by Michael Dorken
Abigail had been expecting the king for several days. She sat on a rickety wooden chair in a circular room at the top of the city’s north watchtower. It was her drafty prison cell. She smiled sadly at the knitting on her lap, and to raise her spirits, hummed a nonsense song about the worthless King of Harzere. Curious about the king’s arrival, she released a modest breath of magic to patrol the long, spiral stairwell beneath her, to watch as she waited. He would come and he would beg for her help.
This time, she would make him grovel on his knees and then she would refuse him and send him away. If only someone could be left alive—a bard would be marvelous—to tell the tale of his demise. Abigail snorted dismissively at her own unkind thoughts, and began a new row of knitting.
Sure enough, a few hours later, the king began trudging up the four hundred and seven stairs to Abigail’s prison. He climbed slowly, lumbering and out of breath. He was a fat man and petitioning Abigail was probably his only exercise. She often wondered why he never sent for her—perhaps he feared she would end the city’s misery if she was down below. Such a fear would be ironic, given the power he would place in her hands if she ever relented and took up her station.
Unaware she was spying on him with magic, he rested outside the door for quite some time, mopping his brow and catching his breath. Finally, he turned the key in the heavy door and pushed it open.
He hesitated in the doorway examining her room, with its simple bed, table, and chairs. Physically, he was less than kingly. He had gone through four royal portrait painters before he found one who could capture something regal in his round face. His nose was a smushed, red glob under mundane eyes that took on whatever color was nearby. They were as wishy-washy as his chins which hung from his face in a series of folds of an indefinite number, varying depending on how far forward or back he was currently leaning. All day, and all night on account of his snoring, they merged and then subdivided in a blubbery ballet.
Abigail did not get up when the king stepped over the threshold. She did not even nod her head. She would certainly never take to both knees as was required by tradition and perhaps law.
“Abigail Boldwing,” the king said, quite formally, as he had many times before. “You are called by your king, Arnold of Harzere, the Endbreaker. You are called to serve. You are called to perform the duty agreed upon, signed in blood and mana, in the Treaty of Wendholm.”
On every other occasion, the king had blinked for a few moments as if confused by her refusal, and then turned and huffed back down the long staircase. But on this day, he sighed. “Look out your window, woman, you have the best view in the entire city.”
Abigail stood up. She was upright with the limbs of a human, but everything else about her was avian. Her skeleton was thin and flexible, especially her backbone which arched into a gentle stoop. Her neck compensated by curving in the opposite direction so that her face was not tilted toward the floor. This granted her silhouette an elegant S-shape. Her face was the most bird-like, with a curved beak and eyes like black marbles. She was a Kolass. Like all the females of that species, she had thick blonde hair and pastel skin the color of peaches, but no feathers. The males, if any remained in some distant land, sported colorful tail feathers. She often dreamt about the parties and picnics held hundreds of years earlier, when as a spirited flirt, she’d run her fingers through those feathery rainbows.
Her legs felt fatigued as she trudged to the window, which was little more than a gap in the stonework. It was just wide enough for her to turn sideways and squeeze through. She had made sure of that when she had planned her impending suicide. She peered out into the distance. Nothing blocked her view of a glistening green dome holding back a swirling black mist. She could make out long discrete shapes in the mist, like long, black sheets blowing and twisting in the wind. She scowled: Kolass-wraiths.
“Your kingdom will be consumed, soon.”
The king nodded. “It’s been three weeks since Fiona died. The dome shrinks and weakens under the attacks.”
“She didn’t die.” Abigail pointed out the window, toward the wraiths. “She’s still out there; she’s one of them.”
“I’ve failed your people.” The king sighed, and eased his bulk onto a wooden chair. “And my own.”
“She was my great grandniece.”
“We sang to mourn her passing.”
