GGK comments: I’ve used different reading passages from Last Light over the period since it came out. On the last several occasions, however, what follows has been my preference and I suspect I’m likely to stay with it. I like this stitched-together section because it first introduces the realm of faerie in the novel, and because it gives a hint of how I’ve played with present tense in the last few books, each time with a different purpose. I usually lead in with a comment on regarding ‘the fantastic’ as a tool in the writer’s arsenal, to be used if and when it seems appropriate to the story being told. For this book it did seem that way to me.
She is curious and too bold. Always has been, from first awakening under the mound. A lingering interest in the other world, less fear than the others, though iron’s presence can drain her as easily as any of them.
Tonight there are more mortals than she can remember in the house north of the wood; the aura is inescapable. No moons to cast a shadow: she has come away to see. Passed a green spruaugh on the way, seethed at him to stop his chattering, knows he will go now, to tell the queen where she is. No matter, she tells herself. They are not forbidden to look.
The cattle are restless in their pen. First thing she knows, an awareness of that. The lights almost all doused in the house now; shining only in one chamber window, two, and in the big room beyond the heavy doors. Iron on the doors. Mortals sleep at night, fearfully.
She feels hooves on the earth, west of them.
Her own fear, before sight. Then riders leaping the fence, smashing through it into the farmyard below and fire is thrown and iron is drawn, is everywhere, sharp as death, heavy as death. She hasn’t come for this, almost flees, to tell the queen, the others. Stays, up above, unseen flicker in the dark-leaved trees.
Brighter and lesser auras all around the farmyard. The doors bursting open, men running out, from house, from barn, iron to hand in the dark. A great deal of noise, screaming, though she can screen some of that away: mortals too loud, always. They are fighting now. A feeling of hotness within her, dizziness, blood smell in the yard. She feels her hair changing colour. Has seen this before, but not here. Memories, long ago, trying to cross to where she is.
She feels ill, thinned by the iron below. Clings to a beech, draws sap-strength from that. Keeps watching, cold and shivering now, afraid. No moons, she tells herself again, no shadow or flicker of her to be seen, unless a mortal has knowledge of her world.
She watches a black horse rear, strike a running man with hooves, sees him fall. There is fire, one of the outbuildings ablaze now. A confusion of dark and roiling mortal forms. Smoke. Too much blood, too much iron.
Then something else comes to her. And on the thought-quick and bright as a firefly over water-between her shoulders, where they all had wings once, she feels a spasm, a trembling of excitement, like desire. She shivers again, but differently. She spies out more closely: the living and the dead in the chaos of that farmyard below. And yes. Yes.
She knows who has died first. She can tell.
He is face down on the churned, trampled earth. First dead of a moonless night. Could be theirs, if she moves quickly enough. Has to be fast, though, his soul fading already, very nearly gone, even as she watches. And such a long time since a mortal in his prime has come to them. To the queen. Her own place in the Ride forever changed if she can do this.
It means going down into that farmyard. Iron all around. Horses thundering, sensing her, afraid. Their hooves.
No moons. The only time this can be done. Nothing of her to be seen. Tells herself that, one more time.
None of them has wings any more or she could fly. She lets go of the tree, finger by finger, and goes forward and down. She sees someone on the way. He is hurrying up the slope, breathing hard. He never knows that she is there, a faerie passing by.
The taken-away sword had struck the tumbled raider first, but a second Erling’s axe from behind and above had killed the Cyngael sooner.
She crouches by the fence until those first two bodies are left alone again-the one who knelt beside one of them standing and walking away-and then, not allowing any time for fear to take hold of her, she goes straight in, at speed, and claims a soul for the queen.
A moonless night. Only on a moonless night.
Once it was otherwise and easier, but once, also, they were able to fly. She lays hands on the body, and speaks the words they are all taught, says them for the first time, and-yes, there!-she sees his soul rise from blood and earth to her summoning.
It hovers, turning, drifting, in a stray breath of wind. She exults fiercely, aroused, her hair changing colour, again and then again, body tingling with excitement, even amid the fear of shod hooves and the presence of iron, which is weakening and can kill her.
She watches the soul she’s claimed for the Ride float above the sprawled, slain mortal body and she sees it turn to go, uncertain, insubstantial, not entirely present yet in her world, though that will come, it will come. She didn’t expect to feel so much desire. This isn’t hers, though, this is for the queen.
He turns completely around in the air, moves upwards, then comes slowly back down, touches ground, already gathering form again. He looks towards her, sees, doesn’t see-not quite yet-and then to the south he turns and begins to go, pulled towards the wood…as if to a half-remembered home.
He will reach them in the forest soon, taking surer, stronger form as he goes, a shape in their world now, and the queen will see him when he arrives, and will love him, as a precious gift, shining by water and wood and in the mound. And she herself, when she rejoins the others, will be touched by the glory of doing this as silver moonlight touches and lights pools in the night.
No moons tonight. A gift she has been given, this mortal death in the dark, and so beautiful.
She looks around, sees no one near, goes out then from the farmyard, from iron and mortals, living and dead, springing over the fence, up the slope, stronger as she leaves blades and armour behind. She pauses at the crest of the ridge to look back down. She always looks when near to them. Drawn to this other, mortal half of the world. It happens among the Ride, she isn’t the only one. There are stories told.
