You killed us.
You killed me.
The voices pulled sleep out of Keenan’s grasping mind, murmuring like a reluctant breeze around him. They were quiet today, whispering for once instead of shouting. If Keenan hadn’t already known the words, he might not have been able to discern them from the general hubbub; but he did know the words, and now that the protection of sleep was gone they filled his ears again, attempting by that route to leech into his soul. He spent a fuzzy moment hoping against hope that he’d be able to fall asleep again; but of course he couldn’t. The day had begun, and he would have to begin with it.
The first thing to greet him once he opened his eyes was a face–or at least a thing of shifting grey mist that looked very like a face–hovering over him like a personal raincloud.In spite of the shifting transparency of whatever it was made of, it might have been almost a lifelike face, save for the bullet wound that gaped bloodlessly in its forehead. Beyond the aged visage Keenan could make out the bare branches of a tree shaking in the wind, and a storming sky.
I WAS MURDERED, a voiceless voice roared from its thirst-cracked lips. The mist-made eyes were intact, boggling out from a skullish face; and the soldier’s uniform, too, preserved in perfect detail.
Keenan grimaced, waving a hand through the mist in a fruitless attempt to shoo it away. Cold as ice, it left sharp frost-patterns on his hand.
I WAS MURDERED, it insisted again, glaring at Keenan with a fire of vengeance in its eyes.
“So what?” he returned grumpily, knowing the thing wouldn’t listen to him–they never did. “I didn’t kill you.” That was true, for once. “Go haunt the dead.”
The thing looked at him skeptically, but Keenan didn’t care any more for its skepticism than he had for its accusations. He got up, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. Perhaps the thing drifted away after that; perhaps it didn’t. He didn’t much care.
Forresh, grazing at the very edge of the precipice that was their camp, whickered to welcome him back to the waking world. Keenan, not much wanting to be part of the waking world, only grunted in reply.
With undampened enthusiasm, the beast ruffled his wings and trotted over, barging through a few aimlessly wandering spirits on his way to Keenan’s side. Keenan couldn’t help but smile as the pegasus’s great head was laid against his chest, and he scratched the beast’s ears.
“The sky’s angry with me today, boy,” he said, smile disappearing as he looked up at the roiling clouds. “Sky and earth alike; that can’t be good, can it?”
Forresh snorted and shook his head, backing up with nostrils flared and spreading his wide black wings to be buffeted by the wind. He liked the angry weather, loved it even for its fierceness.Keenan remembered the feeling, dimly; that kind of love had long since lost its strength in him.
Though there was one real reason to be glad of the wind’s wildness. Fierce and cold, it seemed to drive away the end-of-summer stagnancy that the screaming spirits thrived in. During the past few hazy days, their voices had been everywhere, teeming around Keenan and crying for justice, or vengeance, loud and inescapable. The wind seemed to scatter and confuse them, and Keenan was grateful for the small respite.
In a late attempt at escaping the voices, he and Forresh had made camp on a tall plateau–the highest height the bowl of moors offered without climbing the surrounding mountains. A single pillar of earth, rising like a fairy-tale tower from the flat grasslands that surrounded it, bare at its height save for the skeleton of a small petrified tree. It had been no escape from the ghosts or their cries, but Keenan had stayed there all the same. Such as it was, it was his home now.
Riding on the tail of the wind, black and purple storm-clouds came roiling. The air was rainless yet, but the way it ruffled itself through the wetland grasses promised a downpour.
The ghosts wandered through the dark grasses, moaning and mourning and screaming. Keenan was practiced in the art of ignoring them; but one face among the thousands caught his attention. It was turned towards him, pale and calm save for the dark, angry splatter of blood across its cheek. Expressionless, but not with the unbridled insanity of some of the vengeful ghosts, rather, purposefully so. She stared at him as though he was as transparent as she was.
Keenan’s stomach dropped. No. Not her. Any ghost, any spirit or phantasm the earth could muster–but not her.