Abigail had heard the sorrowful song drift up through the slits in her tower, the choir’s trained voices rising above the rough singing of the crowd. The history of that song was the history of her species. It was Abigail’s history. She had been there when it had been composed five hundred years earlier, and had heard it performed tens of thousands of times. Once for each fallen Kolass. She closed her eyes and smiled bitterly. Once for each new Kolass-wraith.
She stood with her eyes closed. The skin of her soft peach eyelids looked like the makeup the human women often wore. “My husband, Gerhar, was the first Kolass-wraith.”
“I’ve heard the story, he was brave entering that cave to fight the advancing darkness.”
Abigail did not correct the king with a fact she had kept secret. Her husband had not been brave, he had been a driven fool. He had meddled with death magic, and in that dark cavern, had summoned the doom of the world. A doom that now surrounded the kingdom’s last city.
“You should go,” she said, realizing she had no true grudge with the king. He was not the only one who had failed the kingdom. “I’m tired and I’ll not take up the fight again; I’ll not become the final wraith. The struggle is over.”
“That distressing stairwell gives a man time to think.” The king’s face bloomed into a grin and he chuckled. It was as if the weight of command had dissolved and he was as free as a child. “I’ll not be leaving this room without you.”
Abigail walked back to her chair without speaking. She lifted up the small blanket she was knitting and took her seat. She clucked with each stitch, an embarrassing tick.
“I’m an admittedly poor king who has hastened the downfall of his kingdom. All while complaining about circumstance. If only I’d been born king in an easier generation, I’d always say. But I can’t do that one moment longer. I’ll give up drinking and women. I’ll dismiss my advisers.”
“Even if I hold off the wraiths, we’ll all starve,” said Abigail, over the clicking of her knitting needles. “The crops are outside the dome. Death will have us.”
“We have the luxury of choosing how we’ll die.”
“I’ve already made that choice,” said Abigail, glumly.
Leaning forward in the rickety chair, the king radiated resolve. “And I’m urging you to make another.”
Abigail slept. In her dreams, Kolass could fly. Her family and friends cut through the wind like geese in formation. The line of birds stretched out to the glowing orange horizon. Turning her neck, she viewed her two daughters tucked in behind her, flapping along happily. Katheia glided along, and her little sister Selena’s wings beat at the tremendous rate of a hummingbird. Selena smiled with her eyes and gamely kept up. Abigail’s husband was across in the other arm of the V sailing along with his gaze straight ahead in his own little world. Abigail stretched her wings. Holding them stiff and still, she sailed on the wind. She resisted the urge to dive away, and spiral down toward the ground.
The world grew foggy around her and changed. Her wings felt heavy as they thumped the air. A tremendous weight hung on her heart. Her wings stopped and silence pressed in. A small bird dropped like a stone from the sky. Abigail knew it was her daughter.
“Selena,” she called, but the words came out a mournful bird song.
Abigail tried to move her wings. She couldn’t. Suddenly, and without reason, she was on the ground in her usual form.
“Mommieee,” called Selena. She took on the shape of a little girl in a sagging hammock—except there was nothing beneath her but a great fall. The hem of her red dress ripped and rippled in the wind.
Abigail tried to judge where her daughter would land. Selena’s form grew larger and larger against the blue sky. Her arms and legs flailed in the air. Abigail stretched out her arms and was ready to make the catch, but the sun was blinding. She took a step forward, and then a step back. The location was impossible to judge. Abigail bent her knees and was all set to dive. There was a sickening thud behind her like a wet sack of oats being tossed onto the pile and breaking open. She cried out.
Abigail woke with a start. Her daughter was dead. Dread stiffened her chest and she couldn’t breathe. It was not just a dream. Selena, always so fearless, had approached the edge of a cliff, and fallen to her death. It had occurred hundreds of years earlier but to her mother it seemed like only weeks.
The truth was as terrible as her nightmare. Her husband had attempted to resurrect Selena and brought on eternal torment for himself, his other daughter, and most of his race. Abigail opened her eyes: it was still dark out, but she could hear screeches from the shadowy residual of once noble Kolass as they harried the kingdom’s last stand. The kingdom’s king, keeping his word for once, snored on her floor.
