Once on a Midsummer’s Night

A midsummer night, full moon overhead. Its golden light is ancient and worn. A breeze sighs through forest and over stone, bringing the echo of laughter. The song of a zither seems threaded in the wind. A boy stands outside a crumbling gate, and his face is of one lost in a dream. Slowly, he steps forward.

We have been waiting for him. For centuries, we’ve been waiting.

A sudden burst of scent—roses and jasmine and night-blooming lilies. Laughter again, and the sound of running water.

Behind the stone gate, life has returned to our garden.

~~~

The garden has a hundred names and a thousand tales are told of it. The Dead Garden, the Ghost Garden, Winter’s Home. The Ruined Place, the Haunted Place, Sorrow’s Ground. For decades at a time, nothing grows here; nothing moves. “Ghost Garden” is a misnaming. Even ghosts do not stir in this bare, dead place.

Until now.

Now memories wake, and water runs again in ancient fountains and streambeds. Lotus ponds fill and fat fish move beneath lush lotus leaves. Fireflies wink in the darkness. The earth smells of rain and life. The air is perfumed with freshly bloomed flowers, and white moths flutter among the damp petals.

The boy steps through the gate. He takes his first steps on the path.

Faintly, music plays—harp strings, a flute. He doesn’t remember the tune.

We remember. We are made of almost nothing but memories.

~~~

Far from this garden—past this valley and the foot of these mountains—lies a great blasted plain. There nothing grows, and nothing ever will. There, the rain never falls. Green ghost fires burn at night. Wind scatters the smell of ashes long gone.

Hell itself once opened up on that plain.

Fire, burning everything away. Endless screams, echoing still. Tens of thousands of men killed in an instant.

Legends speak still of the one responsible. A cursed and vengeful lord, the king of hell itself. A demonic god without remorse.

The boy who wanders through our garden now knows nothing of this.

He’s only a child, perhaps barely thirteen. A farmer’s son, dressed in rough-woven hemp, straw sandals on his feet. He’s never seen fountains or roses. Or smelled such an array of exotic blooms. His eyes are wide with wonder. 

Music floats from the shadows. Unseen fingers dance over pipes and strings. Silvery bells chime. Notes shape themselves from throats without breath, and lyrics in a language long dead are sung again.

The boy stops, listening.

We listen, too, and remember summer nights under a young, white moon.

Lanterns strung up throughout the garden. Feet dancing lightly on grass. The swirl of silks under a pavilion. Wine cups set floating in a little stream, to be delivered directly to the hands of waiting guests.

A young lord and lady, presiding over the festivities together.

They are the centerpiece of the scene—of every scene. The fairest flowers of the garden. Poets from afar sing of the curve of the lady’s dark eyes, the arch of her brows, the grace of her figure. Painters dream of capturing the lord’s noble lines, the bones of his face, his luminous gaze.

Hear their bright laughter and see how the crowd presses in on them: friends, family, officials and guests from the valley and beyond. See the warmth of their smiles and gazes, the joy they take in their companions. But see also how they constantly turn toward one another, how their eyes meet; how her wrist brushes his side and his hand grazes her waist.

The lantern lights halo them, flatter them. See how the golden glow caresses cheek and shining black hair. See how the moon itself follows them.

They lead a toast, to cheerful shouts from all. They dance together under the pavilion. And it’s as though they are dancing alone in the crowd. He stares her as though she is the moon itself come down from the sky to sway in his arms. She gazes at him as though he is every light in the world.

Our lady and lord, married nearly a year and still struck with wonder in each other’s presence.

Their court loves them. Their guests love them.

We loved them.

~~~

The boy crosses bridges arching over flowing streams and lakes. Lanterns blaze along the bridge railings. Lights shine in pavilions in the distance.

For this night, the garden is again alight.

The dust of ages is gone. Crumbling wood and stone, faded paint and tiles—all is restored, all gleams again. Bridges and galleries, arbors and pavilions and great palace halls—all stand proudly intact. Time has slipped.

 The boy begins running. His footsteps thud in the night.

There are other footsteps, always just around the corner. Just out of sight. Voices speaking words he can’t quite catch. Music that comes and goes, melodies drawn from the deepest of dreams.

He has been here so many times before.

But will he remember this time? Will he dare?

We have waited so long. Has it been long enough?

He’s reached the first of three islands in the central lake. He turns and looks back at the way he’s come.

