The dark riders
Posted April 23, 2007on:
Above the wood, the twilight sky was a dusky lavender, fading into deep purples and the vibrant grey of storm clouds. The winds smelled of rain: they held an edge of winter cold. They pushed me here and there as I walked, jostling me like invisible horses; they seemed to spring from any direction. Night came swiftly, caught me before I reached the well. But I stumbled on, guided by the lowering shape of a lightning-split oak against a moment’s scattering of stars, by a pattern of stones underfoot, a sudden glint of water, the dry rattling of rose vines in the wind.
I smelled wet stone, and an echo, a memory, of sun-warmed roses. I sank wearily down beside the little well. The leaves were sodden and crumbling; I could not bury myself in them, but I did not care. I wanted to be found. So I did what Corbet had done, that hot summer day. I pushed aside the rose vines with one arm and dipped my hand into water and drank. The vines blew against me, snagged my hair and my cloak, until I could hardly move. I lifted water and drank, lifted water and drank, until I felt it run down my throat and breast, and the thorns wove into cloth and hair and skin, imprisoning me, but I did not care.
Then I heard the voices on the wind, and the silvery ring of tiny bells. The winds flooded through the bare trees; I had heard one snap like a bone and fall. Vines whipped wildly around me, opening to reveal the well, and the stones, and the rose as red as blood that bloomed in the dark water, more beautiful than any living rose.
“Take it,” a voice breathed into the wind. I freed my hand from the thorns and reached into the water. It pricked me as I lifted it out; and I smelled its perfume, all the scents of the summer that had gone.
“I want him,” I said to all the dark riders crowded around me, who had ridden down the wind. “I want him in this world.”
Silvery laughter mingled with the bells. “No one ever wanted him. And so he came to us.”
“I want him.”
“Then you must hold fast to him, as fast as those thorns hold you, no matter what shape he takes, what face he shows. You must love.”
Again I heard the laughter, sweet and mocking in the screaming winds. “You must be human to love.”
“I am,” I said, and the tiny bells rang madly amid the laughter.
“Then take him.”
His face appeared in the water, like the rose, as beautiful and as cruel, smiling his faint, secret smile, his eyes glittering with moonlight and as cold. I felt my heart pound sickly, for I did not want what I saw. But I reached down to him through the water, deeper and deeper, for he eluded me; deeper, until I felt the cold dark well up around me, and I saw nothing.
From “Winter Rose” by Patricia McKillip