Abigail was eating her afternoon meal at her table. She could request any food she desired, but she ate whatever was served, aware that the people below in the city were on short rations. They deemed her, despite her refusal to take her post, the most important asset in their defense. In actual fact, she was the only asset: their swords, pikes and catapults were useless. Only her magic could maintain the dome and throw back the wraiths. The king sat in a chair against the wall and watched.
“Would you like some wine?” she asked the king. Her beak couldn’t smirk as expressively as a human’s mouth, but she did her best to convey mirth with her eyes.
The king was pale and sweaty and his hands trembled. “No, thank you.”
“Lovely day,” said Abigail, as she gestured to the slice of green-tinted sunlight coming in through the window.
“Enough, woman.” The king stood and kicked his chair against the wall. “Surrender and suicide is how you wish to go out? Drop from your window like a flightless bird?”
Abigail shook her head and frowned. “You made false promises. With more magic stations at the Great Wheel we would not have lost so many, so fast.”
“Maintain the dome, I’m commanding you,” said the king, his fists clenched.
Abigail carefully placed her knife and fork on her plate without making a noise. “You prefer to starve if I succeed? The wraiths grant humans a clean death.”
“I prefer to live,” said the king, taking a step toward Abigail. “I prefer to hope. As long as we hold out, there’s hope.”
“Hope? I’m just one woman.” Abigail realized she was shouting and lowered her voice. “Who else is left? Glennhaven and Wilderbrooke were gone in a day. We had no other allies. You had Kolass magic, they had nothing.”
The king lifted his chin and his bearing stiffened, as though he were about to make a proclamation from his throne. Then, he looked down upon Abigail and dismissed the subject with a wave of his hand. “You’ll be enough.”
“You don’t believe that, do you?”
The king did not answer.
For three days, the king did not eat any food or drink any alcohol and he slept on the stone floor. He seemed saturated with patience, observing Abigail’s hands work as if the next stitch might be the one to signify her change of heart. He was known as a great story teller, a master of the bawdy and rowdy tales, and yet with Abigail, he was quiet. Every day, three personal servants brought him a new set of clothes to put on, which he did, while refusing their offers of assistance, of baths, of wine and food. The servants seemed quite put out, shuffling about, huffing and scraping their heels, having grown so accustomed to the king’s routine that it was now their routine that was being disturbed.
Absorbed in her knitting, Abigail tried to remember the face of her youngest daughter, Selena. The face did not come to her. It was funny; it had been so vivid in her dream. Kolass never aged, but they could forget. They could die of injury. Like Selena. Abigail shuddered: or they could be turned to wraiths and haunt the world forever.
The king cleared his throat. “My daughter is about to have her first child.”
“Unfortunate timing,” said Abigail. Her rudeness churned up a new misery inside her heart; the birth of a child was a rarity for Kolass and a cause for public celebration.
“Not if you honor the treaty and defend the city.”
Abigail chuckled bitterly into her knitting. “You overestimate my ability.”
“I wish for him or her to have a chance to see the world before it’s consumed,” said the king. His voice broke and its passion grabbed hold of Abigail. She was surprised to see tears in the king’s eyes as he continued. “For one day, if that’s all that’s given. But two would be twice that lifespan, and a week a blessedly long time.”
Abigail turned her beak back to her knitting. Her stitches became loose and the clicking of her needles irregular. Her life had been so long; had she lost her way? Each day had meaning when she had been younger. Now at the end, did she value nothing? Her heartbeat felt slow and weak in her chest as if she had aged in invisible ways.
An hour later, a servant broke the silence with a knock on the door and entered. He was a fit young man, likely chosen because he could climb the stairs quickly.
“My king,” said the servant, dropping to both knees. “Wonderful news, your granddaughter has been born.”
