To Make Unending
Editor’s Introduction: I am delighted to be able to launch The Sunday Morning Transport with this story by the multi-talented and multi-award winning Max Gladstone. By turns grave and funny, poetic and prosaic, Max brings a modern twist to an epic fantasy, which explores that most timeless of stories: relationships between parents and their kids.
~ Julian Yap, January 9, 2022.
To Make Unending
In the twenty-second year of the Seventh Bale, six thousand years since the last High King of Men and Elves fell beneath the waves, and twelve thousand more since the wilting of the Rose, on a cold autumn day beneath the silvern trees in the Lady’s Seat of Calberthrel, Celabrim Cindercloak returned from long ranging in shadow to find his son playing with a calculator.
“Calculator,” pronounced Eriac the Wise, when, after the High Council convened on Celabrim’s return, they retired to the balcony with fluted cups of metheglin to overlook the glinting sunset valley of Calberthrel. “Sounds orkish to me.”
“It’s darkcommon,” replied Celabrim. “Means a device for making stones, I think. Though I am no loremaster.”
“Making stones. Fine pursuit for a boy. Shame young Feas doesn’t still have the Highforge running. Produced wondrous stones there, three in particular I recall, bright as the Rose Itself in the forever spring.” Which he remembered, as did Celabrim, though Celabrim had been but a century old at the wilting, too busy with duels and singing contests and the joy of the Ladies of the Blessed Isle to spend much time in contemplation of the Rose or Its Beauty, until It was gone.
“Yet recall what befell Feas.”
Eriac’s face darkened and he raised the metheglin to his lips. The Sixth Bale was still a fresh wound, even into the Seventh. “Nonetheless, stones are a fine occupation.”
“It doesn’t make stones. It adds numbers. Slower than an abacus, but it seeks less skill.”
“An impressive little widget.” The word he used in the High Speech was cistlethelialminaron, in the fourth inflection, to signify a novel creation without aesthetic durability. “Numbers are useful. Divination. Poetical analysis.”
“You say it right,” Celabrim replied, “and yet it weighs upon my heart.”
“Come,” said Eriac. “Rest easy. You have ranged far, and your legs are stiff for want of dancing. I have acquired a supply of the finest smoked small-leaf. Shall we retire and seek once more the joy of our youth beyond the seas?”
There was a merry light in his eyes, but Celabrim beheld it not, for his gaze lay fixed elsewhere. Eriac the Wise turned and saw.
The Lady walked among them, fair and terrible, and brought the moonlight with her in the still weight of her regard.
* * *
In the thirty-first year of the Seventh Bale, when the smoke of Olodrim the Fire-Mountain smote the sky and cast even the sunsets of fair Calberthrel a bloody red, Celabrim, wounded in the shoulder by a fell blade, returned to the silvern grove to heal. Walking there beneath the drifting boughs where once he had chanced to meet a star-eyed maiden who favored him with a rare smile, Celabrim found his son.
The boy was in company, seated in a circle with Golfilden’s jade-haired girl, and Eriac’s second child, and Armolas, scion of the Forest King from those woodenheaded folk to the East, and Tilmenoreth of the line of Feas the Fallen, once-smith of Eldaron. Pleased, Celabrim approached to hear what passed among them. He did not wish to disturb their conference, but he was a lord of the folk who ranged far through shadow and Bale. He had once laid his hand on the back of a drinking faun. He could walk unseen if he wished.
At first he thought them engaged in debate. Then he saw that their debate was punctuated by the throwing of faceted gemstones into a box. These throws yielded groans of pain, or shouts of glee, or puzzled consultation of one of the many lore-tomes scattered about them on the grass.
Divination, then, as Eriac had claimed. None could hear the song of the stars, but many tried. There were so many questions even the young might ask, about when the Bale might pass and the folk throw back the shadows, for a time.
But when he drew nearer, he heard the words they spoke, and found himself mistaken.
“The client needs a strategy update by the ten o’clock,” said his son, consulting a tome of notes.
“‘Needs’?” asked Tilmenoreth fiercely. “Or ‘wants’?”
His son turned from his tome to read some figures off the back of a low wooden screen erected between him and the rest of the group. “Roll . . . organizational knowledge? No, sorry. Email interpretation.”
Tilmenoreth of the line of Feas the Fallen uttered a word Celabrim himself had only ever voiced with an arrow embedded in his stomach. “You sure it’s not organizational knowledge? I have a plus eight in that.”
“That’s for, I think, figuring out who to talk to. This is about understanding context. Unspoken rules. Communication.”
“Like a Sending!” said Armolas.
Golfilden’s girl rolled her sea-gray eyes.