Forresh whinnied shrilly, opening his wings again to be buffeted by the wind as he curvetted in riotous circles. Tying up his bedroll in shaky knots, Keenan still managed to grin at the frolicking beast.
“Don’t get too excited,” he cautioned, plopping a saddle on Forresh’s willing back. “We’re just going to make the rounds, low and steady.”
Perhaps a flight would shake her off his scent for a while. Or perhaps it wouldn’t. But in any case, she couldn’t follow him into the air; and even a temporary escape such as that would be well worth the trouble.
Forresh snuffled attentively at Keenan’s arm, but the beast’s red-flared nostrils and wide eyes showed that all his concentration was focused on the promised storm. He didn’t even bother to snort in protest as the saddle-straps tightened over his chest and belly.
Keenan jostled the saddle a bit, checking its tightness, and Forresh began dancing again.
“Hold, boy,” Keenan said, willing the beast to be still as he heaved himself up onto the broad back.
Quivering and pacing, Forresh was a thing of muscle and power, a force of pure energy that Keenan had been melded with by some unthinking accident. The feathers of black wings ruffled against Keenan’s legs, and there was something of Keenan’s own anxiety in Forresh as he jawed at the restraining bit.
The storm, sending a spattering of rain down as it drew closer, seemed to have chased the ghosts underground for now–even her. The grasslands rippled, the wind and distance bestowing the rough heath-grass with the character of an uneasy ocean. It all struck Keenan as looking grey, though he knew it wasn’t–the ground carpeted in gold and green and the reddish rust of dying heath, the deep blues and purples of the roiling sky. And all around the vast, flat expanse of the moor, black mountains rose like hunchbacked giants cowering under the cover of crusted earth.
Not grey; not grey at all. And yet it looked grey–the grey of ghosts, and the grey of death.
Keenan looked over it all–his home, his empire, his prison, and pulled Forresh back from another attempt at running off the plateau’s edge. He had no heart left to fly today, no heart to face the wildness of the storm. The storm and Forresh would have to wait; he’d wait here, rebuild the twizzling fire, perhaps–
There was a touch on his shoulder, light and cold enough to freeze him to the bone. He jumped, turning to find the one face he’d recognize anywhere–the one face he never wanted to see, young and pretty even in the death-pale form it was in now. The eyes were bright and intelligent, looking at him intently. The mouth opened, a word forming behind the dead lips.
The cold drove like a spike into Keenan’s heart, and his hands fisted instinctively around the reins. He knew what she had to say, and he didn’t want to hear it.
Forresh, just getting used to the idea of standing still, leapt up at the unwarranted dig of Keenan’s heels into his sides. Two jerking, dancing steps put a space of a few feet between them and the ghost-girl, who reached uselessly as she cried out for them to stop; and then, with a surge of wings and a plunging of stomachs, Forresh leapt off the last few inches of solid ground and into the open air.
It was a feeling like the end of the world, falling like that; all fluttering and flapping and the ground coming ever closer–the good kind of fear, a feeling that Keenan hadn’t known he’d forgotten–and then Forresh spread his wings, wide and black, into the vast grey world of the storm on a current of air strong enough to hold them both aloft.
The storm was here now, no longer threatening but upon them. The rain, which had begun as a mere vision of what it would become, was falling heavier now, and the sky was shot through with lightning.
Keenan’s could feel the incessant beat of a pounding heart–his or Forresh’s, it was impossible to tell. Beyond the fear was another feeling Keenan had unwittingly forgotten–joy. He laughed at the thunder–or perhaps with the thunder; the world was huge, and wild, and beautiful.
The girl and all her drifting compatriots were, for the moment, forgotten. She couldn’t touch him here. No one could touch him here; the sky was his home, his mother, his mistress, and in its arms he would always be safe.
With something of this thought in his mind, he gathered his strength and urged Forresh up and into the very center and heart of the storm.
