EYES OR NO EYES



EYES OR NO EYES, by Martin Rose

 

There is no magic left in the world, nor much left of heroes to go with it. Lest you think the post of ‘wizard’ to be venerable and worthy, let me assure you otherwise, for I am the most miserable so-called wizard of the Thirteen Keeps.

I should be attending a radiant hero who would help establish my name in the pantheon of sorcerers and legends, but instead, I am to play royal babysitter to a spoiled Prince in the tournament stands, while we watch the knights beat each other about the head and face with extraordinarily long sticks. Bah! Return me to my books and cold, stone rooms filled with spinning spiders and sour-faced mice.

Sadly, my desire for solitude was not to be, since the King, dying of old age for the past ten years now and not in the least hasty about it, commanded my presence. I found myself picking my way through throngs of stinking dignitaries and peasants, perfumed idiots draped in expensive lace imported from across the Crane River, and the working Keep staff who at least have the decency to be as miserable as I am, and joined the brat Prince in the ornamented tent arranged in the center, with the best view of the event.

The Prince, being the kind of snob who delights in smacking around his lessers, is the sort of person no one would hire to muck out a stall if he had been born otherwise. I sometimes day dreamed about fashioning a spell in which I could dispose of him in a parallel dimension where his job would be exactly that, but truth be told, I’m a “wizard” in the sense that I am smarter than everyone else, a heavy burden of brains but little of magic, and sorcery worth no more than setting one’s rolled smoke alight from afar during feasting ceremonies.

I intended to tell you about the Prince, though. That summer, he turned seventeen. I have to admit, being a crotchety old man, he was effulgent in youth and busy appeasing a swarm of ladies draping their laces and veils around him. At least the King had a sense of propriety, he might have died of shame to see his heir apparent representing his country so.

Ah, well, what does a miserable old wizard know.

“Quint, welcome, they’re just about to get started,” he acknowledged me. I bowed, whispered bastard under my breath and took a seat beside him. A tavern girl giggled and several courtiers parroted his welcome, all of which I ignored to focus on the rider below.

One would have to be a crotchety old magician living in a tower or a dungeon to not have anticipated the arrival of the premier knight of the land – Aislinn.

She stood in resplendent regalia, gilt edged white armor throwing darts of prism-light into the audience. Reigns in one hand, while her chestnut courser pawed the mud eagerly, nostrils flaring. Aislinn spared no looks for her audience, who filled the stands to bursting and hugged tight at the boundary to catch a glimpse of her, her helmet cocked beneath her arm. For her, the entire world seemed to have fallen off the map and all that existed was the field, the opposing knight across the way.

“I hear citizens have traveled as far away as Sparrowent to be here today.”

The trumpets sounded. Aislinn pulled herself into her helmet, licks of her brown hair curling out from beneath. Sunlight illuminated a narrow slit of brown eyes through her visor, crosshatched with tints of black, taupe, veins of micah.

I crossed my arms and harumphed, and caught my beard on my belt buckle, which made me yip like a dog. I wasted time pulling it free while Prince Ryne laughed at me. Gracen, whose name I recognized as one of our own Keep knights, was a scrapper of a fighter, a bare-knuckle boxer from the stone pits who rose up during the Red Year to make her reputation. She was wheeling her horse around to oppose Aislinn, and a palpable silence fell over the crowd. Fidgeting time wasters and sickly folk with propensities for a hacking cough even stifled their woes long enough to hold, breathless, as the long jousts were given to the riders.

Aislinn and Gracen waited. A drummer’s beat started, and my misery forgotten, even the silly hangers-on clustering around Ryne fell silent as he hushed them impatiently, pushing them aside to lean forward with his white-knuckled hands on his royal knees.

The horn blew.

The knights kicked their steeds into action. The horses, eager for the signal at last, surged forward with their mouths chewing at their bits, their eyes wild and hooves, churning the mud beneath them.

They passed the halfway point, the weapons falling, splitting air like hand-held lightning, and tagged through the center. A splintering crack, and Aislinn still held her lance intact. Gracen, one hand slapped over her shoulder where she took the weight, abandoned her weapon, shredded on the field.

A fellow knight helped Gracen off her horse. A field hand gathered the wrecked lance to ready for the next round.