~~~

From where the boy stands, he has a perfect view of the Bridge of Hopes. It crosses the lake’s narrowest point, near the eastern shore. The soaring bridge’s white stones are among the first to feel the touch of the rising sun.

We remember another boy who once stood on that bridge. And the girl who met him there.

~~~

We remember more than we should. More than living humans can bear.

We know the sprouting of the first seeds to grow in this earth. The first unfurling of stem and leaf. The spread of raindrops through soil, the shifting of dirt, the burrowing paths of ants and beetles and worms. The taste of sunlight in every season.

Long ago, a prince met a girl on this bridge. They were children, still looking at the world with fresh eyes. “Is it true, what they say?” our young lord said to our Lady.  “That this garden has been here forever?”

She looked into his eyes and smiled.

~~~

In a tiny stone shrine, there sits a cup of hot tea. It is brewed only once in a lifetime. The boy of this present time finds it. He kneels down before it. The light of a red lantern shines on his innocent face, his large, black eyes.

He drinks.

~~~

We know the stories of the greater world. Even in our sleep, the wind visits and whispers and blows dead leaves over the garden walls. We feel the tread of human steps from miles away. And when we wake, rain brings stories of water drops’ journeys from river to cloud and air.

The Demon Lord, people still mutter. The Lord of Hell. The Accursed, the Annihilator. A story told still in fear and dread, in wonder and awe.

We knew him before he bore any of those names.

His first full day here, a princeling arrived from the capital. A child waking before dawn, creeping from the guest quarters where his parents lay sleeping. He ran to the central lake, eager to see the truth of one of the many legends he’d heard of.

The grass wet beneath his silk slippers. The world gray under the shadow of the high mountain peak, and a slowly lightening sky.

He leaned over the bridge railing, staring, waiting. Color spilled over the hills and into the world, reds and golds spreading over water and sky. The lake was a flat sheet of fire. He squinted and shielded his eyes, and finally looked away. A flash. And then the sun was fully up, and the sky was blue and birds were singing, and white clouds floated in the water.

Something else was reflected in the water, too. “Did you see anything?” the girl beside him asked.

“No.” He turned his head. He’d neither seen nor heard her coming. She was about his own age, around twelve or thirteen. She wore simple robes, and her hair was unbound, falling like a dark waterfall over her shoulders.

“Did you see anything?” he asked. “Why are we the only ones here? Doesn’t anyone else come? Is it always like this? Is it true?”

“People don’t like getting up early.” She shrugged.  “I thought that I saw something, but I’m not sure. . .” Her voice trailed off. They stared at one another.

Midsummer morn. One of the legends of the Eternal Garden: that if you watch from the Bridge of Hopes on this day, at the moment of sunrise you might see your future reflected in the lake below.

A ripple in the water, from frog or fish. The lake stilled again. The children’s reflections were also still, staring at each other.

The boy suddenly remembered his manners. He bowed, and she did the same. They introduced themselves: the visitor and the girl who lived here, who we already knew as our Lady.

~~~

He was not the only one to grieve. We missed her, too, and miss her still.

He is not the only one who would set the world aflame, who would tear and destroy and turn the earth to winter in reaction to pain.

But he was one of the few with the power to do so.

~~~

The boy in the shrine drinks his tea. We kneel alongside him and taste the bitterness on his tongue. We have been here so many times before.

A rush of memories. The child closes his eyes. We remember alongside him.

Happiness. Heartache. Then joy again.  

Long ago, a child came to the Garden on a visit with his family. As relations and representatives of the King, they had business with many parts of the country. But of all the places he had seen and would see, the boy would love this place the most.

He was of royal blood, and blessed with talent. But also of relatively little relevance in the great political schemes of his day. The youngest son of the youngest son of the King’s third half-brother. He was allowed to stay and study for a time with the teachers of the Garden. And though his family resisted at first, he was eventually allowed to marry into it—to give up his name and family for a home far from the capital and great centers of power. To marry the heir of a family with its own power, but also with its own closed traditions and loyalties and vows.

The Lady had to convince her own elders, too.

They had been separated for years when he returned to her on the cusp of summer. He had ridden ahead of the rest of the wedding party. It was late afternoon, the sun slanting low through the trees. She stood waiting for him just outside the gates. When he saw her smile, he caught his breath; and there was a moment in which he could not move at all.

