Passage from chapter eight of The Summer Tree
There had been light, now there was not. One measured time in such ways. There were stars in the space above the trees; no moon yet, and only a thin one later, for tomorrow would be the night of the new moon.
His last night, if he lived through this one.
The Tree was part of him now, another name, a summoning. He almost heard a meaning in the breathing of the forest all around him, but his mind was stretched and flattened, he could not reach to it, he could only endure, and hold the wall of memory as best he might.
One more night. After which there would be no music to be laid open by, no highways to forget, no rain, no sirens, none, no Rachel. One more night at most, for he wasn’t sure he could survive another day like the last.
Though truly he would try: for the old King, and the slain farmer, and the faces he’d seen on the roads. Better to die for a reason, and with what one could retain of pride. Better, surely, though he could not say why.
Now I give you to Mörnir, Ailell had said. Which meant he was a gift, an offering, and it was all waste if he died too soon. So he had to hold to life, hold the wall, hold for the God, for he was the God’s to claim, and there was thunder now. It seemed at times to come from within the Tree, which meant, in the way of things, from within himself. If only there could be rain before he died, he might find some kind of peace at the end. It had rained, though, when she died, it had rained all night.
His eyes were hurting now. He closed them, but that was no good, either, because she was waiting there, with music. Once, earlier, he had wanted to call her name in the wood, as he had not beside the open grave, to feel it on his lips again as he had not since; to burn his dry soul with her. Burn, since he could not cry.
Silence, of course. One did not do any such thing. One opened one’s eyes instead on the Summer Tree, in the deep of Mörnirwood, and one saw a man come forward from among the trees.
It was very dark, he could not see who it was, but the faint starlight reflected from silver hair and so he thought…
“Loren?” he tried, but scarcely any sound escaped his cracked lips. He tried to wet them, but he had no moisture, he was dry. Then the figure came nearer, to stand in the starlight below where he was bound, and Paul saw that he had been wrong. The eyes that met his own were not those of the mage, and, looking into them, he did know fear then, for it should not end so, truly it should not. But the man below stood as if cloaked in power, even in that place, even in the glade of the Summer Tree, and in the dark eyes Paul saw his death.
Then the figure spoke. “I cannot allow it,” he said, with finality. “You have courage, and something else, I think. Almost you are one of us, and it might have been that we could have shared something, you and I. Not now, though. This I cannot allow. You are calling a force too strong for the knowing, and it must not be wakened. Not when I am so near. Will you believe,” the voice said, low and assured, “that I am sorry to have to kill you?”
Paul moved his lips. “Who?” he asked, the sound a scrape in his throat.
The other smiled at that. “Names matter to you? They should. It is Galadan who has come, and I fear it is the end.”
Bound and utterly helpless, Paul saw the elegant figure draw a knife from his belt. “It will be clean, I promise you,” he said. “Did you not come here for release? I will give it to you.”
Their eyes locked once more. It was a dream, it was so like a dream, so dark, blurred, shadowed. He closed his eyes; one closed one’s eyes to dream. She was there, of course, but it was ending, so all right then, fine, let it end on her.
A moment passed. No blade, no severing. Then Galadan spoke again, but not to him, and in a different voice.
“You?” he said. “Here? Now I understand.”
For reply there came only a deep, rumbling growl. His heart leaping, Paul opened his eyes. In the clearing facing Galadan was the grey dog he had seen on the palace wall.
Gazing at the dog, Galadan spoke again. “It was written in wind and fire long ago that we should meet,” he said. “And here is as fit a place as any in all the worlds. Would you guard the sacrifice? Then your blood is the gateway to my desire. Come, and I shall drink it now!”
He placed a hand over his heart and made a twisting gesture, and after a brief blurring of space, there stood a moment later, where he had been, a wolf so large it dwarfed the grey figure of the dog. And the wolf had a splash of silver between its ears.
There took place then a battle foretold in the first depths of time by the twin goddesses of war, who are named in all the worlds as Macha and Nemain. A portent it was to be, a presaging of the greatest war of all, this coming together in darkness of the wolf, who was a man whose spirit was annihilation, and the grey dog, who had been called by many names but was always the Companion.
The battle the two goddesses foreknew – for war was their demesne – but not the resolution. A portent then, a presaging, a beginning.
And so it came to pass that wolf and dog met at last in Fionavar, first of all the worlds, and below the Summer Tree they ripped and tore at one another with such fury that soon dark blood soaked the glade under the stars.
Again and again they hurled themselves upon each other, black on grey, and Paul, straining to see, felt his heart go out to the dog, with all the force of his being. He remembered the loss he had seen in its eyes, and he saw now, even in the shadows, as the animals rolled over and over, biting and grappling, engaging and recoiling in desperate frenzy, that the wolf was too large.
They were both black now, for the light grey fur of the dog was matted and dark with its own blood. Still it fought, eluding and attacking, summoning a courage, embodying a gallantry of defiance that hurt to see, it was so noble and so doomed.
The wolf was bleeding, too, and its flesh was ripped and torn, but it was so much larger; and more, more than that, Galadan carried within himself a power that went far deeper than tooth and gashing claw.