The king made no response except to dismiss the servant. He spoke no words, and to Abigail, seemed neither happy nor sad. He stood, stoically leaning against the wall, and watched Abigail knit for an hour. The feel of the needles under her fingertips soothed her as they worked their practiced pattern, row upon row of new stitches. A slight breeze lifted the smell of sewage into the small room. Abigail joked they were in a latrine, but the king did not smile.
Abigail got up from her chair and took her knitting over to the window. Sunlight, tinged green by the dome’s magic, colored the skin on her forearms a sickly color. A faint crackle could be heard as a new hairline fracture ran down the north face of the dome, which was growing brittle without care. Abigail decided the blanket in her hands was complete. She returned to her seat and began tinking, unknitting it stitch by stitch. It would be the twenty-second time she had done so.
“Are you not going to see your granddaughter?” she asked. “There’s little time left.”
The king made a stubborn face like a little boy refusing his bath. “I swore, I’m not leaving this room without you.”
Then you’re never leaving, thought Abigail.
The king spoke in a bleak whisper: “Come with me, just to see the baby.”
Abigail unintentionally reversed her stitches, completing the blanket again. The king’s voice tugged at her memory.
“Please, come with me,” urged the king. “I won’t go without you.”
Abigail put down her knitting and looked at the king’s face. It held the same sad and harried look her husband’s had worn centuries earlier when he was about to go off and attempt to resurrect his daughter. Loss had broken all dams holding it back and flooded the king’s features, especially his watery eyes. An end had come to all that he had loved, and he knew no amount of struggle could fix it, and bring it back to the way it once had been. He had been lying when he said he held out hope. His face held that truth. It was something they shared.
Feeling as though she were granting a condemned man his last wish, which she probably was, she raised her beak and said, “I’ll come with you to see the child.”
They descended the narrow, spiraling tunnel of stairs, walked through a city crowded with refugees, and entered the castle. It was far quieter than usual. But in their wake, Abigail heard joyous whispers and rapid footfalls as the news of her arrival was spread. Her presence would create unfounded hope. She shook her head at the irony, for it had been the bond of lost hope that had brought her out of the tower.
Princess Ruby was resting on a magnificent canopy bed in her quarters. Its frame was wrapped in satin ropes and swaths of silk and hung with sheer sheets of white like draperies. The buoyant, oval-faced woman was also wrapped in silk. Cradled in her arms was a tiny, purplish newborn. Its tiny hand pawed at her breast.
“About time you came, father!”
“So sorry, my dear,” said the king.
“And Abigail Boldwing, I’m honored by your presence. Does the dome hold?”
Abigail shuffled one foot in front of the other, and then back again. “I haven’t checked.”
The princess smiled as if it was of no great consequence. “Father, come nearer, you must see your granddaughter up close. You too, Abigail, come right up, we aren’t fragile and would love your company.” Looking down and opening her eyes wide as if surprised by her baby’s beauty, she cooed, “Wouldn’t we love company?”
The king walked forward and sat on the edge of the bed. Abigail stood behind him. She didn’t wish to see his expression as he looked upon his granddaughter for the first time. She felt like an interloper, even though, in a way, the visit had been her gift to the king.
“Her name is Abigail,” said the princess, beaming at her father.
Abigail took a step backward.
“I know it’s unoriginal, the midwife says the last three girls she’s birthed have been given the same name. But it’s so fitting to name her after our last hope. The greatest of her kind.” The princess peered around the king and asked Abigail, “Would you like to hold her? It would be my honor.”
Tears welled in Abigail’s eyes. Tears for all that was lost, like her own child so many years earlier, and tears for the false hope that others had placed in her. She was only one woman, and she could not quell the tide.
Abigail realized she held her knitting in her clenched fist. She had carried it from the tower out of nervous habit, or perhaps, she thought, as a shield. Pulling out her knitting needles, she shoved the blanket into the princess’s hand. “This is for you. My daughters had one just like it.”
“It’s beautiful,” said the princess, running her eyes over the gold and green pattern on the blanket. It was the ancient insignia of the Kolass, its origins lost to time. “We’ll treasure it.”