~~~

The Garden tries to keep itself apart. But no walls can keep out the world forever.

War in the north. An internal rebellion, and then invasion across borders. The fall of the capital city. Hundreds of thousands uprooted, fleeing for their lives. Bodies lay unburied in fields. Blood flowed into streams and rivers.

News came by rider and messenger-birds. Our young lord opened the letters with trembling hands. He learned that most of his birth-family was dead, his surviving brothers on the run.

Our Lady did not argue when he asked to be released from his vows. When he asked to leave our home in the mountains, this remote place of safety, to join his brothers in war.

~~~

We knew every person who set foot on our grounds. 

We knew the first to come after the gods touched this land, the heart of the valley. We welcomed those who came to gather root and herb and fruit and fish. Who stayed to plant and tend and build.

We knew those of power, both born to power and able to channel it. Those who could draw upon the elemental forces of the world and hear the spirits and gods most clearly. Teachers and masters, and lords and ladies who commanded from palace halls and slept on sheets of fine-woven silk. And we knew the ones who changed and washed those sheets.

We knew the craftsmen who built the bridges and fountains, the viewing platforms and courtyards and covered arcades. We knew those who dug and terraced and tilled. We know those who worked in the kitchens: the head chef dreaming of new recipes, the staff shelling beans, the strong-armed women pounding roots and kneading dough.

The woman who pruned the roses. The children throwing food to the fish and splashing in the ponds and lakes.

We knew the poets and artists and musicians. We knew the women sweeping the shrines. The people harvesting grain in the fields. The teachers of each new generation. We knew all who tended to life, who planted and planned and fed and cut and gathered, who grew and loved and cared.

We knew those who watched the borders, who set the wards, who tried to protect us.

~~~

A young boy staggers away from a tiny stone shrine, the bitterness of a rare tea still harsh on his tongue.

He has come to us for centuries now. Once in every lifetime.

He’s come to us as a beggar in tattered rags. He’s come as an old man leaning on his walking stick. He’s come ill and feverish, covered in sores, crawling and near to death’s door. He’s come arrayed in finery, a man in the prime of life: a prosperous merchant, a celebrated philosopher, even a prince once again.

He’s come as a young adventurer, an explorer, curious about the dead garden in a remote mountain valley.

He’s never come to us so young before.

As young as that other who once stepped through our gates.

For the first time in several centuries, we feel real hope.

~~~

The boy walks a familiar path through the heart of the Garden. He finds a second shrine, and a second cup of tea. Midsummer eve’s moon is at its highest point.

There is power flowing freely tonight. Spirits awake and singing. Old promises humming in the air.

There are also other powers in the world. And darker gods than the ones we knew.

We watched our lord ride away, and the stories trickled back to us over the next half-decade. Stories of the invaders’ depravities, of fields and cities burned, of ruthless slaughter and oppression. Of a Kingdom torn apart, and quarrels among its own shattered ranks. Stories of our lord’s heroism, of how he was working with his family to unite the remnants of the North. Of how armies flocked to his banner; of how tireless he was, how determined and brilliant, how inspiring and brave and kind. Of how thousands shouted his name; of how the countryside rose up for him; of how his soldiers would gladly die for him.

The legends grew: that he had access to all the powers of the Eternal Garden, and more besides. That he did not need to sleep, that he could not feel pain, that he could disappear from sight and reappear in two places at once. That he wreathed his army in an obscuring, protective fog as they marched, and silenced the sounds of footsteps and breath. That he was able to command weather, that he could direct lightning and wind; that he spoke to bird and beast and could send his voice across miles. That he was blessed by the gods, their favored son. That he spoke directly to them.

We saw the letters that he wrote to our Lady. She untied them from the feet of purring messenger-birds. Interspersed between news of politics and war, he wrote of sunlight on red maples, mist on a river, far mountains that made him homesick for the mountains he knew. He wrote of strange plants and a rare orchid he’d seen, and of how he wished he could bring it back to her. He wrote her love poems.

She wrote back, of course. She opened the doors to her room and played her zither at night, sending the music out to him on the wind. And when wind and moon and mind and heart were perfectly attuned, they heard each other’s voice across the miles.

