up tightly in gray fur, and Laren smiled out at her from under a wolf’s-head hood. And the leaves beneath their boots, as clear and fragile as glass, cracked and splintered as they ran.
Afterwards, unblooded but exhausted, they returned to the castle, and Laren set out a great feast in the main dining room. They smiled at each other from opposite ends of a table fifty feet long, and Sharra watched the clouds roll by the window behind Laren’s head, and later watched the window turn to stone.
“Why does it do that?” she asked. “And why don’t you ever go outside at night?”
He shrugged. “Ah. I have reasons. The nights are, well, not good here.” He sipped hot spice wine from a great jeweled cup. “The world you came from, where you started—tell me, Sharra, did you have stars?”
She nodded. “Yes. It’s been so long, though. But I still remember. The nights were very dark and black, and the stars were little pinpoints of light, hard and cold and far away. You could see patterns sometimes. The men of my world, when they were young, gave names to each of those patterns, and told grand tales about them.”
Laren nodded. “I would like your world, I think,” he said. “Mine was like that, a little. But our stars were a thousand colors, and they moved, like ghostly lanterns in the night. Sometimes they drew veils around them to hide their light. And then our nights would be all shimmer and gossamer. Often I would go sailing at startime, myself and she whom I loved. Just so we could see the stars together. It was a good time to sing.” His voice was growing sad again.
Darkness had crept into the room, darkness and silence, and the food was cold and Sharra could scarce see his face fifty long feet away. So she rose and went to him, and sat lightly on the great table near to his chair. And Laren nodded and smiled, and at once there was a whooosh, and all along the walls torches flared to sudden life in the long dining hall. He offered her more wine, and her fingers lingered on his as she took the glass.
“It was like that for us, too,” Sharra said. “If the wind was warm enough, and other men were far away, then we liked to lie together in the open. Kaydar and I.” She hesitated, looked at him.
His eyes were searching. “Kaydar?”
“You would have liked him, Laren. And he would have liked you, I think. He was tall and he had red hair and there was a fire in his eyes. Kaydar had powers, as did I, but his were greater. And he had such a will. They took him one night, did not kill him, only took him from me and from our world. I have been hunting for him ever since. I know the gates, I wear the dark crown, and they will not stop me easily.”
Laren drank his wine and watched the torchlight on the metal of his goblet. “There are an infinity of worlds, Sharra.”
“I have as much time as I require. I do not age, Laren, no more than you do. I will find him.”
“Did you love him so much?”
Sharra fought a fond, flickering smile, and lost. “Yes,” she said, and now it was her voice that seemed a little lost. “Yes, so much. He made me happy, Laren. We were only together for a short time, but he did make me happy. The Seven cannot touch that. It was a joy just to watch him, to feel his arms around me and see the way he smiled.”
“Ah,” he said, and he did smile, but there was something very beaten in the way he did it. The silence grew very thick.
Finally Sharra turned to him. “But we have wandered a long way from where we started. You still have not told me why your windows seal themselves at night.”
“You have come a long way, Sharra. You move between the worlds. Have you seen worlds without stars?”
“Yes. Many, Laren. I have seen a universe where the sun is a glowing ember with but a single world, and the skies are vast and vacant by night. I have seen the land of frowning jesters, where there is no sky and the hissing suns burn below the ocean. I have walked the moors of Carradyne, and watched dark sorcerers set fire to a rainbow to light that sunless land.”
“This world has no stars,” Laren said.
“Does that frighten you so much that you stay inside?”
“No. But it has something else instead.” He looked at her. “Would you see?”
As abruptly as they had lit, the torches all snuffed out. The room swam with blackness. And Sharra shifted on the table to look over Laren’s shoulder. Laren did not move. But behind him, the stones of the window fell away like dust and light poured in from outside.
The sky was very dark, but she could see clearly, for against the darkness a shape was moving. Light poured from it, and the dirt in the courtyard and the stones of the battlements and the gray pennants were all bright beneath its glow. Puzzling, Sharra looked up.
Something looked back. It was taller than the mountains and it filled up half the sky, and though it gave off light enough to see the castle by, Sharra knew that it was dark beyond darkness. It had a man-shape, roughly, and it wore a long cape and a cowl, and below that was blackness even fouler than the rest. The only sounds were Laren’s soft breathing and the beating of her heart and the distant weeping of a mourning-bird, but in her head Sharra could hear demonic laughter.
The shape in the sky looked down at her, in her, and she felt the cold dark in her soul. Frozen, she could not move her eyes. But the shape did move. It turned and raised a hand, and then there was something else up there with it, a tiny man-shape with eyes of fire that writhed and screamed and called to her.
Sharra shrieked and turned away. When she glanced back, there was no window. Only a wall of safe, sure stone, and a row of torches burning, and Laren holding her within strong arms. “It was only a vision,” he told her. He pressed her tight against him, and stroked her hair. “I used to test myself at night,” he said, more to himself than to her. “But there was no need. They take turns up there, watching me, each of the Seven. I have seen them too often, burning with black light against the clean dark of the sky, and holding those I loved. Now I don’t look. I stay inside and sing, and my windows are made of night-stone.”