The archer had a considerable start and poison on his arrows. It was pitch black on the path among the trees. Alun had no knowledge of the Erling horse he’d seized and mounted, and the horse wouldn’t know the woods at all.
He cleared the fence, landed, kicked the animal ahead. They pounded up the path. He had a sword, no helmet (on the ground, in mud, beside Dai), no torch, felt a degree of unconcern he couldn’t ever remember in himself before. A branch over the path struck his left shoulder, rocked him in the saddle. He grunted with pain. He was doing something entirely mad, knew it.
He was also thinking as fast as he could. The archer would come out and down from the slope-almost certainly-at the place they had reached earlier today, with Ceinion. The Erling was fleeing, would have a horse waiting for him. Would anticipate pursuit and head back into the trees, not straight along the path to the main trail west.
Alun lashed the horse around a curve. He was going too fast. It was entirely possible that a stump or boulder would break
the animal’s leg, send Alun flying, crack his neck. He flattened himself over the mane and felt the wind of another branch pass over his head. There was a body behind him, on the churned-up earth of a farmyard far from home. He thought of his mother and father. Another blackness there, darker than this night. He rode.
The only good thing about the moonless sky was that the archer would have trouble finding his way, too-and seeing Alun clearly, if he came close enough for a bowshot. Alun reached the forking trail where the slope came out on the path south-west. Remembered, only this afternoon, climbing up with Dai and then both of them coming down with the high cleric.
He drew a breath and left the path right there, not hesitating, plunging into the woods.
He broke through, the horse thrashing into open space, saw water, a pool in the wood, the other rider going around it to the south. Alun roared wordlessly; galloped the Erling horse into the shallow water, splashing through at an angle to shorten the way, cut off the other man.
He was almost thrown over the animal’s head as it halted, stiff-legged.
It reared straight back up, neighing, clawing at the air in terror, and then it came down and did not move at all, as if anchored so firmly it might never stir again.
The entirely unexpected will elicit very different responses in people, and the sudden intrusion of the numinous-the vision utterly outside one’s range of experience-will exaggerate this, of course. One person will be terrified into denial, another will shiver in delight at a making manifest of dreams held close for a lifetime. A third might assume himself intoxicated or bewitched. Those who ground their lives in a firm set of beliefs about the nature of the world are particularly vulnerable to such moments, though not without exception.
Someone who-like Owyn’s younger son that night-had already had his life broken into shards, who was exposed and raw as a wound, might be said to have been ready for confirmation that he’d never properly understood the world. We are not constant, in our lives, or our responses to our lives. There are moments when this becomes clear.
Alun’s foot came out of one stirrup when the horse reared. He clutched at the animal’s neck, fought to stay in the saddle, barely did so as the hooves splashed down hard. His sword fell into the shallow water. He swore again, tried to make the horse move, could not. He heard music. Turned his head.
Saw a growing, inexplicable presence of light, pale as moonrise, but there were no moons tonight. Then, as the music grew louder, approaching, Alun ab Owyn saw what was passing by him, walking and riding on the surface of that water, in bright procession, the light a shimmering, around them and in them. And everything about the night and the world changed then, was silvered, because they were faeries and he could see them.
He closed his eyes, opened them again. They were still there. His heart was pounding, as if trying to break free of his breast. He was trammeled, entangled as in nets, between the desperate need to flee from the unholy Jad-cursed demons these must be-by all the teachings of his faith-and the impulse to dismount and kneel in the water of this starlit pool before the very tall, slender figure he saw on an open litter, borne in the midst of the dancing of them all, with her pale garments and nearly white skin and her hair that kept changing its colour in the silvered light that grew brighter as they passed, the music louder now, wild as his heart’s beating. There was a constriction in his chest, he had to remind himself to breathe.
If these were evil spirits, iron would keep them at bay, so the old tales promised. He’d dropped his sword in the water. It occurred to him that he ought to make the sign of the sun disk, and with that thought he realized that he couldn’t.
He couldn’t move. His hands on the horse’s reins, the horse rooted in the shallows of the pool, the two of them breathing statues watching what was passing by. And in that growing, spirit-shaped brightness in the depths of a moonless wood at night, Alun saw-for the first time-that the saddle cloth of the Erling horse he rode bore the pagan hammer symbol of Ingavin.
And then, looking at that queen again-for who else could this possibly be, borne across still waters, shining, beautiful as hope or memory?-Alun saw someone next to her, riding a small, high-stepping mare with bells and bright ribbons in its mane, and there came a harder pounding, like a killing hammer against his wounded heart.
He opened his mouth-he could do that-and he began to shout against the music, struggling more and more wildly to move arms or legs, to dismount, to go there. He was unable to do anything at all, couldn’t stir from where he and the horse were rooted, as his brother rode past him, changed utterly and not changed at all, dead in the farmyard below them, and riding across night waters here, not seeing Alun, or hearing him, one hand extended, and claimed, laced in the long white fingers of the faerie queen.
© Guy Gavriel Kay