~~~

When they were only sixteen, years before marriage, they’d pledged their souls to one another. On the banks of a lake, they wove together green willow branches. Years later, when he left for war, she snapped off part of a fresh willow branch for him to take. He carried it against his heart, where it stayed fresh and green throughout the miles.

~~~

In a wooden shrine, a child’s eyes go empty.

A cup drops from his hand.

~~~

In later years, people would revise the stories they’d once told of our lord. Some would say that early on, even during those first years of war, he must have already had dealings with darkness. That he must have already made demonic sacrifices, and bargained away his soul for vengeance. How else did he rise from nearly nowhere, this callow untested young man, to number among the great generals of the North? How else did he so easily win powerful allies to his side? He took back city after city, province after province. He led the push into the old capital itself.

On the road to the capital, he walked into a trap.

He lost half his army. He nearly died.

Some say this was when he made his secret bargain. While his body burned with fever from an infected wound, and his mind wandered the borderlands between life and death. He’d seen the enemies’ might, the new weapons and power they’d attained. He saw that might displayed again and again in his dreams. He caught glimpses of a hopeless future, all the Kingdom crushed beneath the wheels of war engines and the iron hooves of giant war-beasts. All flattened, all burned, all turned to ash. The old gods were silent. A dark god called out to him instead, and in his mind he responded.

Others say that it was not until much later that he turned to Hell’s powers. Not until the Southern realms were invaded. Not until the Garden itself was at risk.

Some say his decision was made when he woke from his wound-fever, when he opened his eyes from nightmares. He was lying in a clean bed, bandaged, safe. Sunlight poured in through an open window. Our Lady was there, her eyes upon him tender and bright, her hand in his. He saw her face, and in that moment, he knew all that he had to lose.

~~~

We have lost so much, too.

We wake and relive our loss, again and again.

We did not deserve this.

We are awake now, and we watch as a child leaves a wooden shrine, his drained cup still lying upturned on the floor. His shoulders are bowed, his steps heavy and slow. His eyes far older than the mortal years he’s seen.

~~~

The Eternal Garden had survived the rise and fall of dynasties. It tried to keep itself apart from the rest of the world. Its leaders paid tribute to whoever held the title of King or Queen; they did what was necessary to stay at peace in the nation. The Garden’s leaders—our leaders—did whatever they could to keep us safe.

 The war roared on. A tide had turned, and now the front pushed ever southward. Ahead of the armies, ordinary people fled with nothing but the clothes on their skin and the children in their arms. Each day brought new tales of hunger and chaos, cruelty and despair. And rumors of the enemy’s dark powers: the engines they rode, the sorceries they commanded, the foreign gods that gave them strength.

Stay safe, our lord wrote. In every letter to his beloved, said in a dozen different ways, and not all quite out loud: Don’t work too hard. Take care of yourself and our people. Keep the Garden and yourself well. Stay safe, and I can continue to live.

~~~

On a moonlit night, a boy enters a third shrine on a third island on a still, shining lake. This last shrine is made of earth, dug into a small hillside. He can only just stand up within. A third cup of tea waits for him on the altar. He stares at it for a long time before touching it.

~~~

Our lord did change. Those stories are true. We saw it in his rare visits home. We saw it through our Lady’s eyes.

His strength became ever greater, even as the enemy’s power also increased. He learned to wield fire. With a sweep of his arm, he set enemy encampments ablaze. He exploded their own munitions from hundreds of yards away. He melted flesh and steel.

He had long ago learned to ignore human screams.

He had seen too much. Friends and comrades dying before him. The deaths of the last of his brothers. The mutilated corpses left by the enemy in ravaged towns and cities. The countless numbers that he himself had killed.

In dreams, he saw the bodies of his parents and brothers and sisters, hanging from the gates of the lost capital in the North. That first great attack, which he never saw.

We saw our Lady’s fear. Fear of the fire she saw eating him from within. The rage and pain beneath the coldness. The power that he had taken in, but which he could only just contain.

She played her zither and sang to him across the miles, seeking to soothe the flames.