I would have thought, hearing Ryne speak, he would have applauded Aislinn. Instead, he sat back, pensive, an untested hand concealing his mouth. Done with entertainments, his mood spoiled like that of an infant, for whom no amount of care can soothe his prickly nature. And I must admit, I rather liked seeing him so displeased.

“Well done, Aislinn,” I said, and Ryne’s eyebrows formed a nasty V.

The jousts proceeded round after round. While other hopeful knights began to narrow down the final players, it was clear by the end of the tenth that Aislinn would be facing down our champion, Keaton, a well regarded hunter from the countryside. As Aislinn conquered each round, I noticed Ryne, uneasy and anxious, tapping his foot. His foul mood had infected the courtiers, and now they looked bored and annoyed, and several of them sneaking surreptitious catnaps. Appropriate conduct dictated that by now, Ryne should have at least acknowledged the contenders, Aislinn included; but he’d failed to raise a toast in their name and it reflected poorly on Ryne, and lowered the morale of the knights competing under our Keep’s banner.

We closed in on the last round just as the sun slanted toward its final destination. Ryne, perhaps remembering that he was not in a seedy tavern where he preferred to spend his time, but as an official diplomat representing his kingdom, lurched to his feet with a glass of wine held aloft.

People applauded, their mood changing to one of excited enthusiasm now that they remembered they had a Prince.

“To victory,” Ryne announced. His hand trembled, imperceptible to all save myself, and in seeing it, felt queasy, struggled to hold my attention to his every word.

“To victory!” the crowd returned.

Aislinn, seated on her horse and turned to him, nodded gravely, as did the final competitor facing her, Keaton.

Yet, Ryne stared at her, fixed.

“Fight well, knights, and may you walk in the sun.”

The trumpets sounded. Ryne did not sit down. Instead, he emptied his wine glass and cast it away so it broke into shards, and leaned against the rail to stare down at Aislinn, his hair wild from raking it back from his forehead one time too many, a line of sweat forming in the gutter of his brow.

The horn sounded. The horses, streaking toward the center. The descending lances, like the axis of a closing jaw, and the sound of ferocious impact, a lightning crack. One second, the knights meeting in the middle, and the next, weapons blown to smithereens.

A scream rent the air. I leaped up to the railing beside Ryne, whose face became ashen in the light and his eyes, growing wide as his mouth fell open.

Writhing upon the field with her hands at her eyes, Aislinn was felled, the remnants of her joust fallen away. Keaton had abandoned his horse and rushed to be beside her, screaming for help. Blood seeped through her fingers. Any joust is fraught with danger, but all knights fear the rarest injury of all: when a shattered lance breaks apart with such force, the splinters are thrown back into the face of the contestant, riddling the eyes through to the skull. All elapsed in seconds as the playing field filled with echoing screams, yet Ryne remained unmoving at the edge of the stand.

“Will you not call for aid?” I hissed and broke decorum and protocol, even risking time in the dungeon, to grab Ryne by the shoulder and shake him once, my face burning hot with rage. Ryne did not acknowledge me but stared at Aislinn with fascination, the muscle in his jaw flexing. This was his knight, his kingdom, and he could do no more than stand there before Aislinn’s plight, impotent and useless.

I released him, disgusted. Servants on the field were calling my name, requesting a healing spell, as though magic were a thing one could wave one’s hand and make all of life’s tragedies disappear.

I had no time to deal with the Prince. If Aislinn suffered a mortal wound, she would die here on the field and there would be little to nothing I could do to prevent it. I raced out of the royal seats, as quickly as an old man’s bones allowed, bursting onto the muddy field and limping to meet Keaton, who rose up to accost me.

His lance remained unbroken in the mud, and I could detect clearly Aislinn’s ominous weapon, broken off into shards beyond the hilt. They gave testament to the severity of what had occurred on the field, and how even armory lances provided by our weapon’s master and bearing the royal stamp of inspection could fail, as they had this day, Keaton’s lance exploiting an unseen fault line in Aislinn’s, ensuring her weapon would disintegrate in her grasp.

“Be of use, will you?” I snapped at Keaton who stared, agog, “and use your brawn for something constructive!”

