3 February 2014 ~ Hyacinth Noir’s Imbolc Literary Issue
Post VI ~ The Memory Collector, by Lore Lippincott
<part I available previously>
The Memory Collector
The steps that circled downward had once been covered in tiles of copper and gold, and may be, still, buried beneath soot and pebbles. It was a capacious place, high, wide, nowhere in the scheme of the kingdom. Memories of better years, of Reda Ostara’s rule, glimmered and shone in the walls as he passed. He could almost read them like hieroglyphics. He was made of music, poetry, and had spent five years absorbing astral light. In the depth of everywhere, amid nothing and stuck in nowhere, he emanated his own glow. He hummed and the light of him widened, the gleams of the past, stuck in the walls, shone brighter, flashed blue, white, gold.
At the bottom of the stairs, a phalanx of the king’s hussars in rat-skin busbies. Their emotionless black eyes caught a glint of his light, the edges of their scabbards, the hilts of their swords, the edges of their guns. Marin, motionless, heard a whistle of astonishment. The platoon parted, six on one side, six on the other. Between them, the whistling figure, broad but flat, as if he had been hammered well against an anvil, thin, wraith-like. Marin had a feeling the soldier could be bent with the reverb of D-flat off his violin.
The whistle ended on a low note, but not D-flat. He was unknown to Marin, his raiment suggesting a high rank within the cloistered king’s army. “Marin, the bard of fishes. Returned.” His language was that of the world below: long in spots, clipped at the edges of consonants. But his laugh was everything it shouldn’t be: too long, too deep, holding too much the caterwaul of a nocturnal beast. “Bard of fishes, we meet at last. I’m Euvard, head of the king’s guard. We could feel your light from the back of the caves.”
“I could smell your stink from the back of the world,” Marin said, unsure why. “If you know me, then you know why I’m here. Take me to Haldis.”
He cackled again. “All in good time. The king wishes to see you first. He’s asked for you every morning for five years. Haldis stopped asking for you five years before.” He hoped to send a needle into the bard’s heart, but found nothing to hit there.
“He wouldn’t have need.”
Marin passed Euvard, sending a momentary glow upon the guard. Euvard patted buttons of his coat, swatted at something dark that showed up in contrast on the back of his hand; he chased the shadows created by the light and let it anger him. He growled through elongated teeth, stepping after the bard, latching him, smashing him against the nearest wall. The tip of his finger landed in front of Marin’s face. “You are lucky, you singer of fish songs, that we let you strut your way into our world, let you stay so you can appease the appetite of the king. But don’t think for a minute that we’re not watching you. One false move, one ripple of your arrogance that shows as brightly as your inner gleams—I will skin you and feed your flesh to swine.”
Marin declined having Euvard near him. Against Euvard’s abdomen, he spread a ball of energy, a white that brightened. Euvard flew back by yards, would have gone farther but that he met with a wall, and slid down it, stunned.
“You’re made of dust and rock,” Marin said to him, “and I’m everything you’re not.”
In the king’s dining hall, Ogstin Marv noted the loss of his foremost guard. He pinched the end of his under-nose whiskers. “Euvard will never learn from his mistakes.” Off the chair built of bone and stone, Ogstin Marv spread his cape of rat pelts trimmed in the fur of other mutilated things. Before Marin Krespel, he straightened, sucked in a breath as if he’d never have another. He forgot his happiness and remembered his pain. He analysed the bard, searched for missing pieces of his soul, the absence of love that might make death come quickly to him. “You are changed, old friend. Am I not also changed? Have I not grown fatter?”
“I wish to see Haldis.”
“Why must you always waylay our chitchat? How am I to get to know the man who wants to destroy me if you never want to dine with me and my court? Always, with you, it is a longing to see your prince. My prisoner, the prince. He’s not as fat as me, but he is a great deal cheaper, dirtier, and madder than he ever was. I think he has forgotten you, Marin. Unforgettable you. Isn’t that the way of love? But Haldis is nothing to me now but a burden. I need him to keep this place functioning. I need him to bring you to me.”