The green willow branch that she’d given him was long gone, withered and dropped somewhere in the long miles between them.

~~~

Our Lady, too, was near to breaking. We saw it when no one else did. War brought waves of refugees even into the Garden’s valley, and our Lady did all she could to share our resources, to feed and house and protect us all. She spent hours in council with elders and leaders; she spent her power healing those injured in body and mind.

She prayed at the oldest shrines.

Power. So many different powers in the world: power of earth and wood and stone. Power of living things, growing things, and things that have died and feed new life.

She drew on all these and more.

~~~

Our Lady made plans to send our forces down from the mountains.

No, he said, but she was as stubborn as he. And he knew that she was right. The Garden could not always keep itself apart.

Our forces joined the war. They were there on that great plain when armies clashed.

Before battle: our Lady and lord walked through the Garden again, hand in hand. A tender calmness on both their faces. They lay together in a private spot, under the willow trees. He ran his fingers through her silken hair. She caught his hand in hers. Afterward, she sang to him softly, her eyes still closed, resting against the rise and fall of his breath. They breathed in together. Under dancing leaf-shadows, their hearts were at peace.

~~~

They raised a great mist before they left. A thick, obscuring fog over the mountains, over the valley, hiding the Garden. One last defense in case they never came back. One last attempt at protection, for those of us left behind.

~~~

It is midsummer eve’s night, and with a last cup of tea, a boy faces his final memories.

~~~

What he never told her, what he never told anyone: that he knew he could lose control. That he knew what he could be: a weapon greater than any seen in his lifetime. A weapon without discrimination. He could become fire itself: the heat of the sun, the force of the lightning. An explosion ten thousand times greater than anything the enemy could achieve with all their sorceries and firepowder. He could burn down the world. All he had to do was lose control, to give himself up to a hungry god. All he had to do was lose all mercy, all humanity; to give up his soul itself.

~~~

As a soft dusk fell, a messenger-bird came to the Garden with news: a temporary truce on the battlefield. Heavy casualties on both sides, but more damage taken by the enemy. A pause to exchange captives, and care for the dead.

Seconds later came the second message, written in fire in the sky.

~~~

The truth of that day is still known only in fragments. Even to the boy in the shrine tonight. We watch him shudder with memories.

A few last messages sent from the battlefield. A handful of witnesses from the field itself. The few who stood closest to our Lady and lord, who were protected by the instinctive shield that he raised up around them before the blast.

Minutes before: our Lady and lord walking with others to the parley. The arrow from high above. The arrow that came from above and behind, from our lord’s own army fortifications. From within his own ranks. A streak of shadow, a missile of ice-metal, shaped and targeted to our fire-lord himself.

She sensed it even as the archer took aim. With inhuman speed, she pushed her beloved aside and reached out with all her power to deflect—

He fell, then rose to his feet. He ran. He knelt over her, keening. The ruin of her chest. The blood soaking his hands, his clothes, as he held her. The black ice-arrow, a metal whose shaping was known only to the enemy.

On the walls above, fellow soldiers had already seized hold of the traitor-assassin.

Silence below, save for the sound of our lord’s sobbing. Those closest to them frozen in shock. A moment in which time seemed suspended.  

And then everything exploded.

~~~

We saw the fire in the sky. We felt the earth shake.

And then our lord came to us with our Lady in his arms, the mist-defenses of the Garden torn away, useless. He flew to us on wings of fire. He took her to the center of the Garden, and knelt with her there.

And then he brought the cold.

~~~

He did not know what he was doing. He was lost to grief and rage.

But he still killed us.

He knelt over her body, and the fire around them dwindled and failed. Now it was cold that spread out from them. Cold from where his knees touched the earth. Cold that seeped deep, deep into the soil, freezing it and all the air pockets between; cold that found and froze each root and root hair, that stilled the hearts of the tiny creatures that wriggle and dig through the earth.

Cold that spread above ground as well.

Within halls and houses, people started as floors froze underfoot. As the air suddenly sharpened like knives. A child playing in the lotus pond yelped, jerking her foot from the water just as it turned to ice. There was the sound of shattering as iced tree branches began to break, as pipes and fountains burst. The cold spread, and birds lifted into the sky, seeking escape. At the edges of the Garden, people, too, tried to run, the blood already slowing in their veins. . .

The lakes froze solid, from bottom to top. No living thing moved. A deathly stillness. And now mist began to steam from the iced ponds and lakes, pools and streams, as the frozen water evaporated directly into the air. And the air itself dried out, all moisture gone. The ponds and lakes were emptied. The trees all bare. The Garden a frozen desert, squeezed of all life, hard as stone.

In the center of it all, as everything died: our Lady and lord, so pale and still. Our Lady already dead, and our lord dying inside. The ice-arrow still in her chest. Her blood splashed red on his chest and arms, the only color in a colorless world. His grief mixing with known and unknown sorceries and powers, killing us all.

We froze and dried and died along with them. We crumbled and blew away, like autumn leaves.