He stumbled backward, grabbing his wayward horse and mounting it, fleeing across the field to inform the keep of the accident. I kneeled before Aislinn, whose screams dwindled to low moans of agony, her helm, obscuring what horrific injury might lie beneath.

“My eyes,” she said. “My eyes.”

“I am here now,” I said, though I lacked the confidence I injected into my words. I kept on my person a dram of the drug that brings a delightful haze to one’s thoughts, and dulls the pain; I unstoppered the vial and told her to drink, tipping it through the mouthpiece. Her armor looked like the fine baked porcelain we import from across the Crane River.

When her moans died off, I pulled her bloody hands from her visor. I could not see through the slit, and the playing field was no longer the place to treat her. She weighed more than an old man can carry, but I am not quite like other old men; so I leaned down and hefted her up into my arms, rushing her into the Keep. People stared, hands at their mouths, horrified, and the day’s celebrations cut short.

eyes-or-no

 

The crowds would dissipate and disappear to their homes and huts, but I have heard it said that Ryne remained there for long hours afterward, unmoving, staring at the place Aislinn fell, where blood made spirals in the dirt, and speckled the crushed clover.

 

#

 

Aislinn is not the first knight to have been wounded in a joust, but she is the only one, aside from King Ren centuries ago, to have been blinded by splinters. This is no small matter, and though rare, it is a hazard of the game itself.

King Ren lived only a week, those same splinters digging through his ocular spheres and into that gray matter which some believe holds the ultimate vitality, in tandem with the heart, nay, even the soul; and he perished in agony.

I repaired with Aislinn to my own private study, preferring not to abandon her to the nitwits who might poke and prod at her with their “insect” cures. I feared, as well, the gossip of the crowd who were given to superstition. If there were suggestion she had been cursed by the gods as a result of Ryne’s poor conduct, there might be no end to the repercussions, much less the disappointment of the King himself, who had tasked me to serve as Ryne’s keeper.

Clearly, there was no end to a wizard’s potential failures.

I took a bottle of liquor from the King’s private store, where I’d been embezzling drinking spirits for years, and girded myself with a helping. When I was done, I returned, hoping to use it to clean Aislinn’s wounds. I set it aside long enough to set my hands to her blood stained, white and gilt-edged armor, and pull the helmet away.

Her hair unraveled out along her bevor cossetting her throat and neck, over the gardbrace covering her shoulder. Her mouth tilted half open where she breathed, labored, blood oozing tracks from underneath her eyelids. I will not belabor this account with too much description, but I wept, overcome to realize I was staring at someone who would die, perhaps in hours, or maybe days.

I removed what splinters could be found, but left those driven further in than I had the power to withdraw. I bandaged her and consulted the oldest of my books, chased down ancient records of injury among knights, and when I had exhausted every store of knowledge and wisdom, I came to her bedside at last, and held her hand, and waited for her to die.

She persisted in what seemed an endless sleep, in neither life nor death. While the rest of the castle keep hustled and bustled, the lives of everyone continued on without notice or care. The King remained sickening and disappointed in his son, while Ryne moped about the castle and spent his nights carousing at the local taverns, sleeping with anything that demonstrated a pulse, and Aislinn refused to die.

A month later, she woke up, and said she was hungry.

I helped her remove her armor, piece by piece, as though I were extricating scales from a dragon, laying them out upon my shelves. The gauntlets, the pauldrons, the vambraces and rerebraces and many more I did not know the name of. I fed her soup, and asked if she would prefer to be moved where the other patients were, but she said no, she liked it here, in my quiet and miserable study, surrounded by the smells of the musty scrolls, listening to me feed and curse the sparrows at the windowsill. I decided that perhaps people were not so bad after all.

 

#

 

In the five years she stayed with me in the study, I did not inform people of her where abouts. I did not inform the King, fearing to explain Ryne’s part in all that transpired, and Ryne, well, Ryne was too much a spoiled and useless brat, moving clumsily into adulthood and waiting for his old man to die so he could be crowned king. I believe he forgot about her entirely.

I kept her armor polished, and set it aside in the study like an outlandish exhibit for an exoskeleton. Being blind, Aislinn could hardly be expected to fight any battles or compete in jousts. That part of her life was surely over.