The clouds roiled in thick multicolored mists beneath and above them. Keenan’s hands were frozen in Forresh’s mane, and crystals of ice flew past, slicing his skin; but they were riding free on the wildest of winds, and Keenan couldn’t help but feel all the joy of recklessness surging through his veins.
Lightning flashed its claws below, a blinding warning that lasted for a second, and the sound of it roared around them with a loudness that made him lose himself for a moment; and then it sizzled away. Keenan laughed, a sound of victory; a gladness long forgotten. How had he ever lost this? Why had he ever given up the sky, the joy of flight?
He put a hand on Forresh’s neck in simple thanks.
But the pegasus did not seem to notice. He was shaking his head, absently as if to clear it.
“You alright, boy?” Keenan asked, as it became increasingly clear that Forresh was not alright. The lightning and the thunder had boggled him, somehow; he was flying blind.
The wind, no longer expertly navigated by Forresh’s wings, turned devilish. A sudden gust blew them sideways, into a twisting current of ice and cloud. An electric snap of lightning sounded far too close, turning the world white as thunder laughed a cruel I-told-you-so; and then the wind took them again, ignoring Forresh’s scream of pain, ignoring Keenan’s panicked prayers. It toyed with them, throwing Forresh one way and then another until his struggles lost their strength.
Finally a merciful current took and held them, pulling them out of the cyclonic heart of the storm and sucking them downwards. Forresh beat his wings weakly, uselessly, unable to set himself straight as the grasslands rose up to meet them.
The ground hit with the force of a fist, a sickening crack of bone the last sound in Keenan’s ears before the silence settled over him.
Rain was shivering, dripping pregnant drops into the muddy soil. A rumble of thunder, distant and meaningless, gave Keenan a reason to open his eyes. Black feathers quivered overhead, shielding him from the rain; he blinked at them, wondering why the sight made him uneasy. Something about the angle they rested in, their strange motionlessness…
An aftershock of panic seized him, and he struggled to get up. His attempts chased the kind numbness away, and the pain that spasmed across his chest drove him to his knees. He felt broken–he probably was broken–but he forced himself to his feet anyway. Forresh wasn’t moving.
The storm had dropped them at the edge of one of the moor’s mountains, and their tower of earth was far away–too far away to reach, even if he could climb it, even if the medical kit he’d idiotically left at the top could even make a dent in the damage.
The grass around them was dead and rust-hued, and in the center of it all lay Forresh. The blackness of his wings spread like a splash of ink over the grass, feathers trembling uselessly in the wind.
Keenan staggered forward, landing on his knees by the beast’s head. His nostrils were still, flecked with droplets of red; and the wide eyes were open and fogged over, unmindful of the rain that spattered into them and dripped though the fur of the great face.
A voice as substanceless as a ghost’s heaved from Keenan’s lungs as he bent over the silent head, ignoring the prickling of pain from broken ribs as he mourned his friend. He wished he could scream, or cry, or shed some tear–but there was nothing inside him , not even sadness.
The apathy was a kind of pain in itself.
The ghosts were walking again, having grown used to the storm, their murmuring voices– sometimes directed at him, sometimes not–filling the air as the thunder faded. He crushed a hand painfully against his chest, trying to chase them away, but they only grew louder.
The great moor had been a battlefield once, years ago when Keenan had been a young man, and Forresh no more than a colt. His first battle; his last, too, for that day had brought about enough death, enough destruction and blood, to last a lifetime. The war–who knew what had started it, or why. But Keenan had survived it, Forresh with him, when everyone else had not; and this prison of a moor had been his hard-won prize.
It was a massacre, cried a young voice.
No one, no one left.
It’s his fault we’re dead!
I was slaughtered, trampled, broken, killed…
The accusers flooded around him now, and he dared not open his eyes lest he see the faces. He remembered some of them all too well, and others–others, he could not remember at all. He wasn’t sure which was worse. They hated him, whether he’d killed them or not; hated him for surviving.
