Fire and Light

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(photo was taken by me on 4/15/2014 during the blood moon/lunar eclipse)

Inspired by Marion Zimmer Bradley, one of my heroes. May she rest in peace.

Fire and Light

One spring, the sun rose and saw something he had never seen before. A silver-haired lady stood alone in the sky, wearing a long silver gown and humming a cheerful tune, her back to him.

“Who are you?” he asked.

The lady flinched and stopped humming, then turned to face him, shielding her eyes with her hand.

“You are the sun,” she said. “I’ve heard of you.”

“Yes. I know. But who are you?”

“Is it dawn already?” She looked around, distracted. “Either you’re early or I’m late. I am the moon.”

The sun admired the graceful lines of her thin, pale face, her silver hair falling like mist over her eyes.

“Well met, moon,” he said. “And if you’re being here is a mistake, it is the most delightful mistake I have ever seen. Please stay with me, and we will talk.”

“Stay? Do you have any idea how much trouble that could cause? The earth and the waters depend on my timing, you know.”

He did not know, but he believed her. “And if I left my proper place all living things would perish. My post is so lonely. Will I see you again?”

“Do you not have the stars to keep you company?” If anything, the moon thought she could use fewer companions.

“What are stars?”

“Gone now. I should have noticed but the invisible member of the Pleiades sang the most beautiful song so we would all remember she was there and it stuck in my mind.”

“If it was the song you were humming it is lovely, but not so lovely as you are. Tell me when I will see you, hear your voice again.”

She tilted her head. “You flatter me and I think I like it. Perhaps sometime. I must go now. I feel faint.”

Over the next year, the moon found herself entering the sky early or leaving it late on many occasions. Before long both the ruler of day and the ruler of night longed for those brief minutes when they would see each other separated only by blue sky.

In spring, just as the flowers on the earth had begun to paint it with colors, when beings of all types are especially prone to disappear and pair off with or without their assigned mates, the moon surprised her lover by appearing at the apex of the heavens. As the lovers joined far above the earth darkness covered the land. For many months afterwards, shamed by what she had done, the moon left and arrived on schedule. Her lover sought her daily, desperate to know where she had gone, and whether it was shame or loathing of him that had kept her away so long. At long last, at midwinter, he arose to find her lingering in the sky.

As he drew near he saw that the moon held two bundles in her arms; she offered both to him.

Unsure of what to do or say, the sun accepted the bundles and looked down to see two baby girls, identical except for their hair. One had radiant red hair like copper in firelight; she grabbed his red and gold robes in a curious fist and gnawed them with her mouth. The other had silver hair like her mother’s and watched him with intense interest.

They named the red-haired child Fire and the other Light. These were the first children born to gods because until then none of the gods had dared to trespass beyond their proper place. Unlike their parents, Fire and Light could traverse both night and day, both on high and among the people of earth.

One evening, Fire went to meet her sister in a coastal village where they often sat to watch sunset and moonrise. For a time, she contented herself with watching the sights and sounds of the village, brawls and dancing and lovemaking. When sunset had nearly come and her sister still had not appeared, she began to become concerned. She searched the village, asking everyone she met if they had seen Light. At last, an old man directed Fire to a cavern near the water where she found her sister—sitting in the arms of a handsome young man. Light sat facing him, back to the cave entrance, his hands caressing her. Although Light’s hair concealed the details, she was pretty sure they were kissing.

Fire watched in silence. The mere idea that Light had been keeping this secret felt less like than an insult than an utter denial of reality as she knew it.

Light sensed Fire’s presence and turned to face her sister, her silvery eyes wide in surprise, lips swollen from her day’s work.

The two sisters stared at each other. At last Fire said, “I hope he has pleased you more than I ever have. I have heard that it tends to become boring after a while. I have even heard that some value their friends and family more than being pleasured by some mortal.”

For some reason it only made her angrier when Light said nothing, only looking back with a blank expression. She wanted her sister to fight, to rage back, to show she even cared how Fire felt, what Fire thought. A noise drew Fire’s attention from Light, a groan, a mixture of sob and scream. Both sisters turned to see smoke rising from the prince’s body. Both sisters watched helpless as the prince’s skin ignited and in seconds he turned into a multi-colored bundle of flames then into a pile of black ash.

Fire stepped back, reaching out toward the place where the prince had been. “No. I didn’t-” The air often became warm when she was upset and the effect had grown steadily worse as she grew older, but this was unreal, so wrong as to be impossible. “I did. Light-” She could not think of how to continue, could not bear to look at her sister’s face. An apology or an explanation would not come, would be meaningless anyway.

Fire turned and fled to the one place she always felt safe, to her father’s castle. Left behind, Light stared at the pile of ash for some time before leaving for her mother’s citadel to sit and think how life could possibly go on like this.

By the time she reached the citadel of the moon, its mistress had already left to traverse the sky. All alone Light lifted her finger to the heavens and wrote these words in silver letters. “Calling all the heavens and the earth to witness, I will share myself with no man until my sister Fire finds a husband to her soul.”