I became familiar with her, grudgingly. If you have ever known stubborn, miserable old men such as myself, than you’ll know we’re hard to know, hard to warm up to. She was quiet and melancholy by her nature, I was soon to discover, and this suited me just fine, and eventually, I began to read scrolls and old books out loud to her.

She had come from a simple family on the Western edge of the kingdom. They died in raids during the Red Year, and left Aislinn alone to make her fortune and fight for her life. She began with the poor armor of her slain brother, and fought her way through the front lines to fame and recognition, proving herself a master strategist with an uncanny ability to suss out politics, but for all this, she could not make or decipher a letter, and had never had schooling.

“You are a wizard? A magician?” she asked.

“Guilty,” I told her. I parceled out small glasses for the both of us, which I filled with honey wine, and refilled diligently, insisting she continue drinking for medicinal purposes. I matched her until the world revolved in a pleasant, bleary drunk.

“And what of magic?” she asked.

“I wouldn’t know. You know the old tale. They say we were all born with magic, awash in it. We misused it, so the fates took it away, since we could not be trusted. Now, there is no magic left in the world, nor much left of heroes to go with it.”

“Not even a little?”

“Well,” I said and smirked, “maybe just a little. But mostly, I just know more than all the rest.”

Curious, she expressed eagerness to know what I spent time reading, when I stumbled about and cursed at the mice for dismantling my books for their nesting material. In this way, I unintentionally taught her history, the motions of the stars, even if she could not see them, and explained the old mysteries involving complicated figures and additions. When we finished one, I thought she might tire of it, and me besides, but she insisted on more, so I read her philosophy, political science. She’d be a wizard herself, soon.

In return, I became her eyes. It did not happen all at once, but gradually, as she asked me to describe the weather outside the window, the nesting birds on the sill. Her requests grew larger in scope until I found myself back in the tournament stands to watch the knights practice for next season on the playing field.

“Which coursers were used?” she interrogated me. “What style of armor? Describe their build for me, the state of their bodies greatly influences how the lance will be wielded in play.”

Cantankerous and taciturn on a good day, I was embarrassed to be questioned as rudely as a street huckster by a young woman half my own age, but even more ashamed to discover my vast ignorance regarding the sport itself.

“Do you know nothing of jousting, or swordplay?”

“For what purpose would I learn such arts?” I snapped. “Curses and soothsaying do not respond to the persuasion of violence.”

She humphed. “With a sword, one doesn’t need a wizard for curses.”

“With a wizard, one doesn’t need a sword!”

Grumbling, I trudged out onto the field in rain and snow and all manner of foul weather. This time, I surveyed the armory and saw what weapons were used. I talked to the arms man, who was happy to instruct me on all the arcane and intricate delights of his specialty, which would have had me snoring on a good day, without the aid of a strong mead.

“Tell Oren to use the sand from the river with a mixture of oil from the Yellow Star flower that grows by the banks.”

“Whatever for?”

“He’ll listen to you. Tell him it will keep the swords sharp and rust free.”

And so it was. I might watch a practice joust and in the evening, describe to Aislinn the competitors. “Ruthless Hetter and Grange practiced, with much animosity.” I delineated their height and weight, how they sat in their saddle while Aislinn eagerly predicted who would emerge the winner based on their fighting style, their idiosyncrasies, down to the smallest detail, with nothing more than her keen insight. A sport I could barely tolerate in the past took center stage at Aislinn’s urging.

“How can you know such a thing?”

To which she supplied no answer. Despite her overwhelming ignorance and lack of schooling, I came to the uncomfortable realization that her skills as a warrior might well eclipse my skills as a wizard. Her intense analysis of environment, skill and weaponry, dwarfed my own. Any man or woman might rise to the level of a knight or a wizard – but not all become master strategists.

Over time, she managed to leave her bed, wearing her perpetual bandage. At first, I helped her navigate my study in the upper reaches of the north tower where no one liked to venture, mostly because I was there, until she learned the room itself by heart. I sensed she was gripped by a deep depression, learning to accept how dark the transformation she suffered, and I did not pressure her, or tell her she should simply set her sadness aside and continue her life as normal. I did not need to be told that none of these platitudes would help her, and she had gone on the hardest quest a knight can undertake. She could take no weapons with her, no faithful squire, though I would have willingly offered myself at her service.