“I don’t come for you. I come for Haldis. This was his kingdom before your rats infested it, bringing filth and sorcery with you.”
“We can’t help what we bring. I remember,” Ogstin’s eyelids, without lashes, tightened as he melded a picture of broken images, “I remember this place when it was beautiful, when it glowed like you glow now, when it smelled of delicious foods, full of fine jewels, and time was not an accident but a utensil.” A groan creaked from his insides as he shifted uncomfortably on tiny feet. “If you are going to kill me and reclaim this realm for your love, you had better do it quickly, Marin, or I will crack Haldis in twos, in threes, in fours!” He heaved his final word into a wheezy guffaw, thrust it into the high tops of the room, until the ground of the Devon moor shook with it. Members of court laughed with him. He thrust up a paunchy fist: silence returned.
“Sad,” he said to Marin, “sad that you only come to see Haldis and not to share in our delights. But there is something off about you, something different about your light. I don’t know what it is.” He winced, grimaced, looked the bard up and down, finding nothing amiss. “I can’t see it, but I know it’s there. Then again, I haven’t seen you in five years, and perhaps my eyesight is not as strong as it was once. Unlike, I suppose, your love for your memory of this place, or your boyhood friend, your lover I had imprisoned when I usurped the throne, beheaded his parents and fed them to my pets. If I did not need your magic, Marin, I would do the same to you. I would’ve done the same to Haldis.”
Marin faced him with a dare. “Try, and see what time lets you do.”
Ogstin blew out a breath through flaring nostrils, stepping down, revisiting the power of the bard. “If I had known what the princeling had done to you, I would’ve held you, too.” They were his final words to Marin. He sneered, wrenched around the rat furs of his cape flapping, smacking the ground and Marin’s shins. “Take him to Haldis. And bring me Euvard, even if he’s in a casket!”
Haldis had a place in a cell of ice in the coldest side of Castle Nuria. In his dreams, Marin walked there, up a hundred steps, across a bridge over a cascade, and down another hundred steps to a stretch of hall like a northern plain: covered in snow, flakes falling from calcified stalactites. The path across the snow had been worn by the boots of soldiers. Wild creatures, poised like shadows, soon scurried to safety away from him. Marin saw where they went and how swiftly. He couldn’t stop the thought of the broken clock in the toy store. He envisioned the dead owl on the clock’s top, suspending time and entrapping Marin forever in the once-beautiful Nefen, now the hell of Ogstin Marv’s disgrace.
The snow carried on, catching a beam of light through a crack in the wall high above Haldis’ head. And there was Haldis. The images of dreams and moments of the past crashed continuously in Marin’s mind the nearer he came to holding Nefen’s lost prince.
“Marin,” Haldis said, reaching through bars of ice. A hand, a whole arm, thrust through, caressed his face, a thumb over a small smile. The whoosh of water ended the prison. The ice melted at the touch of Marin’s light. Haldis held still, thinking of love and time. “How long has it been?”
“They tell me five years. Haldis,” he poured them upon one another, the joy of the reunion wiped away, the love as rich as a hunger, “how did you think to call to me now? It’s a time of transience. It’s transient time, in fact.”
“I don’t know,” Haldis said. “I smelled something different in the ice. Euvard twitched more. The king grew afraid, twirled his whiskers more. They stopped bringing reeds, rags, shells for my projects.” His palms, small and flat, rubbed against Marin’s chest, wound at his throat and through his hair. “Dimensional again. When I think about you, you’re only a vision caught in strands of songs. Memories are exhausting. They’re real, but useless.” He nibbled at Marin’s mouth, left a flick of his tongue there, finding the taste of crystalline bits of oceans and olivine, hints of the upside of the world. Then he remembered, back-pedalled, watched the guards wait outside the ice room’s door. “What transient time?”