Meanwhile, unaware of what her sister had just done, and only further incensed by her father’s pleas for calm, Fire began to write her own vow in words of blazing fire, words which seared her heart. “Calling the broad ocean and the firm mountains as witness, I will allow no man to approach me for the rest of eternity” She was about to add the period which would have sealed their fate when Fire saw her sister’s words in the distance.

“No,” Fire said, and her father stopped talking to her to follow her gaze. In an impulsive rush, Fire wrote more words across the sky, “save that the man be mortal raised to heaven, and to do so he must pass three tests: he must journey to the end of the earth and find his heart’s wish; he must climb to the highest peak and leave it there; he must brave the inner darkness and steal its heart.” Fire stopped writing and let her trembling finger fall to her side. What had she done?

 

Three men watched the sky that night and decided to act upon the challenge. One was Prince Rijias, youngest son of the southern emperor, who had received reports of Fire’s beauty of mind and spirit and was determined to have her by his side. The second was Anathos, a wealthy merchant who had seen Fire pass through his town and had fallen in love with her. Finally, a lone fisherman saw the words and thought of the strange story his grandfather had told him and saw that his heart’s wish would at last be possible.

All three men set out the next day, after gathering provisions and making what plans they could. Prince Rijias riding on swift horses came first to the place where the ocean met the land. Here he found a silver palace half in the water and half on land. From the gates of the palace walked a lady dressed in palest white with long gray and blue hair falling unbound past her waist.

“Your heart’s desire is granted,” she said. “When you return home you will be made emperor. However, if you would seek my daughter’s hand you must leave your empire forever and travel to a place where you have no authority.”

Rijias thanked the moon and returned home to find that his father had passed away in his absence, and that his two elder brothers had dueled to the death over the succession, leaving himself the sole heir. He refused to abandon his kingdom to revolt and battle for succession and so failed the second test.

The merchant reached the Citadel of the Moon next, and found the moon waiting for him just as the prince had. “From this moment on, every mortal man and woman in the world will admire and trust you. In order to pass the next test, you must journey far and arrive at a place where you are neither respected nor admired.” Undaunted, he set out toward the highest mountains, then known to be far to the east.

Along the way, the moon’s promise proved true. All who met him trusted him, and he used this power without restraint, taking advantage of everyone he met on his way to the mountains. By the time he arrived he had left his caravan behind, for they had little interest in the homes of northern barbarians. He climbed the steep trail leading toward the peak with the help of a sun-priest who visited the sun every year to pay homage. At last they reached a place where the cold air even in the midst of summer penetrated the thick traveling clothes he had brought. In this lone eyrie he found a castle carved from the mountain, its single central tower seeming to touch the sky. A man wearing heavy red robes embroidered with gold stood atop a pair of golden gates at least twice the height of a man. When they had come within hearing distance he made a gesture with his right hand causing the gates to swing slowly and silently outward.

As soon as the gates had opened, the man spoke. “Do you take the gifts of the gods so lightly that you would use them to swindle poor strangers? Do you know how many will starve this winter, yes even innocent children, because of what you have done?”

Anathos, who had just dismounted, took an involuntary step back, but the man waved his right hand dismissively. “You need not fear me, for I am bound by my daughter’s oath and love her too much to do what I would like to you.” The sun turned to the priest and said, “You have done well. Please enter my castle that I may speak to this man alone.”

The priest left Anathos alone at the gates. “Now,” the sun said, “you are welcome to enter my palace as well. As you may have noticed, you do not have much choice.”

Anathos began to see his situation all too clearly. The guide had left and he could not remember how they had gotten here. He took a step toward the castle, then said, “What is the final test?”

“The final test is something you must discover for yourself. You can take as long as you need.”

Anathos had not spent much time thinking about the final test, assuming that the sun would explain it to him as the moon had. For now, he was beginning to grow cold from standing too long in the snow and wind. “Is it warm in your castle?”

The sun laughed. “But of course. Who do you think I am?”

No sooner had Anathos stepped across the threshold, passing the outer wall, then he heard the sun’s laughter again and his skin begin to burn with fire, flames consuming his entire body. His last earthly memories were of the crisping of his skin and his own hoarse screams.

 

The fisherman took far longer than either of the first two men, relying upon his boat and his wits and a great deal of what seemed to be luck, but at last he circled the land and found the westernmost shore, bringing his boat onto the sand near a grand silver building. The moon strode barefoot through the waves to meet him, white hair cascading down the back of a long white dress, feet making small dimples in the wet sand. For a second he watched her with interest but then he saw a second woman behind her, walking where the sand remained untouched by water. This second woman wore a thick dark red robe with rich red hair moving like ripples of flame down her shoulders and back, her skin gold like sunlight on the ocean.

“Your wish is granted,” the moon said. “This is Fire.”

Fire had been hanging back, but now she stepped forward and inclined her head. Now that he knew, he recognized her. Her amber eyes were clouded with grief, her oval face streaked with the red of recent tears.

Those eyes searched him from head to toe, then fixing on his face. She gasped and covered her mouth with her hand, shaking her head. The moon turned to her daughter. “What is it, my dear?”