I even came to enjoy her presence, though I dared not admit it, not even to her.

We broke bread before the fire on winter nights. She hoarded an amazing store of ribald jokes from her time traveling as a knight, which both scandalized and amused me to no end. She asked me why I had no children of my own, and I explained I’d never had an interest, and by the time I might have had one, I was too old. I shared with her the royal gossip, how the King was ailing more each day.

Days and nights became divided between duties to the governing of the kingdom and time spent on the tournament field. Oren took Aislinn’s advice about the Yellow Star flower oil and the sand, and every blade in his armory became a point of pride.

“No one dies of corruption from a rusted blade wound here, no sir,” he boasted, stacking lances against the wall, his sleeves pushed up his arm to reveal muscles like loaves of bread, stretching the limits of his shirt. “Though I fear not all the weapons are so well-regarded. The new squire tampered with a lance. I caught him in the act, I did, he won’t be anyone’s squire now.”

“Tampered with the lance? What for?”

“Eh, sometimes the bets run high on the tournament. A lot of coin gets thrown around. With that much money, it’s a lot of temptation to have someone fix the game. They might split a wood lance ahead of time to encourage a shattering, but more likely use a hardened wood guaranteed to best the other. Oak petrifies over time, which is why we take our stock from the softer woods. Soft woods bend, you see, instead of shatter. Of course, we put paid to that now that we insist on contestants using only the weapons inspected here – but every now and again, some clever snake tampers with them ahead time. A dangerous business. ‘Tis rare, but it does happen. It’s why I’m always inspecting the arms.”

Oren commenced to whistling, a habit guaranteed to drive me out of his vicinity as quickly as possible, and yet, Oren’s last words kept recurring, interjecting themselves into my thoughts. I might distract myself as I walked back to the keep with looking at the pattern of the birds, or the distant rye field, only to return to Oren again.

With that much money, it’s a lot of temptation to have someone fix the game.

A wizard is charged with many things. His office is not only the dry recitation of facts and figures and patterns of the moon and stars, but the ability to draw correlation from disparate events – to perceive the secret and occulted pattern of the world around us. In that moment, I passed beneath the royal balcony of Ryne’s quarters and looked skyward. A flying curtain caught the wind, unfurling. A woman’s laughter, and then Ryne’s. How had Aislinn’s lance come to shatter? Mere accident? Yet, how rare the nature of that accident.

I recalled then, the image unbidden, Keaton’s lance as I had seen it, whole and unscratched, while Aislinn’s had been wrecked and unrecognizable. Could – had it – surely someone had not swapped the armory lance for a hardwood, knowing Aislinn would wield it, and when she did, it would shatter and blow back into her face at the moment of impact, while Keaton’s merely bent like a reed in the wind?

With no proof, I nursed a sick nausea that Ryne, and his extensive gambling habits, had interefered with Aislinn’s joust that fated day. I did not know how to tell her that he was responsible for her blindness; in some ways, it was a selfish reason. I feared she would leave, and the thought of delivering her yet another blow that would leave a wound far deeper than any splinter could fester.

As the fates would have it, I did not have a choice in the matter; it was Ryne himself who would, as usual, ruin everything.

During those blessed five years that Aislinn learned to acclimate to a new life, during those years where her armor gathered dust on my shelves, Ryne was having his own troubles. As much as a spoiled rich princeling can have, at least, other than bar fights and venereal diseases.

No, unfortunately for Ryne, he was faced with a real threat; a usurper from afar, who boasted that when the King died, he was rightful successor to the crown, not Ryne, and he had every intention of marching into the kingdom and taking it for his own. This exuberant plan also included Ryne’s head on a pike.

Threats like these are not terribly uncommon, but unlike the other would-be pretenders making claims on his throne, Ryne had every reason to fear Maxton’s approach. Maxton had already consolidated his two neighboring kingdoms under one banner, and forged a mutual friendship with the overseas invaders from the Aural lands. Maxton had the muscle to make it happen, and Ryne knew it. Even if he was a piss-poor politician, Ryne knew bad gambles when he saw them.

And when desperate men run out of options, it is wizards they usually turn to.