“I don’t have time to explain,” he said, ignoring the pun. From the sack, he returned Haldis’ violin to him, with the crack in its board, the mended crack in its neck. Hurriedly, he put together the bow and checked the reed for rosin. “But this ends now. Today. You won’t be a prisoner anymore, and I won’t be Ogstin Marv’s slave. Take this.” He thrust the violin’s into his lover’s hands. “And pray that you remember how to play.”
Haldis required no extra moment to rehearse. He struck a note, drew it out of the whining, cracked violin. The ice around them whitened, blanched, turned to puddles of milk. The light from the space between rocks grew, brightened the shifting room. Marin coiled fingers over the violin’s neck.
“You remember.” The two smiled together, a spark of happiness overcoming the gloom. “But stop or we’ll have an avalanche on our hands.” On instinct, he reached for Haldis again, kissed him hard again, and drew away to watch a fleck of gold lightning disappear between them. “Time,” he said to the lightning, as if calling it by name. He slipped his gaze back to Haldis. “You’re the only one alive now who can recall what this place was like before, and you remember Reda Ostara, your mother. She died knowing memory would save you. Now, it’s time for us to save ourselves. We can outshine Ogstin Marv.”
“No—” Haldis protested, with Marin’s fingers racing to quiet his lips.
“Yes. Transient time. A switch of guardians. His power is weakest now.”
Haldis tightened his shoulders, released a spray of old resentment. “He thieved that power.”
Marin had a moment to be amused. An impassioned Haldis, imprisoned for years, still youthfully in favour of justice. “You can steal it back. Your music and magic, my light, and we’ll shift the world to the way it was.”
“What if he—” Haldis paused, lowering his voice, though the guards at the door failed to move. “What if he defeats me?”
“The only defeat will be his, Haldis.” Marin stretched a fingertip the length of Haldis’ face, twirled a loose black hair, pressed his lips to the dazzled skin. He let go, unlatched the case to a violin he hadn’t seen since he stood over the sea. The scarred wood held the mark of a fish in one corner, a star in another, and a series of scratches that resembled a lay of moorland tors. He had light and memory in his music, not the magic of Haldis’ blood.
At the rim of the iceland cell, they found the guards, the reasons for the guards’ disinterest in them. The milk of ice Haldis had dispelled covered the guards in a robe of snow. The cavern of whiteness ahead had been reduced to alabaster splotches, to rivulets that collided with one another on their way to the nearest outlet. It stank like a hectarage of soil after winter had closed. Haldis, now aware of what he could do, what he could create, what his music had never been able to do before, stared, wide-eyed, fascinated. But Marin grabbed his hand, brought them into a run that didn’t stop until they ploughed their way through guards, through doors turning to ash, to the breaking throne of the king.
Haldis skidded to a halt, rushed out a note, any note, from the cracked violin. Like overturned pins, the courtiers of the room collapsed. Their skins shrivelled, took on the shape of mice newly dead. Shocked, Marin waved a hand, silencing Haldis, and both noted the music had no influence on Ogstin Marv. He rose as he clapped slowly, mockingly.
“Well done, little princeling. You’ve dirtied my rooms with the rubbish of vermin, and turned my kingdom back to soot and stone. But how will you make that cracked violin of yours sing loud enough to return me to what I really am?”
“I won’t,” Haldis said, sensing the end of things, as Ogstin Marv sensed the end of his reign, “but you are not the only one who trapped my power in filth, or the only one who trapped Reda Ostara in a thousand scattered memories. What do you think the bard of the fishes has been doing for fifty years?”
Bewildered, Ogstin Marv glared at Marin, the bard with the violin poised, the bow at the ready.
“I’ve been collecting memories,” Marin said—and pulled the bow down slowly over an eager string. It was not D-flat—but B-flat. He’d stored Reda Ostara there, and in the notes that came after, in a song he’d been composing, every note for every half-year, and waiting until the time of transience, the shift of the energies of a full moon and an incoming sun, when he could play it with a resonance that shocked.