~~~

It has been a thousand years.

We have watched our lord come back in lifetime after lifetime. Cycle after cycle, another attempt to expiate his sins, to understand and atone.

To work through his fate.

We are revived each time, his silent witnesses.

~~~

We are still angry, after a thousand years.

He swore to defend us. He vowed never to leave us, to always protect us. He left with our Lady’s blessings. But he was not released from the other half of his vow.

It is midsummer night, and he weeps now in a dark, earthen shrine. He’s a child again, but bent to the ground with the weight of sins from another lifetime. His shoulders shake silently, and his anguish bleeds into the night.

The last cup of tea is gone. But this night is not over.

After a while, he crawls from the shrine, compelled to finish his journey. He gets to his feet and sways. We catch him. His lips move, his eyes unseeing. We hold him and give him the last memories he’ll have for this night.

Our own.

~~~

We are the spirits of the garden. We were born when the gods touched this land. We were here when the first seeds sprouted, when the lakes first filled, when the first people came to shape and tend us.

We remember everything.

We remember the boy who came to our Garden, a stranger. We remember the first time he stepped through our gates, his parents beside him. His eyes so bright and curious, his smile like sunlight. His heart an open field.

And we remember our Lady. He loved her, but we loved her first. We knew her first. We knew her from birth, just as we knew her parents before her, and their parents before them, and all her family and line. We knew her as a child learning to walk, falling and giggling in the grass. Picking flowers and sneaking cakes from the kitchen before supper. Slowly learning to hear the heartbeat of the land, the pulse of sap, the song of water and wind in the trees. Slowly learning to hear us. We rejoiced as she grew stronger, as she reached out to us. We were there for all the small triumphs and rebellions of her childhood, her pranks and quarrels with teachers and family. Her friendships and joys. Her loneliness as an orphan whose parents died when she could barely remember them. Her loneliness as heir to the leadership of the Garden. We watched her grow up. We watched her fall in love.

We were there when he wasn’t. We saw her leading her people confidently by day, hiding her vulnerability and fear. We saw her in her bedchamber at night, wiping away tears. Grieving and afraid for herself, and her beloved, and the world.

She, too, was our sunlight and water.

And we loved all the children of the Garden, all that we knew. Those born with power and those without. Those who could hear and speak with us, and those who heard only faintly. The noble-born children, and the cook’s son sneaking cakes with our Lady in the kitchen. The woman pruning roses. The girl weaving in her room. The toddler chasing ducks by the lake. The boy sweeping marble steps and composing in his mind a song for his love.

The ones who left for war. The ones who stayed to guard us.

The last residents of the Garden. The last generation.

The boy with us tonight knew them, too, but we show them again to him through our eyes. Everything that he missed while he was away. Everything that he missed even while he was here. The lives he knew only in passing. Scenes known only to a few, or to none at all. The multitude of lives that no human could know in full. We knew them—each private story, each struggle and heartache and triumph and joy.

We are the Garden, and each life here has left us an echo of its soul. We know them in full. We carry them all: the memories, the soul-imprints, of all our children.

Save for two.

~~~

Far from this garden—past the forests, past the valley and the foot of these mountains—lies a great plain. It, too, is a desert.

A thousand years ago, hell itself erupted on a battlefield. Nearby towns and villages were turned to dust. A river evaporated. Ashes rained down for days. 

Two armies burned alive. A hundred thousand dead, including innocents miles from the battlefield. The worse fate was for those who didn’t instantly die.

Some of the dead were ours.

Their hearts melted in fire. Against their hearts, each had worn some memento from the Garden. A garland of jasmine flowers. A single orchid. A bundle of sweet herbs. A frond of willow leaves.

~~~

The moon is sinking toward the horizon.

Our lord has fallen to his knees yet again.

Remember, we whisper to him. Remember.