“What do you want me to do about it?” I asked, blunt, when he caught me in the kitchens, attempting to smuggle a whole cake to my room, hiding it under my arm.

“Can’t you divine for me? Cut open a dove, stare into a cup of tea, for the love of the fates?”

I rolled my eyes. “Your father has been dying for years. There should be nothing to worry about.”

“He’s dying quicker now!” Ryne snapped. “Do you want to work for Maxton by next spring? Because I could arrange it by simply scampering off in the middle of the night. You know Maxton has no truck with sorcerers. He calls his sword the Wizard Killer.”

“You wouldn’t dare.”

Ryne’s face reflected a despairing resignation that sickened me.

“I’ll give you a week, old man, and then I’ll be knocking at your door.”

With that, he left me to return to my tower, eating sugary cake with Aislinn in troubled silence, and falling asleep by the crackling fire with my toes turning red in the draught.

 

#

 

A knock at my door summoned me, weeks later. I capsized empty wine bottles and stacked books, stumbled over my own feet, and jerked it open to face Ryne, no longer looking smooth-faced and boyish as he once had.

“Days left,” Ryne hissed. “The old man is dying! And Maxton will be here. Do you know what he does to the people he conquers? He cuts off their fingers. As trophies.”

I looked over my shoulder. Aislinn slept in the corner of the room. Ryne followed my gaze, his face draining into that ashen color I had last seen at the tournament, and the last time he had seen Aislinn. In a large keep, all of us lowly peasants were background noise and scenery, lost in the shuffle of daily activity. In all this time, he had never cared to travel to my quarters and see Aislinn for himself.

Swiftly, he pulled me out into the hall and shut the door behind me.

“What is she doing here?” he whispered.

Too late to fabricate a lie now, I decided. “She’s been here since the accident.”

“Hasn’t she some place to go?”

“What do you care, Prince?” I inserted as much acid as I could into the title. “I think given the circumstances of her injuries, she’s entitled to a retirement and care funded by the royal coffers, don’t you?”

He fell silent, the bitter twist of his lip fading, and leaned away from me in the darkness. He did not look like a silly boy, but a desperate, ashamed man. He retreated down the steps when he stopped, and turned back around, a finger at his temple, his eyes glinting in the light.

“Aislinn,” he began.

“Yes, your highness?”

“She … what is the extent of her injuries?”

“She’s blind, sir.”

“Completely?”

“Is there another type of blind, sir?”

He looked like he might snap again, and swallowed it.

“Can she still fight?” he whispered.

“What are you getting at?”

“Aislinn’s name still has respect in the Thirteen Kingdoms. There’s not a knight who does not know her name. They hold tournaments in her honor. If she could fight under my banner, this could be the deciding element, do you realize that? Even Maxton must give pause. There’s places in this country where the rumor goes that the people will be burying the dead she slayed in the Red Year for a decade hence.”

I crossed my arms.

“She’s blind.”

“Dammit, what kind of wizard are you? Make her un-blind!”

I cursed. “You want me to make her un-blind, as you say?”

“I’m making it a royal command.”

If I refused, it was treason to the kingdom.

I hated him all the more, and it made it easier to say what must be said:

“Then give me your eyes.”

“Excuse me?”

“You heard me just fine. You want her to see again? Then you have to give up your eyes.”

Ryne’s ashen color bleached further, reducing him to a stripped bone.

“Are your eyes not a pittance for the sake of your kingdom?”

He did not move. I could see him making numerous calculations, scenarios played out. I imagine he thought of his father, considered the grand history our people shared, pictured Maxton waving his flag from the ramparts, when he would no doubt shackle Ryne in chains for amusement before beheading him in front of the public.

Ryne made a choking sound, and fled, down the hall, and down the stairs, sobbing like a child.

When I returned to the room, she was awake, braiding her hair. I wondered if I dared ask if she heard us. She must have heard us. She must have heard everything. Before I could speak, she left the bed and felt her way to the shelves, where she lifted off the first piece of armor, and began to fit it to herself.

“You know?” I asked.

She nodded. She had never been much for words. She cared about action, she loved the heat of the battle and the art of the long sword. And she had been cooped up here, like a bird whose song is stifled.