“I feel … fouled,” she said, still trembling a little.
“Come,” he said. “There is water upstairs, you can clean away the cold. And then I’ll sing for you.” He took her hand and led her up into the tower.
Sharra took a hot bath while Laren set up his instrument and tuned it in the bedroom. He was ready when she returned, wrapped head to foot in a huge fluffy brown towel. She sat on the bed, drying her hair and waiting.
And Laren gave her visions.
He sang his other dream this time, the one where he was a god and the enemy of the Seven. The music was a savage pounding thing, shot through with lightning and tremors of fear, and the lights melted together to form a scarlet battlefield where a blinding-white Laren fought shadows and the shapes of nightmare. There were seven of them, and they formed a ring around him and darted in and out, stabbing him with lances of absolute black, and Laren answered them with fire and storm. But in the end they overwhelmed him, the light faded, and then the song grew soft and sad again, and the vision blurred as lonely dreaming centuries flashed by.
Hardly had the last notes fallen from the air and the final shimmers died than Laren started once again. A new song this time, and one he did not know so well. His fingers, slim and graceful, hesitated and retraced themselves more than once, and his voice was shaky, too, for he was making up some of the words as he went along. Sharra knew why. For this time he sang of her, a ballad of her quest. Of burning love and endless searching, of worlds beyond worlds, of dark crowns and waiting guardians that fought with claws and tricks and lies. He took every word that she had spoken, and used each, and transformed each. In the bedroom, glittering panoramas formed where hot white suns burned beneath eternal oceans and hissed in clouds of steam, and men ancient beyond time lit rainbows to keep away the dark. And he sang Kaydar, and he sang him true somehow, he caught and drew the fire that had been Sharra’s love and made her believe anew.
But the song ended with a question, the halting finale lingering in the air, echoing, echoing. Both of them waited for the rest, and both knew there was no more. Not yet.
Sharra was crying. “My turn, Laren,” she said. Then: “Thank you. For giving Kaydar back to me.”
“It was only a song,” he said, shrugging. “It’s been a long time since I had a new song to sing.”
Once again he left her, touching her cheek lightly at the door as she stood there with the blanket wrapped around her. Then Sharra locked the door behind him and went from candle to candle, turning light to darkness with a breath. And she threw the towel over a chair and crawled under the blankets and lay a long, long time before drifting off to sleep.
It was still dark when she woke, not knowing why. She opened her eyes and lay quietly and looked around the room, and nothing was there, nothing was changed. Or was there?
And then she saw him, sitting in the chair across the room with his hands locked under his chin, just as he had sat that first time. His eyes steady and unmoving, very wide and dark in a room full of night. He sat very still. “Laren?” she called, softly, still not quite sure the dark form was him.
“Yes,” he said. He did not move. “I watched you last night, too, while you slept. I have been alone here for longer than you can ever imagine, and very soon now I will be alone again. Even in sleep, your presence is a wonder.”
“Oh, Laren,” she said. There was a silence, a pause, a weighing and an unspoken conversation. Then she threw back the blanket, and Laren came to her.
Both of them had seen centuries come and go. A month, a moment; much the same.
They slept together every night, and every night Laren sang his songs while Sharra listened. They talked throughout dark hours, and during the day they swam nude in crystalline waters that caught the purple glory of the sky. They made love on beaches of fine white sand, and they spoke a lot of love.
But nothing changed. And finally the time drew near. On the eve of the night before the day that was end, at twilight, they walked together through the shadowed forest where he’d found her.
Laren had learned to laugh during his month with Sharra, but now he was silent again. He walked slowly, clutched her hand hard in his, and his mood was more gray than the soft silk shirt he wore. Finally, by the side of the valley stream, he sat and pulled her down by his side. They took off their boots and let the water cool their feet. It was a warm evening, with a lonely, restless wind, and already you could hear the first of the mourning-birds.
“You must go,” he said, still holding her hand but never looking at her. It was a statement, not a question.
“Yes,” she said, and the melancholy had touched her, too, and there were leaden echoes in her voice.
“My words have all left me, Sharra,” Laren said. “If I could sing for you a vision now, I would. A vision of a world once empty, made full by us and our children. I could offer that. My world has beauty and wonder and mystery enough, if only there were eyes to see it. And if the nights are evil, well, men have faced dark nights before, on other worlds in other times. I would love you, Sharra, as much as I am able. I would try to make you happy.”
“Laren …” she started. But he quieted her with a glance.
“No, I could say that, but I will not. I have no right. Kaydar makes you happy. Only a selfish fool would ask you to give up that happiness to share my misery. Kaydar is all fire and laughter, while I am smoke and song and sadness. I have been alone too long, Sharra. The gray is part of my soul now, and I would not have you darkened. But still …”
She took his hand in both of hers, lifted it, and kissed it quickly. Then, releasing him, she lay her head on his unmoving shoulder. “Try to come with me, Laren,” she said. “Hold my hand when we pass through the gate, and perhaps the dark crown will protect you.”