For once, let him accept the weight of all he did. For once, let it be enough for the gods.

~~~

The day that he first left us for war, our Lady gave him a branch of willow leaves. An old custom of the Garden. 

The day that our army left our gates for the last time, the willows near the Bridge of Hopes were visibly shorn on one side. So many willow branches had been broken off, given as gifts of farewell.

~~~

All has changed in the outer world. But they still tell his story.

The nation we knew has broken and reformed, again and again, as war sweeps the land. States join and dissolve; empires fall. The name of a lost, ancient kingdom is spoken in strange accents and tongues.

He was a prince possessed by a demon-god, some say. He lost control.

Others say: He himself was a demon-god in disguise, come to earth to punish and destroy.

In the most common telling, it was he who broke the truce, who came to parley with dishonorable intent. He gambled with dark powers to win a war. He killed his own people, and lost his soul.

Only among some is a different tale told. A minor variation, told in the mountains of the South.  It started as a love story, this other tale says.

~~~

He did, indeed, give up his soul.

But she had pledged her soul to his. Their souls were joined. From the moment they met, and then again and again, as they consciously promised themselves to one another. The weaving of two willow branches into a single wreath. Two hearts singing each to each. Our Lady’s prayers.

His soul is mine, our Lady declared to the God of Death when she met Him. I cannot go on to the Afterlife, nor be reborn on earth, without him.

The great Gods of Death and Life met, and looked at her, and conferred.

So be it, they agreed.

~~~

In every lifetime, he finds his way to us. He has been given a chance to redeem his soul, and with it hers as well.

Three times he drinks the tea that restores the memories of past lives. He makes a circuit of the oldest shrines of the Garden.

He remembers his past life. And then he’s asked to remember more.

He’s on the ground now, hands over his ears as though to block out screams. His eyes are closed, and he moans. 

The weight of all the lives that he took in one day. All those memories, all that hope and fear and pain. A burden that doesn’t even include the lives of those we didn’t know, the enemies and strangers who also died. 

It is too much for one person. Too much, even for our great Hero Prince, the Uniter of the Nation, the Savior of the Kingdom, the Demon Lord, the Cursed One, the Lord of Hell.

Too much, too much, and yet it must be borne—

We have been bearing it. All these long years.

~~~

Our lord sits up. He jolts to his feet.

There is one last cup at the end of this path, just where it connects to the final bridge. There, a hooded figure in the gray raiment of the Underworld stands, and holds that last cup in their hands.

A cup of clear liquor to take away all memory again.

The boy starts toward this figure, trembling. The moon has nearly set. The sun will soon rise.

If only we can stop him. If only we could ever stop him. If he could only hold on a bit longer, until the sun rises—

We are angry. The rage of all our memories scream.

The weaver-girl breaking a willow branch for her beloved. The cook’s son grown and walking with his love beneath wisteria blooms. A mother keening in her room, bent double in grief for lost children. A boy standing frozen on marble steps, the broom dropped from his hand, holding a letter announcing the death of his lover in war.

Our lord was not the only one to lose his beloved. He was not the only one to love fiercely, with all his heart. He was not the only who would have set the world on fire, who would have turned the earth to winter in response to loss.

He was merely the only one with the power to do so.

~~~

We loved her. We loved her. And we loved him, too.

~~~

 An hour to dawn. No sound but the sobbing gasps of a child, stumbling blindly forward so that he might forget again.

No, we cry to him. Stay with us. Remember with us.

Stay.

Stay this one time, if you can.

He stops. He turns his head.

There was another voice that called when we called. Another voice that was somehow also part of us, added to us.

We carry the echoes of all the souls who ever lived in the Garden. Their thoughts, memories, feelings. But now we feel the true souls returning.

Souls who knew both our lord and Lady. Souls who loved them both, and died.

The aunts and uncles who cared for our Lady, and who took our lord under their care when he arrived as a child. The teachers who saw their blazing talents, and encouraged and helped shape what they saw. Their elders and mentors. Their peers and playmates and friends. The people they taught and mentored in turn, the people our Lady healed from injury or illness. The councilors, the guards, the people of their household, the ones who worked with them day in and day out. And those who knew them only from afar, but saw their essential decency and goodness, and rejoiced in the light that followed them both.

Those souls are here now.

And something shifts in the burden we carry.

Our lord stands frozen on the path, tears slipping down his cheeks.

Lost souls have returned. And the weight we bear lessens.