“I need to go,” said Abigail, dropping her knitting needles onto the stone floor. They bounced like pins.
Abigail turned and bolted from the room. She exited the royal quarters and then the castle itself. No guards followed her, and looking over her shoulder, the king was nowhere to be seen. She was on her own, not a prisoner. Except she could not blend in; she was not human. The citizens of Harzere seemed rundown and miserable until they spotted her. The surprise and sudden hope on their faces burned in her vision.
A few ragged children followed Abigail. They skipped along and called out for everyone to see who was on the move. The streets and alleyways were narrow in the section of the city nearest the castle. They penned her in as she fled back toward her tower, many blocks away. The few children became a swell. Their high pitched cries drew curious onlookers, humans, thin beneath loose clothes. Abigail tried not to look at the optimistic faces. A young woman with bright, wide eyes slowly reached out towards Abigail’s shoulder as if she wished to touch a holy object. Abigail lurched away: such sickening hope. Leaving the tower had been a terrible mistake.
Abigail ignored everyone as she hurried to her tower. Once there, she looked up at the tower’s stacked stones as they stretched straight into the sky. It was from that dizzying height she would jump. Now was the time to do it, she figured, before she lost her nerve. She could not risk becoming a Kolass-wraith. The thought of her friends and family, transformed, on the other side of the dome brought her eyes down in shame. There was no way to save them. She squirmed through the children who milled about between her and the doorway to the tower.
As she reached the door, a child took her hand and pulled Abigail away. Abigail looked down to see the face of a little girl with long straight hair. A small, pink hand rested in Abigail’s larger peach one. Its palm and fingers were warm to the touch.
“The Great Wheel is this way,” the little girl said firmly, as if she was correcting the most obvious of errors.
Abigail was drawn into the earnest eyes of the child. Human eyes were so curious with their marbled irises and pointing pupils always connecting with other eyes. She couldn’t look away. Her resistance to the notion of defending the city, bound so tightly by loss and despair, twisted, and then snapped inside of her. She had signed the treaty. It was time to meet the fate destined for her and all of her kind.
“I surrender,” whispered Abigail, with a voice free of bitterness. Resignation burned in her breast. “I’ll fight until the cold takes me.”
The king arrived, huffing and red. He smiled down at the children, none who kneeled for him, and pushed past to Abigail. Reading her posture, he said: “Abigail Boldwing, you are called by your king, Arnold of Harzere, the Endbreaker. You are called to serve. You are called to perform the duty agreed upon, signed in blood and mana, in the Treaty of Wendholm.”
“My name is on the treaty,” she said. “I will fight.”
The king embraced her, his bulging belly pressing against Abigail’s curved twig of a torso. The children cheered and ran in circles around the king and the kingdom’s last defender.
“The treaty will be honored, to the end,” said the king.
Abigail and her king began walking to the Great Wheel. The crowded city seemed to have heard about Abigail and the king moving about without escort. Curious and hopeful, they stood in rows at the side of the streets, some up on crates, children on the shoulders of the adults, to glance at the king and the last Kolass. A line of guards, in shining breastplates and plumed helms, fell into place to clear the way.
“Abigail Boldwing will save us all!” a strong voice called out. The crowd cheered.
The walk that had become a procession became a parade. The citizens celebrated, vendors sprang up to hawk whatever overpriced goods remained in their possession, contortionists and acrobats performed wherever there was room, and musicians and singers livened the air with music. Abigail waved to the crowd absently and was soon lifted onto the back of a cart so all could see her displayed like a hero returning from war. Except her battle was only beginning, and she knew in the pit of her stomach that there could be no hero.
Abigail hopped down from the cart. She was at the Great Wheel. It was an enormous golden discus that hung in the air, supported by nothing, higher than the wall surrounding the city. It did not spin or sway even in a high wind. As she stood beneath its shadow for perhaps the ten thousandth time, she wanted to duck, thinking it would come crashing down upon the top of her head. Seven golden threads dangled from it so that seven Kolass could take their station. Its purpose was to amplify magic, but with only Abigail remaining, even amplified magic would be weak.
