In the evening Arden walked down to the water’s edge, where the sun’s last rays met the small waves rolling in from the east. It was, as always, a fine moment. The heat was just off the day. The cool of the sea was rising on the air. The sand and foam glowed with the rich hues of sunset. At his back drifted the west wind, laden with promises of heart’s ease and all the sleep a tired soul could want.
Down by the sea he pulled off his boots and waded into the water up to his knees. Standing there with it swirling around him, Arden listened to the sounds it made, breaking upon itself, washing the shore, bubbling and hissing as it slipped back again. And he breathed, breathed the salt air deep into his lungs and sighed it out again. This world filled his soul and senses up entirely. In a place like this, he could take a year just breathing. In a place like this, doubts and fears almost vanished. It was his home. It was where he belonged. It was where he wished to be. In a place like this, he knew there was a god, and that god cared. Here it could not be otherwise.
Within minutes the sun slipped beneath the horizon behind him, and the golden red of sunset gave way to the violet ghost of the day. Arden returned to the shore to sit and wait as the night came in over the sea. Each year of his life since the Fall he had come here for just this one night, always arriving just before sundown and departing with the dawn. He would gladly have stayed forever. In all, this place and time was his one escape from the starless dark in which his heart dwelt. From the moment he left he was counting the days until he could return again. So he sat watching the dusk merge with the blue of the evening sea, and waited for night to fall. Each year it was just so.
“But this year is different. This year there is hope,” Arden said quietly to the sea. “Even if not for me.”
For with the unexpected appearance of Evénn that night last fall at the burning farm, the world had changed. Evénn had brought the sword of adamant, the slayer of darkness. He had revealed that the bow called by the Rangers the bow of Mahar was in truth the bow of the Tree of Life which Telkar had wrought centuries ago to slay the spirit dragons. Together now, with these weapons in hand, they at last had a chance to rid the world of the dragons and their servants.
One indeed had already fallen, the red dragon who ruled from the City of Narinen, and all across this wide land the people had risen up in joy and anger to strike at his servants. But in the hour of their first victory, in the City itself, as the people celebrated their deliverance, the silver dragon had arrived in haste from across the sea. Two days later the golden dragon came, and three more sufficed to bring the black from the far side of the world. On their wings came death and vengeance.
For weeks thereafter the three dragons had punished the City with fire, might, and enchantments until, it was said, nothing that could burn remained unburnt, until no stone was still set upon another. The City of Narinen was dust and ashes scattered on the wind. Only the eastern tower of the Hall of Kings had defeated them, now as thirty years before. It stood proud of the bones and the ruins, battered and blackened by flame, but whole.
Yet none could say who told this tale. None could say how many survived of those who had fought that day to take back what was theirs. Some few had escaped to speak of the coming of the dragons. So Arden had heard, but in the four months since then he had not met any. Neither he nor any of his companions had spoken to anyone else for many weeks now. What they knew they overheard from around corners or behind hedges. The story of Narinen’s destruction had been passed from mouth to mouth, league upon league through the towns and mountains and hills of Narinen, and with every mile rumor changed it, shaping it into a legend of courage and terror.
Arden looked up from his thoughts. It was almost fully dark now, and she would be here soon. He resisted the urge to turn and look for her. Why it took longer for her to arrive when he looked, he did not know. He did not ask. The long years had taught him patience at least. He had learned simply to let her come. One moment he would be alone with his thoughts and the sea. The next he would hear a footstep in the sand behind him and feel her hand upon his shoulder. For that sound, that touch he waited all year. His heart now quickened its beat. He stopped thinking, no longer heard the sea nor felt the breeze.
Then came her footstep, her hand upon his shoulder. Sorrow knelt down behind him and wrapped him in her arms. Long she held him and wordlessly, nestling her head upon his shoulder. Arden reached up and she took his hand in hers.
“Arden,” she said in a small, hushed voice, barely a whisper of the breeze.
Sorrow held him more closely then until the darkness of the night was complete and the stars shone upon them there beside the sea. When she released him at last, he turned to look at her. Though the years could not touch her and she appeared to him every bit the girl of seventeen he had known in his youth, yet her beauty had grown with time, as if somehow – in his eyes only perhaps – she was now both that young girl and the woman of beauty and grace she would now be if she lived still in the world. Her eyes were as bright even in the darkness, her smile as radiant, the tilt of her head as charming as ever they could have been.