“I have to practice,” she said. “I have to be ready when the time comes.”

“You can’t see, Aislinn.”

Her hand paused over a fastening, and then continued.

“I have been aware of that for some time now.”

“You intend to fight, when the time comes?”

“Eyes or no eyes,” she said, and after a time, I sighed, and handed her the next piece.

“You don’t owe Ryne anything.”

“It’s not for Ryne, not for the Keep, or Kingdom, or the people. Or even you, for that matter, though it would be enough if you asked me. No. I’ve spent too many seasons in this bed. I’ve dreamed of the tournament too often. Do you suppose that’s a bit of magic, that when I dream, I have my eyes still?”

“I’ve heard knights who’ve lost limbs say that when they dream, their lost limbs are restored. I suppose it’s a type of magic. But one that forces us to relive the past upon waking, and maybe that’s no magic at all.”

“Maybe it’s time for new dreams. Time to lift the sword. I want to feel the wind screaming through the helm. I wanted to die on the battlefield, Quint, not leave it, screaming for my eyes. And as much as I loved this little room, and all its comfort, I don’t want to die in it.”

“That’s my fate, Aislinn. Let me help you into that pauldron. I used to be a squire.”

“Not a very good one. I might be blind, but I need the breastplate, not the pauldron.”

I helped her fit it, took note of the pieces damaged by nicks or scratches, and where she would need new leather straps to hold them in place, and I did it with bittersweet regret.

 

#

The King died six months later, when the summer reached its height, turning the land molten with hot breaths of air. Ryne bumbled about his business with his usual disdain for bureaucracy and diplomacy. I waited to hear the news that he fled in the night, or surrendered to Maxton in exchange for his life, or some other cowardly bid to save his skin while the state limped through existence without a head. I did not expect to see him again after the King’s death.

And indeed, he did not come to me.

Instead, while I was watching Aislinn practice sword thrusts in the firelight in full armor, taking stabs at my book shelves, I heard a knock at the door, bringing everything to a halt.

I opened it wide and was met with a messenger. A young boy offered up a folded cloth to me. I gave him a silver bit for his troubles, and when he had scurried down the stairs, I opened the cloth.

Nestled there, like a couplet of jewels, sat Ryne’s hazel eyes.

 

#

 

There is not much magic left in the world. But of what’s left, I have a mere fraction; and I leveraged that fraction to my will, with metal and fire, steel and salt, water and desire.

Aislinn gave me permission, and one does not need to know by what suffering and pain I forged Ryne’s eyes in place of hers, how she held the hearth poker in her hand until she bent the iron itself.

Maxton marched on our Kingdom in the high heat of summer, and where Ryne was hiding, I could not say. I heard rumors he was on the western front, another that he was at the south, and another rumor, even more unbelievably, was that he was marching himself to face Maxton with a cadre of the kingdom’s finest warriors.

“That’s where he is,” Aislinn said.

“Doubtful. I do not believe he’d go anywhere without eyes.”

“It’s a trick,” Aislinn said. “He’s traveling in disguise. Someone is pretending to be Ryne.”

“Much good it does to help us.”

“On the contrary,” she pointed out with her keen, strategist’s insight. “He’s letting Maxton know he’s leaving the kingdom undefended. Maxton will not meet him in the south. Mark me, he will come straight here, and I will be waiting to meet him when he does.”

“How can you know such a thing?”

She smiled. In that smile resided the look of a warrior chieftan, calculating war games and predicting the political theater with grace and aplomb. I thought then of Ryne, with cold realization – did he not also calculate as she did, apply games of risk and chance to the playing field? Where Aislinn predicted the movements of armies with skilled acuity and observation, did not Ryne’s vulgar time-wasting at the gambling tables serve in similar fashion?

Of course. Ryne was fixing the game, but this time, it was not Aislinn’s eyes or a mere joust hanging in the balance – it was the whole of the kingdom.

And Aislinn knew it.

“You’re under no obligation to fight for us,” I said. “You don’t have to do this.”

“I’m ready. Take off the bandage.”

Sighing, I did as she asked, unlooping the bloody bandage from her head.

For the first time in five years, she gazed upon me, with Ryne’s eyes. She did not need help putting on her armor; but I served her as a squire would, all the while, wishing she would take Ryne’s place.