“Is there a base stat I can use?”
Again, the word of the arrow in the gut. “That’s bad, guys.”
“May I render assistance, fair maiden?”
“I’m not a maiden, I’m your boss. Anyway, you’re not even in the scene, because you snuck out with Cel to go day-drinking.”
“I had to! I’ve been working too much, my husband’s sleeping around, my Stress is way high.”
“You wouldn’t have so much Stress if you didn’t spend every downtime in the bar.”
“My prestige class lets the intoxication bonus to social rolls stack with my skill bonus. I didn’t see you complaining when I closed the PTC deal.”
“Broken,” said Golfilden’s jade-haired daughter.
“It’s in the handbook!”
Tilmenoreth of the line of Feas ran one hand through her raven hair, clenching it between her long fingers as if to pull it strand by strand from its roots, and spoke a new word, which Celabrim had only uttered once, on the day the Grimwing had swooped down upon the hosts of the Free Nations, at the crest of the Fourth Bale. “Fine. I guess, untrained at minus three it is.”
“You have minus three Interpersonal? How are you my boss?”
“Shut up, Armolas. That’s a . . . seven.” She looked upon Celabrim’s son, but he did not answer—for he had gone still, staring into the depths of the forest—directly at Celabrim. Who, soundlessly, and ashamed for some reason he could not explain, withdrew.
“It is a child’s fancy,” Eriac the Wise assured him as he lay beneath the singing trees in the Healing Hall, with a mossy poultice upon his wound. “You and I indulged in many, as I recall. Still do!” Smoking was forbidden in the Healing Hall, so Eriac, in his wisdom, had prepared small-leaf pathbread, which he nibbled upon, and brushed the crumbs from his beard and robe.
“But you and I sought joy in the world,” Celabrim replied. “We made fools of ourselves here, and played our court here. I do not understand this strangeness that draws him. If I were not so often away, ranging, then perhaps—”
“But you are not his only parent.”
“Has her duties, as have you,” acknowledged Eriac. “You are a dutiful family.” The star-eyed maiden of the silvern wood had grown into a star-eyed votress of the Lady, seated in the crowning trees, straining to hear the heavens’ changing song, of what was and what was yet to come. Even when she descended, some part of her remained ever in the sky, much as, Celabrim supposed, some part of him remained beyond the borders of fair Calberthrel, ranging against the shadow. “If his rearing were entirely in your charge, perhaps there would be trouble. But we all watch him and care for him, as we care for one another.” He offered a corner of pathbread, which Celabrim refused. Ranging, he might consume pathbread alone for months at a time. What folly, to eat it here, where one might dine on fresh fruits and aged cheeses and all manner of nectar, and honey. Small-leaf or no. “Talk to the boy. He is young, but he speaks the High Speech just as well as I. Better, actually.”
* * *
Celabrim sought the boy’s chamber in the Home Tree that next day, and discovered him at his desk, worrying over a scroll, quill in hand, lore-tomes stacked on the floor beside his chair. When Celabrim stood upon his threshold, the boy turned, and gazed upon his father with star-blue eyes, so like his mother’s, yet expectant and still in a way that was all their own. He had grown cautious. The thought made Celabrim’s heart ache.
“Father,” the boy said, and bowed in gentle greeting.
“Son. Shall we walk beneath the silvern wood?”
That, at least, prompted the old and brilliant smile.
They walked together, the son’s footfalls as light as his father’s. When the boy was a child, they had been thus, together and content. The boy’s feet were surer now, his step yet gentle. Still, the old contentment did not come. Unsteady space lay between them now.
“You have not asked what it was you saw,” the boy said.
“I do not know what to ask.”
“It does not call us from our studies. It brings us together as we train.”
“And what do you train?”
The boy drew his bow and loosed so fast that Celabrim himself could not have bested him with ease. The arrow flew with an owl’s peculiar silence. “There is a knot,” he said, “four spans up the trunk of the tree a half mile past the rill, which flowers blue in the spring of the year. It will rest to the left of that knot.” And so it did. The boy broke into the same toothy smile he had when first he learned to climb from his creche in the Home Tree.
“I do not know five who could shoot as well.” He did not, perhaps, know three. “Do you seek such games, then, for release? To entertain odd notions and pass the hours? Joy takes many forms, and these are not subject to deep questions.” He did not altogether believe this, but the boy’s silence troubled him, and framing it thus offered an easy path to settle the issue.
The boy did not take the easy path.
So Celabrim found himself still speaking where silence would have been wise. “Such visions avail us little, and aid us less. An archer aims to see what is. Even now a shadow grows across the lands. Dust and cobwebs stir in the Pale King’s empty tomb. Olodrim belches poison fumes and the great kingdoms of men, even white-walled Serrias, are as ancient trees gnawed from within by worms. Now is a time of such peril that the mind shudders to conceive. Yet we must face it—not flee into fancies.”