On the ground to one side was a slag pile—all that remained of the king’s plan to save his kingdom. Against the council of the Kolass, he had wasted precious magic in an attempt to craft an enhancement to the wheel. Abigail remembered the making of The Wheel itself and the lengthy debates beforehand. Hundreds of years blurred together, in arguments, plans, councils, all of which she had been privy to. Her council had seldom been heeded. Yet, here she was, the one at the very end: the one striving to hold back the darkness.
I’ll do what I can, she thought, and grasped the nearest golden rope. Her awareness of her body winked out as her consciousness was ripped away. Her senses sharpened and expanded. Before she gained full control, she was struck by the stench of the city polluted by sewage, and the tumultuous chatter of the crowd. To gain relief, she pulled away, into the sky. The castle, with its parapets, keeps, and gatehouses, was laid out like a child’s model down below. She turned her attention upward, where the green barrier pulsed like a magical umbrella. The Kolass-wraiths pelted it like black rain.
Consuming a spark of her magic, Abigail became diffuse, warm energy like sunlight. She shone onto the inside of the dome, sensing its thinness and hairline cracks. With great patience, she seeped into the cracks and allowed her energy to mend and to strengthen. The wraiths sensed her presence and bombarded the dome. Long black, ethereal bodies plunged into the barrier and bounced away. Their muffled shrieks of agony and frustration battered at Abigail. A wild hunger drove them to devour her magic and her life along with it. She was unable to recognize any as the Kolass they had once been, and she was bleakly thankful.
The dome glowed a bolder green. It would hold but it was shrinking at an imperceptible rate. Without intervention it would shrink down to nothing.
Still bodiless, Abigail flowed through the dome and out into the open sky above the city. The wraiths sensed prey, and darted at her like a murder of crows. She coalesced into a large silvery droplet like liquid mercury. The droplet rippled in the sunlight. The crowd, far below, grew hushed. The droplet exploded outward in a thousand daggers of magical silver. Each dagger felt like a piece of Abigail’s soul, and each pierced a wraith like shrapnel. Not one missed its target. The wraith’s howled in pain. Their cruel, calculating intellects, colder than any beasts’, withdrew them to a safe distance, high above. They clustered together, forming a churning black mist. Abigail drew herself back together, in a reverse spray of daggers, and made herself whole. Her magic had been successful, but the wraiths watched and waited for another opportunity to strike.
Abigail took hold of the dome with her mind and senses. With a mighty mental tug she stretched it. It expanded, becoming fifty paces larger in every direction. The crowd cheered, as though she had won a great victory, and began chanting her name.
Abigail was weakened by her efforts, and disoriented. Her consciousness flailed like she was suffocating in dark water and the surface, fresh air, could not be sensed, as she floundered, disoriented.
The wraiths attacked, howling, dropping like a rain of arrows from the sky. Abigail thrashed about and then threw herself forward in a random direction. A wraith stung her. A cold pulse in her depths drained her of fear. A yearning to abandon all hope blanketed her mind and memories.
No, she thought, do not falter, do not slip away.
Abigail turned herself to magical mercury once again. “Not today,” she cried, forming sound out of the air like a thunderclap. She struck deep into the cold, black center of her enemies. The hail of silvery magic threw back the wraiths. They retreated, hissing, to reestablish a whirling, shadowy cloud high in the sky. Abigail sank down through the dome, exhausted and satisfied.
The citizens of Harzere—mm in the streets and courtyards, on the walls and parapets—heard her thunderous call. They raised their fists into the air, cheered, and took up the battle cry. “Not today.”
Michael Dorken lives in Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada with his wife Sherrill and numerous pets. He recently completed his highly unanticipated first novel, The Ladder of Minds. Its pages are currently smoldering a Fahrenheit 450. Definitely a page-turner if you own asbestos mittens.