 

#

 

It was a rout.

She slayed Maxton on the battlefield. Once he’d been killed, his army scattered, some retreating back to their homeland, others too tired to move and choosing to death before defeat.

To my great sorrow, she did not return.

I waited for Aislinn. I missed her quiet, I missed all the times we talked over flagons of ale about philosophy and math. Perhaps they were silly things to miss; and I returned to being an angry, miserable old man, which is the majority of my post as resident wizard.

Ryne came back from his decoy front line weeks later, ragged and thin. In the interim, he’d learned to use a sturdy dogwood stick to find his way from one object to another, knocking about and making a ruckus as he found his way to my room.

He demanded to know where Aislinn was, that he expected to award her estates, lands, titles, he was determined to see her a noble at his court before the day was out.

“She’s not coming back,” I explained, stern.

The spoiled boy of the past was well and truly gone. By all accounts, he was a king now; but the immediate threat of Maxton had given no time for coronation or celebration. Indeed, the public did not even know of his new state, his missing eyes. Instead of a crown, he wore a bandage across the place his eyes should be, a slim fabric of gold and white.

Aislinn’s colors, I noticed.

“She’s not here?” he asked.

I sighed.

“I don’t think she wants to be anyone’s queen, Ryne.”

A lifetime ago, he would have lectured me on my lapse in royal protocol. Now, instead, he stumbled through my door and all the way to the seat by the table, and collapsed into it.

“Would you share a drink with me, old man?”

“Of course, your highness,” I said.

I was tempted to ask him if he had tampered with either Keaton’s or Aislinn’s lance so many years ago, but could never find the right moment. I reflected that events have a way of moving in circles, now that he took her place as an invalid, his empty eye sockets hidden behind a bandage. The gears of time and the machinery of the universe put us all in our place, upon a vast, cosmic game of chance, and if we be lucky, we might be able to take hold the spokes and tilt the wheel of fortune in our favor. It seemed then I was on the edge of true wizardry, the last bit of magic left in the world – Ryne and Aislinn on opposite ends of a gambling wheel, keeping the balance, and I might peer through to understand the very machinations of fate. Yet, the revelation danced away from me, beyond my ken.

We hope one day that Aislinn will return, perhaps for the year’s tournament. We hope that every year. Meanwhile, all the fight has gone out of Ryne, though he’s a young King at twenty-three. He flies a standard of white and gold in addition to his family crest. And he spends a great deal of time on the balcony, though he cannot see.

One day, when he was far too deep in his cups and entertaining me in his quarters, I asked him why he no longer entertains as he used to, why he spends so many lonely hours staring at the horizon at nothing at all; he said that sometimes, in day dreams or while fast asleep, he saw with his eyes as Aislinn must wear them, and watched her, braving the haunted forests in the east country where no one dared go, recalled memories not his of besting strange beasts lurking by the cerulean shores in the south, making conquests of beds and dragons alike, defending small villages whose livelihoods were being destroyed by heartless taskmasters. Ryne swore he saw it as she did, like a passenger at her side.

“But that’s not possible, is it?” Ryne whispered. “They say all the magic has fled our world. Not even a little bit should remain, right?”

I was glad he could not see how pale I had become.

“No,” I said. “Not even a little. Likely a dream, your highness.”

I poured him a goblet, and he lifted it.

“To victory?” I asked, recalling the tournament of many years ago.

“To victory,” he agreed. “To Aislinn.”

We drank. When Ryne fell asleep in the chair, I covered my King with a blanket, and let him sleep.

And if he dreamed of riding with Aislinn – dreamed of gazing from a hero’s eyes to know the heart’s blood of a knight, to marry his sorrow with her illimitable courage – myself being only a miserable wizard, it is not my office to know.

 

____________________________________

Martin Rose writes fiction across genres with work appearing in publications such as Penumbra and Murky Depths, and various anthologies: Urban Green Man, Handsome Devil, and Ominous Realities. Bring Me Flesh, I’ll Bring Hell, is a horror novel published by Talos in 2014, and has been recognized as one of “Notable Novels of 2014” in Best Horror of the Year, Vol. 7. For more details, visit martinrose.org.


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