He had said too much, he who walked in silence beneath the shadow. The boy watched him still, with those starry eyes. “I have written something,” he said. “It is a kind of poem. Would you read it?”
“I would be honored,” he replied.
* * *
The poem was longer than Celabrim expected, and was not a poem at all as he knew them, lacking rhyme and of errant rhythm. It ran to several small bound volumes of thin paper in his boy’s elegant script. It was signed William, which was not his boy’s name, nor any name among the folk. But he brought them with him into the dark.
Before he left, he climbed the crowning tree. There upon the loftiest boughs he found the Lady’s votresses, clad in spidersilk and silver, catching the secrets of the stars in their finely wrought mirrors. Among them he sought one whose face he had seen upturned and smiling in the silvern wood in the spring of time. The stars even now were in her eyes.
He embraced her. He kissed her once upon the cheek, and saw, or imagined, a trace of that smile. But then the cold light of the Lady rose through the crowning trees as she ascended the winding stair on her high purpose, and he must be elsewhere, and so he was.
The books weighed as much as the rest of his kit. His son’s script was neat, but often hard to interpret, for beyond the strangeness of the tale there were many corrections and amendments, sometimes to the point where a little slip sheet of clean copy had been pasted over the original.
He read the books by such sick moonlight as reached the shadowed lands. By Olodrim’s fires he read them as fell beasts circled on leather wings above and sought him with keen dead eyes. He read them high in the Wirepeaks where he spied upon the Pale King’s massing armies. He read them through the cruel winter of the thirty-seventh year of the Seventh Bale, until white-walled Serrias fell at last, and he reread them in memory while he remained behind, striking from the shadows at wolf-riders sent to harry refugees afoot.
There was no homecoming in glory. The Pale King waxed. Olodrim’s fires blotted out the eastern stars. The folk stood, as ever they did stand, against him, for care and growing things, but the children of Serrias retreated past the mountains, singing songs already old when the last High King sank beneath the waves. The other lands of men and free folk made what stand they might. He was weary when he staggered home to the Healing Hall.
The boy came to him. He sat by Celabrim’s bedside, and held his hand. That hand was so young. Not yet fifty, and warm, but Celabrim felt the bowman’s hardness and thickness there. So young, and he had given himself to this study. He had known it would be called for.
The winter lay upon his heart. Even the leaves of the silvern wood were turning. “Why,” he asked at last, “do you not use quotation marks?”
The boy blinked. “You read it.”
“It is strange to me. I cannot say what is speech and what is the world.”
“It seems to me that the lines between the two are not always so well drawn.”
“Your invention is great. Your wonder. That city with those, what did you call them? ‘Trains’? Ray-dee-ohs. The seeing-mirrors. Dead things that fly.”
“Not all my invention,” the boy said gently. “Others described them first, the concepts, the style of language. I put my own twist on it, I guess. What did you think of the characters?”
He had feared how he would answer that question. “I do not understand them.”
“The world,” he said, though his wound pained him and he was forced to stop, until the boy returned with an ewer of water cool and clean. “The world is a story. We stand within its unfolding. Evil rises. The shadow grows strong. There is a shape to it. We are who we are. These people in your poem, who wander so—who make love from boredom, who make art that copies life that copies other art, who cannot speak their own minds—who may not even know them—not once—is this how you dream?”
The boy spoke with care. “The world may be a story,” he said, “but we do not know its end, nor even our place and role therein. Did the last High King know, I wonder, at the moment of her fall, as the waves closed around her, that her people or her story would endure? We sing her name, and her children’s children’s children and their kin live still, removed by endless generations of men. But she did not know. Nor do we. My mother and her fellow votresses, they watch the stars and hope to know some small piece of the great story, but they are often wrong, or right only when seen at centuries’ remove. So I dream of wanderers. They are pieces of a tale but they cannot know it, and do not know even that their ending is an ending.” In the boy’s eyes Celabrim saw a hunger, and wished he could fill it as easily as he had fed the boy milk from his fingertip when he was a newborn and could not yet latch. He felt old, and tired. “I am afraid for you,” the boy said.
“Do not fear” was his reply. “All is well.” But the cough seized him, the dust and glass of Olodrim so long in his lungs—and then sleep.
He woke to a soft light in the Healing Hall.
The boy slept in his chair. The others in the other beds lay breathing, easy, still. There was no sound, no death, in all the world.