“I will try anything you ask. But don’t ask me to believe that it will work.” He sighed. “You have countless worlds ahead of you, Sharra, and I cannot see your ending. But it is not here. That I know. And maybe that is best. I don’t know anymore, if I ever did. I remember love vaguely, I think I can recall what it was like, and I remember that it never lasts. Here, with both of us unchanging and immortal, how could we help but to grow bored? Would we hate each other then? I’d not want that.” He looked at her then, and smiled an aching, melancholy smile. “I think that you had known Kaydar for only a short time, to be so in love with him. Perhaps I’m being devious after all. For in finding Kaydar, you may lose him. The fire will go out someday, my love, and the magic will die. And then you may remember Laren Dorr.”
Sharra began to weep, softly. Laren gathered her to him, and kissed her, and whispered a gentle “No.” She kissed back, and they held each other, wordless.
When at last the purple gloom had darkened to near-black, they put back on their boots and stood. Laren hugged her and smiled.
“I must go,” Sharra said. “I must. But leaving is hard, Laren, you must believe that.”
“I do,” he said. “I love you because you will go, I think. Because you cannot forget Kaydar, and you will not forget the promises you made. You are Sharra, who goes between the worlds, and I think the Seven must fear you far more than any god I might have been. If you were not you, I would not think as much of you.”
“Oh. Once you said you would love any voice that was not any echo of your own.”
Laren shrugged. “As I have often said, love, that was a very long time ago.”
They were back inside the castle before darkness, for a final meal, a final night, a final song. They got no sleep that night, and Laren sang to her again just before dawn. It was not a very good song, though; it was an aimless, rambling thing about a wandering minstrel on some nondescript world. Very little of interest ever happened to the minstrel; Sharra couldn’t quite get the point of the song, and Laren sang it listlessly. It seemed an odd farewell, but both of them were troubled.
He left her with the sunrise, promising to change clothes and meet her in the courtyard. And sure enough, he was waiting when she got there, smiling at her, calm and confident. He wore a suit of pure white; pants that clung, a shirt that puffed up at the sleeves, and a great heavy cape that snapped and billowed in the rising wind. But the purple sun stained him with its shadow rays.
Sharra walked out to him and took his hand. She wore tough leather, and there was a knife in her belt, for dealing with the guardian. Her hair, jet-black with light-born glints of red and purple, blew as freely as his cape, but the dark crown was in place. “Good-bye, Laren,” she said. “I wish I had given you more.”
“You have given me enough. In all the centuries that come, in all the sun-cycles that lie ahead, I will remember. I shall measure time by you, Sharra. When the sun rises one day and its color is blue fire, I will look at it and say, ‘Yes, this is the first blue sun after Sharra came to me.’”
She nodded. “And I have a new promise. I will find Kaydar, someday. And if I free him, we will come back to you, both of us together, and we will pit my crown and Kaydar’s fires against all the darkness of the Seven.”
Laren shrugged. “Good. If I’m not here, be sure to leave a message,” he said. And then he grinned.
“Now, the gate. You said you would show me the gate.”
Laren turned and gestured at the shortest tower, a sooty stone structure Sharra had never been inside. There was a wide wooden door in its base. Laren produced a key.
“Here?” she said, looking puzzled. “In the castle?”
“Here,” Laren said. They walked across the courtyard, to the door. Laren inserted the heavy metal key and began to fumble with the lock. While he worked, Sharra took one last look around, and felt the sadness heavy on her soul. The other towers looked bleak and dead, the courtyard was forlorn, and beyond the high icy mountains was only an empty horizon. There was no sound but Laren working at the lock, and no motion but the steady wind that kicked up the courtyard dust and flapped the seven gray pennants that hung along each wall. Sharra shivered with sudden loneliness.
Laren opened the door. No room inside; only a wall of moving fog, a fog without color or sound or light. “Your gate, my lady,” the singer said.
Sharra watched it, as she had watched it so many times before. What world was next? she wondered. She never knew. But maybe in the next one, she would find Kaydar.
She felt Laren’s hand on her shoulder. “You hesitate,” he said, his voice soft.
Sharra’s hand went to her knife. “The guardian,” she said suddenly. “There is always a guardian.” Her eyes darted quickly round the courtyard.
Laren sighed. “Yes. Always. There are some who try to claw you to pieces, and some who try to get you lost, and some who try to trick you into taking the wrong gate. There are some who hold you with weapons, some with chains, some with lies. And there is one, at least, who tried to stop you with love. Yet he was true for all that, and he never sang you false.”
And with a hopeless, loving shrug, Laren shoved her through the gate.
Did she find him, in the end, her lover with the eyes of fire? Or is she searching still? What guardian did she face next?
When she walks at night, a stranger in a lonely land, does the sky have stars?
I don’t know. He doesn’t. Maybe even the Seven do not know. They are powerful, yes, but all power is not theirs, and the number of worlds is greater than even they can count.
There is a girl who goes between the worlds, but her path is lost in legend by now. Maybe she is dead, and maybe not. Knowledge moves slowly from world to world, and not all of it is true.
But this we know: In an empty castle below a purple sun, a lonely minstrel waits, and sings of her.
© 1976 by George R. R. Martin.
Originally appeared in Fantastic Stories.
Reprinted by permission of the author.