All Ogstin Marv heard was a dissonant dirge. He plugged his ears, writhed, lost his command of self—and fell to the ground. Robes of rat skins caught no form there, but the skins began to wriggle as Marin played on. He hit B-flat again, dragging more and more of his memory of Reda Ostara into the palace where she’d lived, let her voice fill Castle Nuria and all the caverns of Nefen anew.
The wriggle beneath the rat skins came into the light: Ogstin Marv showed himself for what he really was: a serpent of black and green. Still alive, Ogstin Marv slithered towards the only shelter he could see: a portal of blackness ahead that swallowed undesirables and urchins and pests.
Marin saw the serpent, hit another note, climbed into a frenetic set of eighth-notes, G and E back and forth, ending again on B-flat. The blackness took shape, turned into a ghost, a shaped memory of the queen.
“Reda Ostara,” Marin thought. He heard Haldis whisper her other name: “Mother.”
She took the snake into the shadows of her hands. She lifted him, stretched him like he was time or a season under her rule. In a blink, he became a violin. Smiling, Reda Ostara played, mimicked Marin’s song—the echo of the final double-notes faded as did the ghost of the last monarch of Nefen.
Marin and Haldis had a chance to clasp one another’s hands, exchange a look that said a million synonyms of happiness—but the foundation of the room crumbled with the loss of the serpent king’s magic. The air began to smell too sweet with its aromas of mystery.
They gathered their violins, ran through tumbles of rock to the staircase that led to the toy shop, the clock. Marin elbowed the inside of the glass doors, but nothing that should occur did occur. The earth quaked, and the gleams of those forgotten pillars of gold and silver were soon brighter, more brilliant, and wider than before. One mast of the staircase mouldered, an entire pillar of gold and stone. The avalanche Marin had feared was no longer of snow, but of everything that held up the earth below the moor.
The staircase slanted, and they had no choice but to tumble after it. Blinded by dust and gold, lightheaded with the ancient smell of sweets, Marin and Haldis sprinted on. While he chased Marin, Haldis unearthed his projects from his pockets. He tossed a cross of reeds into the air, grabbed Marin’s hand and held them still. Marin saw the cross suspended in a miniature cyclone of air, watched it spin until it shone with the same gold light reflected off half-covered chandeliers. In another pocket, Haldis found a doll Marin had made of twigs, reeds, covered in rags and shells. He flung it into the vortex, watched, with Marin, as it was sucked in.
“The magic’s breaking,” Haldis said. “If we jump in—”
“Jump in—to that?” Marin’s voice cracked. “No.”
“If we jump in, it might take us away.”
“We could land in the sea.”
“We could land on the moor. That’s better than this place.” He united their hands once, obliterating Marin’s doubt, and listened to the sounds of the crumbling palace louden every second they hesitated. “Leave it to me. Let me save you for once, instead of you and your light always saving me. This old kingdom of mine can’t sustain us!” He shouted over the rise of wind, the crash of rocks and debris. Without a thought, only a heady look, he grabbed Marin and pushed off with his feet.
Almost instantly, they hit solid ground. Everything was silent, and the sky above them smooth, colourless, pale. Something soft landed on Haldis’ face, but cold, without the warmth of Marin’s kisses.
He met Marin’s incredulous regard an arm’s length from him. Marin fished a snowflake from his face, found instead that he held the petal of a tree flower.
In the village, children swam around them, crying out the name of the bard with the fish carved in his violin. Their ululations of joy had brought forth a gentlemen from his home. Marin was welcomed home by Pommeray.
“How long has it been this time?”
Pommeray smiled, glanced at the disheveled but handsome man with Marin. “Three weeks.”
Haldis and Marin heard heavy breaths in time with heavy footfalls, and, around the corner, Aunt Dross, bent and frail and clutching a cane. Beside her, the madonna in a bell-shaped dress. Saffron Marie spotted them, knew them by the imperfect violins in their hands. She clutched at her breast, and smiled in relief.
lives in Ohio, USA, dreams of better things, so writes stories to plunge into other worlds and other lives. Find her tales at www.breezydaystories.com, and grab her secular (and free) holiday novella, The Carols of Holly House, released in December 2013.