The Lady sat beside him, and she bore a silver cup. He had not spoken with her, he realized then, since the Seventh Bale began, and perhaps not since the end of the Sixth, though all this time as he walked the lands, he worked her will.
She offered him the cup. He drank, though he could not look upon her face. When he woke, she was gone, and he lay healed—in body. He knew why she had come to him, and who must have interceded on his behalf. They both ranged out, he upon the earth and she among the stars, and each faced dangers there.
He set out before dawn.
* * *
When next he saw fair Calberthrel, she was in flames.
He was weak and weary, and pierced by many wounds. Smoke strangled the stars. The silvern wood burned, and there, against the bloody moon, he saw the crowning trees go down.
All through vale and glade he heard the cries and metal tread of the Pale King’s minions. Their touch spread killing frost, and their footsteps stained the earth with poison.
His eyes burned. He could not breathe. He roved among the trees with blade and bow, all stealth and craft forgot, crying the names of friends, and hearing only screams in answer.
How had this happened? There had been defenses, and plans, and watches set. Yet, upon his inbound ranging, he had seen smoke on the horizon where no smoke should be. None remained to answer him now, save the foe, and these he slew as, cored and numb, he sought the Lady. He sought she of the starry eyes. He sought his boy.
In a silvern glade, he found Eriac the Wise.
The sage lay still, his garb in tatters. His flesh spoke with the many mouths of wounds. Over him stood two of the Pale King’s lesser servants, plucking at his raiment, unbuckling the belt of his sword, the capering dregs of the great heap of their kind it had taken to pull the wise one down.
Celabrim slew them.
Others came in answer to their dying shrieks, and these he also slew. The night was red. He could not breathe. When all his arrows were spent, he used their own twisted barbs, tearing from the ground at his feet and from his own flesh. He fought with art and blade, and death walked with him.
He felt weary, amid the mounds of his slain foe, beside the body of his friend. He could see no stars but those in her remembered eyes, and his.
A shadow closed out the bloody moon and, folding its wings, smote the earth before him with its landing. He smelled carrion. Eyes burned far above him in the night, and great wings spread. In all those years of ranging the Pale King’s land, he had never seen one of these fell beasts face-to-face, nor stared into the black blades of their teeth.
He raised his sword, too slowly. A claw snapped his arm and battered him down. He lay gasping beside Eriac. He tried to stand and could not. The fell beast roared. With the fire and the screams and the gibbering and the falling of the silvern trees it made a wash of meaningless and senseless sound.
The world is a story, and we do not know its end.
The beast’s great maw descended.
There came a silence over the wood, like that which glides upon an owl’s wings.
The beast stopped, and, perhaps conscious of the irony—fell. Only the arrow’s fletching protruded from the roof of its gaping mouth.
No other archer could have made that shot.
Hands found Celabrim, lifted him with care. His eyes, long used to darkness and smoke, carved the shadows into shapes: Golfilden’s jade-haired girl, her hands and rings flickering now with arcane and commanding light; Armolas, his blade wet and eyes grim; Tilmenoreth bearing a bloody, smoking double axe with blades as long as a horse bow. Eriac’s child knelt by their father, weeping, their thornblades, in this moment, forgotten.
They were weary, the young ones, and wounded, but there was a readiness about them as sweet to him as the Lady’s own draught.
That which his heart desired to look upon first, he sought last, not certain he could bear the sight. There, stepping from the shadow and flame, was his own boy, who had signed that strange poem with that odd and alien William. With him, silent, walked once more the girl Celabrim had met in the spring of the world, the girl with the starry eyes.
—We have to leave, the boy said. There is a path. There is a way even now if we can reach it, into the mountains, ahead of the Pale King, and then who knows? Together we can make it, at least, that far.
We do not know the ending. It is framed Somewhere we cannot grasp, beyond our time, its framer’s reasons unknown—but must they not, somehow, seek beauty? What else might a Being so great require, save a deeper comprehension of Itself and such Fellows as It may have or seek? Though what Its beauty means for us, we do not know, and cannot say.
His son stands between the fire and the shadow and all these children, too, and he does not understand them, but neither does he understand the world. He hears: there is a way, and he says, Yes, he says, Yes, we are not done, and together, from the grove of flames, they move on into what comes after.
Thank you for being part of The Sunday Morning Transport journey this week.
Hugo-, Nebula-, and Locus Award winning author Max Gladstone has been thrown from a horse in Mongolia and once wrecked a bicycle in Angkor Wat. He is the author of many books, including the upcoming Last Exit (Tor, 2/22), Empress of Forever, the Craft Sequence of fantasy novels, and, with Amal El-Mohtar, the internationally bestselling This is How You Lose the Time War. His dreams are much nicer than you’d expect.