“I know you!” she said, then turned to the moon, shaking her head. “I can’t do this. He doesn’t understand.” The air began to crackle with moist heat. He watched in fascination as the water on his clothes turned into steam, spreading through the air to mingle with the ocean.

The moon’s voice was cold as dust as she spoke. “You made the vow. Many mortals have given their lives because of it. Will you shrink from doing your small part?”

Fire closed her eyes for a second and he noted her long lashes, the shadows upon her face. Like a whirlwind she shifted her stance, opening her eyes to glare at him. “Why have you done this? Do you think because we used to play on the docks as children that we should spend eternity as husband and wife?”

The air had become warm, like standing too close to an open oven. “I understand a little bit of what has happened and I feel terrible for you and your sister. But that is not all. I am here because I loved you then, and I still do, even when you look as though you would like to tear me into little shreds and cast them upon the waves.”

The moon began to smile, but Fire’s eyelashes flashed wide, broad lips forming an even more determined frown. “Fortunately for you I am not allowed.”

That night, under the watchful eye of the moon, the mortal and the daughter of two gods began the journey to the Castle of Light, a route Fire knew well. Indeed, with her help they traveled more surely and swiftly than either the prince or the merchant.

They had been climbing a steep mountain trail for nearly an hour, Fire encompassing him with her mystical warmth, when she grasped his arm and said in a rush, “You do not have to do this.”

For nearly a month they had been traveling, spending most nights beneath the stars and for many of those days the air had crackled with the warmth of her passions. She always held herself in reserve, just short of danger. “Yes I do,” he said.

“I love you,” Fire said and he felt the air grow warm, the snow turning into water turning into vapor before it could touch his clothes. “I think you were right but at the same time you were wrong to come. The last man died because he failed. If you do this you may also die and it will be my fault.” He saw tears staining her eyes and the heat increased.

“Fire,” he said, “you need to relax. You are hurting me.”

“Oh!” she said and with evident effort closed her eyes and took several long breaths.

As soon as the air had become tolerable again, he said, “I have to do this. For you and for your sister. For us. But there is something you can do. They were your words. What did they mean? To brave the inner darkness and steal its heart.”

Fire shook her head. “I have been thinking about it. They were my words in a way, but not really. They were more like translating something that was there, something I didn’t understand completely, just enough to put down the words.”

“The inner darkness,” he said. “It must mean something, it must be a place just like the other two were.”

“I do not know of the place where darkness dwells,” she said.

“No, I suppose not and standing here will probably not reveal the answer.” She kept her hand on his arm, however, and would not let him move. Impulsively, he grasped her with his free arm and pulled her to him, feeling the length of her body, warmth before and behind, death waiting at the door as he kissed her lips, her cheek, the warm tears on her face.

She pulled away within seconds, but not soon enough. His right sleeve had caught fire and she shoved him roughly backward so that he fell into the snow.

“Do you see?” he said as he checked his arm to make sure the fire had not burned through. “Do you see now?”

“I see,” she said. “I cannot stop seeing.” She fell to her knees and covered her eyes with her crossed arms, rocking back and forth. He longed to comfort her, to hold her. It was some time before she was calm enough to continue and then only with an eerie artificiality, like an animated doll. They continued up the slope.

Before long he saw a golden palace in the distance. He could just make out the wide open gates when a man met them on the trail.

“You have treated my daughter well,” the sun said. “Now you must let her go.”

“But father, he will freeze to death if I go.”

“I will allow him into the castle,” her father said, “but first we must speak alone.” Fire turned to her lover and kissed him on the lips before walking away.

As soon as Fire entered the castle, the fisherman felt the cold begin to seep back into the air.

“Now,” the sun said, “you have passed the second test. As I told Fire you are welcome to enter my castle.”

The fisherman stood gazing at the sun, a fatherly man with thin golden hair and a strong jaw, bright blue eyes watching him. Although the sun’s face wore no visible expression, he thought he saw something there, something like a warning. The fisherman was sorely tempted, his fingers beginning to feel the cold. “No,” he said, and even as he spoke turned away from the castle.

His entire body began to feel numb as he walked away from the castle and the further he walked the more he felt unsure about what he had done. Twice he turned around to see the castle still visible behind him and he had to fight the temptation to go back. Soon he began to feel tired and knew he must rest. When the feeling proved too much to resist, the fisherman closed his eyes and sat, hoping to conserve his warmth and strength this way, to survive long enough to find out what the final test entailed. He knew that it was not light, not what he thought, that it was something else, something different. He knew that he knew only darkness as he slid into sweet unconsciousness.

The fisherman awoke to find himself in a bright room and warm, as warm as if he were in the middle of a flame. A hand clasped his arm and helped him to his feet. He had been lying on the floor, but he followed the hand to the arm to the face and saw Fire dressed in an elaborate dress the color of her hair, vibrant red. She smiled at him as she spoke against his ear and he realized that the warmth was coming from her, that she was more excited than he had ever seen her, happy enough to destroy a city. “I figured out what the last words meant, the part about inner darkness. It meant death and uncertainty. All the things I feared most, that I thought meant I would always be alone.” Tears of joy glittered in her amber eyes, like glass warped by flame. “You have stolen my heart.”

THE END

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