Paul became aware that his bound hands were torn and bleeding. Unconsciously he had been struggling to free himself, to go to the aid of the dog who was dying in his defence. The bonds held, though, and so, too, did the prophecy, for this was to be wolf and dog alone, and so it was.
Through the night it continued. Weary and scored with wounds, the grey dog fought on; but its attacks were parried more easily now, its defences were more agonizing, more narrowly averting the final closing of jaw on jugular. It could only be a question of time, Paul realized, grieving and forced to bear witness. It hurt so much, so much. . . .
“Fight!” he screamed suddenly, his throat raw with effort. “Go on! I’ll hold if you can – I’ll make it through tomorrow night. In the name of the God, I swear it. Give me till tomorrow and I’ll bring you rain.”
For a moment the animals were checked by the force of his cry. Then, limp and drained, Paul saw with agony that it was the wolf who lifted a head to look at him, a terrible smile distorting its face.
Then it turned back, back for the last attack, a force of fury, of annihilation. Galadan who had returned. It was a charge of uncoiled power, not to be denied or withstood.
And yet it was.
The dog, too, had heard Paul’s cry; without the strength to raise its head in reply, it found yet in the words, in the desperate, scarcely articulate vow, a pure white power of its own; and reaching back, far back into its own long history of battle and loss, the grey dog met the wolf for the last time with a spirit of utmost denial, and the earth shook beneath them as they crashed together.
Over and over on the sodden ground they rolled, indistinguishable, one contorted shape that embodied all the endless conflict of Light and Dark in all the turning worlds.
Then the world turned enough, finally, for the moon to rise above the trees.
Only a crescent she was, the last thin, pale sliver before the dark of tomorrow. But she was still there, still glorious, a light. And Paul, looking up, understood then, from a deep place in his soul, that just as the Tree belonged to Mörnir, so did the moon to the Mother; and when the crescent moon shone above the Summer Tree, then was the banner of Brennin made real in that wood.
In silence, in awe, in deepest humility, he watched at length as one dark, blood-spattered animal disengaged from the other. It limped, tail down, to the edge of the glade, and when it turned to look back, Paul saw a splash of silver between its ears. With a snarl of rage, Galadan fled the wood.
The dog could barely stand. It breathed with a sucking heave of flank and sides that Paul ached to see. It was so terribly hurt, it was scarcely alive; the blood so thick upon it, he could not see an untorn patch of fur.
But it was alive, and it came haltingly over to gaze up at him, lifting its torn head under the light and succour of the moon it had waited for. In that moment, Paul Schafer felt his own, cracked, dry soul open up again to love as he looked down upon the dog.
For the second time their eyes met, and this time Paul did not back away. He took in the loss he saw, all of it, the pain endured for him and endured long before him, and with the first power of the Tree, he made it his own.
“Oh, brave,” he said, finding that he could speak. “There can never have been a thing so brave. Go now, for it is my turn, and I will keep faith. I’ll hold now, until tomorrow night, for you as much as anything.”
The dog looked at him, the eyes clouded with pain, but still deep with intelligence, and Paul knew he was understood.
“Goodbye,” he whispered, a kind of caress in the words.
And in response the grey dog threw back its proud head and howled: a cry of triumph and farewell, so loud and clear it filled all the Godwood and then echoed far beyond it, beyond the bounds of the worlds, even, hurtling into time and space, that the goddesses might hear it, and know.
There was a very great deal of pain now. The moon had passed from overhead. His last moon, he realized, though thought was difficult. Consciousness was going to become a transient condition, a very hard thing, and already, with a long way yet to go, he was beginning to hallucinate. Colours, sounds. The trunk of the Tree seemed to have grown fingers, rough like bark, that wrapped themselves around him. He was touching the Tree everywhere now. Once, for a long spell, he thought he was inside it, looking out, not bound upon it. He thought he was the Summer Tree.
He was truly not afraid of dying, only of dying too soon.
He had sworn an oath. But it was so hard to hold onto his mind, to hold his will to living another night. So much easier to let go, to leave the pain behind. Already the dog and wolf seemed to have been half dreamt, though he knew the battle had ended only hours before. There was dried blood on his wrists from when he had tried to free himself.
When the second man appeared before him, he was sure it was a vision. He was so far gone. Popular attraction, a faint, fading capacity of his mind mocked. Come see the hanging man!
This man had a beard, and deep-set dark eyes, and didn’t seem about to change into an animal. He just stood there, looking up. A very boring vision. The trees were loud in the wind; there was thunder, he could feel it.
Paul made an effort, moving his head back and forth to clear it. His eyes hurt, for some reason, but he could see. And what he saw on the face of the figure below was an expression of such appalling, balked desire that the hair rose up on his neck. He should know who this was, he should. If his mind were working, he would know, but it was too hard, it was hopelessly beyond him.
“You have stolen my death,” the figure said.
Paul closed his eyes. He was too far away from this. Too far down the road. He was incapable of explaining, unable to do more than try to endure.
An oath. He had sworn an oath. What did an oath mean? A whole day more, it meant. And a third night.
Some time later his eyes seemed to be open again and he saw, with uttermost relief, that he was alone. There was grey in the eastern sky; one more, one last.
And this was the second night of Pwyll the Stranger on the Summer Tree.