~~~

In a thousand years, all can change.

Stories are rewritten. Minor gods and spirits rise and fall, along with mortal kingdoms. Things of beauty and light are destroyed. And the descendants of those we called our enemy, and the descendants of those who fought against them, live peacefully together, bloodlines inextricably entwined.

Over a thousand years, the last souls of the Garden have all been on their own journeys through rebirth, or through the Afterlife beyond.

They are here now, warming and lightening the night.

Our children are here again. We see and hear and feel them. And our lord does, as well.

We see him through their eyes, and we see him again through our own. The innocent child he once was. The broken man he became. The soul who has come to us again and again, struggling and learning with each lifetime.

The boy who came with his parents for a visit, and whose heart never left. Who heard us. Who stood in a sunlit clearing, eyes closed, reaching out to us. Who sat in our shrines, letting our songs fill his heart.

Who loved our Lady. The two of them laughing and then hushing each other during lessons. Running through the Garden, hand in hand. Whirling dizzily in a field of tulips and then falling silent, listening to us together.

The souls of our other children are here with us now, remembering with us. Reminding us.

He loved us. He loved us all. He risked everything to protect us.

He failed.

There are promises that were broken. Suffering that cannot be redeemed. Horror and pain and betrayal. But there are also promises that may yet be fulfilled.

In the distance, music plays from lit pavilions. The sound of a zither seems threaded in the wind. A yellow moon is falling.

Is this forgiveness? We think of our Lady. We reach out to him, our lost child. And we also let go. Finally, we let go of our bitterness. We hold him, as we hold our other children and as they also hold us. Together, we all bear what can’t be borne.

~~~

The sun is rising. There is one soul we haven’t yet met. The figure standing near the bridge tips back her hood. The test has been passed. She is released, too. And as light in the east flashes, we see for a moment her face. Then the Greater Gods speak, and time dissolves and reforms and all the world is changed, and we, too, are changed and reborn—

~~~

Midsummer morning. Two children stand on an ancient bridge. They are perhaps twelve or thirteen, dressed in the casual clothes of this age. They’re both staring into the lake below. The hills around them are green, and the earth smells of fresh rain. By the northern shore, willows sway in a gentle breeze.

 “Did you see anything?” the girl asks.

“No.” The boy turns to her in surprise. “Did you?”

“I thought that I saw something, but I’m not sure. . .”

They stand a moment in silence, looking again at the water, and then at each other.

“Are you from the village?” the girl asks. She gestures to the west, beyond the crumbling old gates.

The boy nods. “You’re not.” It’s plain enough in her accent. She’s not from anywhere in the valley. “Are you with the, the archaeologists?” He pronounces the last word carefully. Curiosity is alight in his large, black eyes.

She grins. “My parents are working on the restoration, yes. Though they’re both more gardeners. Landscape designers.”

The boy nods, distracted only a little by the way her face flashes with light when she smiles.

“Do you believe it?” she continues. “That if you look at the lake from here at the right time, you can see your future?”

Does he? He’s known that legend for as long as he can remember. One of many legends of this ancient place, these ruins that are only now being restored.

“I don’t know.” He looks again at the water, where the reflections of both of them float dimly. Something about the moment tugs oddly at his memory. He’s never known anyone to actually see anything at the midsummer sunrise. Why did he come here, dragging himself so early from bed?

He looks again at the strange girl before him, standing on a bridge in the Eternal Garden, dressed in a plain T-shirt and shorts. Her hair spills over her shoulders like a dark waterfall. Her eyes look into his, waiting for his next words. Suddenly, he feels as though he could tell her anything. Suddenly, he feels as though a door has opened, as though the cover of a new storybook has just been turned, as though something new has begun. “I don’t know if I’d want to see my future in a lake, after all,” he says. “I think I’d rather find it out on my own.”

About the Author

Vanessa Fogg

Vanessa Fogg dreams of selkies, dragons, and gritty cyberpunk futures from her home in western Michigan. Her fiction has appeared previously in GigaNotoSaurus, as well as in Daily Science Fiction, The Future Fire, and The Best Science Fiction of the Year: Volume 4. For more, visit her website.

Find more by Vanessa Fogg

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