He fumbled in his belt, searching for the dagger he always carried, and slid the thing from its sheath, pressing the tip into a space between his shattered ribs. His own muscles were rebelling at the thought of driving it in, as they had the first time he’d killed another man; but he’d overcome them then, and he would now.
Perhaps death was where he belonged.
Cold shot though his arm as a hand grabbed it.
He opened his eyes. The ghosts were everywhere, teeming and sneering as usual. But one was not sneering, instead looking at him with something almost like compassion. She was beautiful, eyes sharp and lively still, hair that drifted around her delicate face, oblivious to the wind. Her hand on his arm was strong and bitter-cold; he pulled away in fear, but she only stood before him with that same unreadable expression on her blood-spattered face.
He could remember killing her. She’d fought him, which had made it easier at the time–but he’d never been able to forget her. She’d finally come to accuse him; he knew the words. He’d heard them often enough before.
But she surprised him.
“Why are you still here?” Sounding more frustrated than anything else, she made a wide shooing gesture towards the mountains, as if trying to urge him over them.
“The living don’t belong here. Nothing but death is here now.”
The thunder rumbled in agreement with that, but they both ignored it. Keenan looked at the dagger in his hand; a little rusty with misuse, but serviceable still.
Nothing but death. “Almost nothing,” he said, musingly. “Soon, nothing.”
“Not like that,” she said, shaking her head.
The other ghost’s voices had faded and drifted away, along with the ghosts themselves, and the plain held nothing but the two of them now, separated by a broken black wing and an invisible chasm that Keenan still wanted to cross. He chuckled, looking into the girl’s eyes; why was she, of all people, trying to save him?”
“Why not?” he asked. “Don’t I deserve it?”
“Deserve what?” she retorted. “Rest? Peace? I’d say not.”
“I killed you,” he reminded her; that was the bit most ghosts couldn’t stop shouting at him–but she brushed the fact away with a filmy gesture.
“I noticed. And now you’ll murder yourself as well, to make everything better? It won’t, you know.”
Her banter, so easy and light in the face of his pain, made him furious.
“Don’t you see?” he shouted at her. “I’m dead already!”
Her face went blank at that, the silence stretching for a dark moment.
“Trust me,” she said. “You’re not.”
She would know. He’d showed her what death was. She took a step toward him, laid an ice-cold hand on his shoulder.
“Leave here,” she said, gently enough, and he closed his eyes against the kindness in her face. He didn’t deserve it–not any of it–and it hurt even worse than the numbness, far, far worse than the accusations. Maybe good things were like that; full of pain. Life, and storms, and forgiveness; and maybe, just maybe, there was something beyond the pain that made it all worth it.
She drifted past him, and he opened his eyes to find the mountains rearing their height above his head. Perhaps there was something beyond them, as well. The death he craved, or the hope he’d lost–even if there was nothing at all, she was right. This valley was a place of death, and he didn’t belong in it anymore.
Forresh deserved better than to be left alone and broken on the moor; but he couldn’t bring himself to look at the beast. He stroked a feather of his wing in farewell, and took a step–the first of many–up the mountainside.
Something whuffled softly behind him.
Keenan spun around, ignoring the spasm of pain in his ribs, and was greeted by Forresh’s giant face happily bumping into his chest. With a joyful cry, he buried his fingers in the pegasus’s mane as the beast snorted. He was whole again, and safe, and very definitely alive; Keenan did not care how.
Still, a flicker of grey caught his eye–the girl, standing and watching them with a slight smile on her face.
“Thank you.” he managed, as Forresh whuffled into his shoulder.
Her expression flickered, some of the polished grey of her appearance disintegrating.
“Life’s a gift,” she said, as even more of herself began to fall away, skin peeling back into flesh, and flesh into bone–what had she given, to give Forresh back to him?
“Take it–” she managed, little more than a skeleton now– “And leave this place.”
And then she faded completely, leaving the words lingering after her–more than a ghost, those words, for they’d been burned into his soul.
“I will,” he whispered. “I promise.”