“Sorrow,” he said finally.
“Arden,” she replied, “call me by my name.”
“I cannot,” he answered. “I have forgotten it.”
“No, you haven’t,” she smiled at him. “Please, Arden.”
He leaned towards her and rose up on one knee. Putting his cheek beside hers, he whispered her name in her ear. For a long moment he lingered, feeling how close they were and reveling in the scent of her skin and hair, wanting more, nearly drunk with it all. But he knew they were farther apart than they seemed, even here. He sat back, relinquishing the moment.
Arden sighed, wishing he could conceal it from her, but she had always understood his heart too well despite the words he had never spoken. She took his face between her hands, and, pulling him close, kissed him three times, softly, so gently, but with the unspoken love and passion of a lifetime. With her fingertips she brushed the tears from his face and looked at him amazed. Then she wiped away her own and pressed her fingers first to his lips, then his to her own.
“You’re crying,” she said. “You’ve never done that before.”
“It’s a new skill I’ve picked up,” Arden said in jest, though he choked upon his words.
“I’m glad. It’s one you’ve needed,” she said, smiling at him and stroking his hair, while he looked at her, desperately.
“I wait all year for this one night,” he said.
“So do I,” she answered. “So do I.”
“Every day I regret the choice that cost me you. Every day I look at what the dragons have done to our land and our people. But, but none of that means anything to me compared to you.”
“Arden, that’s not true, you have fought all your life for our people. You and Evénn slew the red dragon.”
“But all I have is one night a year, one night in which all is as it should have been, one night when all my dreams come true. Then you return to the other side and I am left alone here and empty-handed. You cannot come with me nor I with you. And when you are here, I can’t even touch you unless you touch me first. So even now when we are together, you are out of my reach. Even here, you are a ghost. I love you, Sorrow, and all this is very hard to bear.”
And saying that he looked into her eyes as he had never looked before in all the years he came here, because he had been afraid of saying those words he had never spoken and he had been afraid of her eyes: that if he dared let himself speak and look, he would be lost forever; that having to leave her then and be left by her, as must be, would wound his soul more than any strength of will could master; or that, if he dared to speak and look as he wished without being able to have her as he wished, he would be unable to go on with his life in the world, bitter as it was. Yet he would not unsay the words, nor look away again.
And Sorrow looked back at him, looked as she had been looking for all the years, while she waited for the night when he would no longer turn his face away from her. She smiled at him then in the dark beneath the stars, and to him the stars seemed to be reflected in her eyes. It made him think of when they had been young together and sat beside the living sea in the living world, not this dream world of shades and shadows which was all that remained to them.
“I love you, Arden,” she said.
Briefly Arden was happy. It had been so long since he had felt truly happy that he had forgotten the power of this feeling and it took him off guard. Impulsively he reached out to caress her cheek, but his hand passed through it as through the air itself. Happy as the moment was, he could not touch her of his own will. She did not belong to him, but to death, or god, or the world of spirits. Which it was he did not know and did not care. The dead could reach the living, but not the living the dead. The distance between them was too great for the powers of the living to span. Even in a place like this, there was only so far he could go.
But Sorrow reached out, and, taking his hand as it grasped at the empty air, pressed it to her cheek. Still she smiled at him. Still she looked.
“I do love you, and if I could choose to be with you I would,” she said.
“You’re different this time,” she said after a long moment’s reflection. “You never spoke before, and you looked at me. I feared you never would.”
“This quest, the dragon, being with these people, it’s changing me.”
“But you must want to change, or you never would.”
“Since you’ve been gone, Sorrow, I’ve been alone, with nothing of that world to take comfort in. All I have known has been my duty, my hatred of the dragon, and the pain of losing you. But there is no solace in duty for duty’s sake when all that you love is gone. Slaying the dragon for justice did not bring you back, and as vengeance it was just as empty. For you are still gone.
“These people, though, Evénn and Jalonn, Agarwen and Niall, make me think sometimes that I want more than I have known. In them I see what is possible instead of only the impossible, and what can perhaps be found when all seems lost. I have been praying and meditating to try to find at least some peace and maybe to see what they can see. And it has helped. But it is hard to lay aside the anger and hatred, the grief and fear of a lifetime, when I can never give all of myself to life. Because my heart is with you, here and in your garden.”
“But, my love,” she said, “there is so much you can give. I know. And I have so little to offer you, now.”
“How could I give a divided heart to someone? For if I tried to love another, that is what I would be doing. There isn’t enough left for anyone else. It would not be right or fair to try to love someone like that. I would be to denying my own heart, and that could only lead to grief for everyone. Once I knew a man, another Ranger like me, who had also lost everything in the war, and more. For he had a wife whom he loved, and she was killed. He tried to go on, and after a time he seemed to have found another he loved. And he did love her, but too much of his heart was with the wife he had lost, and their marriage never prospered. For me, it would be impossible to do that. All I would do is cause misery for us both, no matter how much she loved me, because I could never be wholly hers. And she would know that in her heart if nowhere else. So would I. It is impossible. It is wrong.”
They fell silent then, thinking about all they had never said before tonight, and all that could never be. Both understood the divide that would keep them apart for as long as Arden lived. To speak and hear their hearts spoken after so many years of silence was a release of burdens, a joy itself unspeakable, but to know they remained divided for all that gave as much of grief. After some minutes Sorrow touched his cheek again and kissed him.
"I remember once after a day by the sea," she said, as if far off in a dream of her own, "we sat on the steps of your porch with a cool drinks of water you’d drawn from the well. The sun was going down, and the shadows of the trees stretched out east across the beach. I remember how those shadows moved with the breeze, and how the air smelled of salt and flowers, of honeysuckle and sycamore. You took my hand, so gently, and I thought all things were possible.”
"I remember, too," Arden replied. "My hand remembers the softness of yours. And all the rest. But that was before."
"It wasn't my choice."
"I know. I'm not blaming you."
She looked at him and smiled, her eyes shining with starlight, like stars themselves. He smiled back.
"You shouldn't blame yourself either."
"You can't lie to me," she said, half laughing.
"Not for that I don't. It wasn't your fault or mine or Niall's."
"But you do blame yourself. You think that if you had impressed my father more, he would have made the arrangements with your father instead of Niall’s.”
"What I think is that I should have chosen to stay with you instead of going into a doomed city."
"You would have died, too."
"That doesn't sound so bad sometimes."
"Don't say that,” she said. “You don't know what you’re talking about."
She reached out and placed her hand over his. To him it felt as warm and soft as it had that one evening long before. They watched the stars wheel slowly above them, and listened to the waves lap gently at the sands. Sometimes a wave spent its last strength hissing up the shore to touch their feet.
"I wish I could understand why you can touch me, but I can't touch you,” said Arden. “This is my dream."
With that they again fell silent for a time, and when they began to speak once more, it was of small things and memories, of their families and friends, of things that Arden had seen in the wide Land of Narinen. They spoke long and quietly. They walked up and down the beach, hand in hand, and bathed their feet in the cool of the sea. They laughed much as the night wore on towards dawn. At last their time together was nearly done, and from the sea rose the morning star, for this night at least the sun’s cruel messenger. As every year, Sorrow told him she must go soon. He nodded and wondered why she must go, why they could not simply rest here in each other’s arms, but he did not ask her why. Instead he told her again of the love for her that he had guarded in his heart for thirty years and could leave unsaid no longer. For he had reached the end of his strength. She held him close and once more he whispered her name to her. With a brief kiss, she rose and was gone. Then it was day.
Arden stood up and walked again down to the sea. Bending over he splashed its waters on his face and licked the salt from his hands. But as he bent once more to pick up his boots, he thought for an instant that he felt somewhere a displeasure and frustration not his own. It was strange, as if someone else were present and watching him. He looked up and down the shore, following its crescent from headland to headland. He allowed his eyes to rest on the tower that rose at the head of the bay. Until today he had never paid much attention to it. His business here was not with the tower, but with her. Now he studied it.
Two arched entrances he could see, one on the east facing the ocean, another on the south side, his side. Through this door a light shone, as from a crystal lamp that caught the radiance of the morning sun pouring through the eastern archway. Arden let his eyes travel up the tower’s white walls. At regular intervals above the doors were large windows, but he could see no one looking out of them. Nor was anyone to be seen on the roof, which Arden deemed to be three hundred feet above the sands. From what he could tell there was no one here but him, and when he searched his heart for some echo of that momentary presence, he found none. He picked up his boots and walked away.