It is a strange thing to know the death of my people saved this world.
I do not know how long it has been. I cannot count time since the moon came weeping down to our graves. I still feel the lunar cycle in my breast, but I cannot reckon it into human days. During her life, she danced sometimes, delaying her full bloom two days or three; since then, the rhythm I knew has been as cold and steady as the new clockwork inventions.
It has been three thousand cycles and more; those who were there at the slaughter are dead. Those who heard the stories as children are dead, though I have yet to become a superstition. It is still Council Law, High Law, immutable as breathing: a Lightchild, wherever he or she lives, must die.
I do not continue to preserve my people. Even if there were two of us and another generation to come, that would be hopeless. The context, the tradition … all that is gone. I do not even continue out of habit or a basic instinct to live.
I continue because I have a mission.
It began on the Feast of Sunshine, on the centennial anniversary of the fall of the Lightchildren. Ironically, this was always the safest day of the year for me: with candles and bonfires blazing throughout the night, with every corner and face illuminated, it became impossible to tell my skin glowed with light.
I was clothed less carefully than I am now, old enough to be bored with stasis, almost lonely enough to not care about my fate. No gloves, no hat, and the skirt slit up the side – a flirt of ankle, as was the popular style then. I could feel eyes upon me as I moved through the city of Valis. I was beautiful then, golden skin, hair the color of sunset’s first yellow, and eyes as grey as storm clouds could never hope to be. Permit me a little memory of vanity.
I slipped down smoky cobbled streets to a Temple of the Moon in the poor district. Humans believed that She despised the Lightchildren as the product of her unwilling union with creatures of the deep dark. Those same humans could not seem to remember that She came to earth only twice: once when we were conceived, and once when we died.
She never returned to the heavens, leaving her home an empty shell.
There was no avoiding the garish escapades of torches and lamps. I never liked the Feast of Sunshine: an excuse for gorge and gluttony, the humans on their meat, and I on the light of man and nature. Lightchildren do not need to eat and drink; instead, we absorb the light around us, consuming it. As our numbers grew, the skies themselves dimmed. We had not figured out how to solve this problem when humans decided to solve it for us. Their armies had been swift and merciless.
I did not linger before the carved face at the temple steps, hurrying inside, but I thought: mother Moon, why could you not take me with you? I was not sure which pain cut deeper: the loss of my people, or the fact I had been left behind. I had once blamed humankind, but not after the decades had given me time for reflection. They had done as they believed they must to prevent us from drinking all the light of the skies. I did not know if they were right.
The temple itself was a single room, larger than the hovels in this area, but otherwise distinguished only by the tomes arranged on a shelf. The priestess crouched before the altar; no silver adorned it, only the notches and pockmarks of the moon’s surface that might as well have been spots of age.
“How do you come here, seeker?” she asked. “I can tell you aren’t from Valis.” She rose ponderously, and I noticed two things – one, her frame was massive, built on the lines of an eastern whale-rider; and two, her eyes were whiter than mine, without focus.
“I come here to remember the Moon.”
She chuckled hoarsely. “This is a bad night for that.”
“There is no bad night.” I realized, then, that I might be disturbing her. “I will do my devotions quickly and then leave.”
The priestess stood to one side without comment. I knelt and murmured, the prayers of my kin, words long since unwritten. I spoke to Her in confederacy, as a daughter should, however many generations removed us from her womb.
“I was there, Lightchild.”
I jumped, my body twisting as I spun about. My instincts hissed warning. Over the years, I had learned the art of the knife and the staff, but flight remained my best weapon … and called out, addressed as a hunted beast, my first urge was to run.
I calmed myself. “What makes you think I am?” I asked.
“What foreigner would enter a strange city on a day of light and pray to a goddess who no longer shines? We have few enough people here on other days.” The priestess clucked her tongue. “And I know your prayers. I learned them from my books.” She shifted, extending a hand, but not so far, relying on me to close the gap. “My name is Iorne.”
Each word made her less a predator. Wary, I clasped the hand. “A pleasure, Iorne.”
She chuckled. “I’m not going to betray you.”
“You don’t need my name.” Nor was I comfortable being more than a voice to her. “Forgive me if I don’t just believe you.”
“I marched with the armies that attacked the Lightchildren.” Iorne shuffled away, turning her back. “I had the command of a column. I fancied myself quite the young champion.”
I had thought myself beyond anger, but this woman’s martial past raked my nerves … until I realized she spoke from a distance as great as mine. I did the math in my head. “How are you still alive?”
“How are you?” she countered.
I had no answer for that. Sometimes I thought it must be a last blessing from the Moon; other times, that it was a curse from the other gods. Then I considered that was hubris, and was left with no thought at all.
“Before you leave, Lightchild,” Iorne continued, “I require a tithe. You will read to me from one of my books. I own one I suspect only you can read.”
So that was why a blind woman bothered with books. “Very well.” I knelt again, feeling self-conscious as I finished my devotions. I could feel her studying me, perhaps attuned to the sound of my breathing and the faint smell of ash that clung to my skin.
“What would you have me read?” I asked finally, standing.
If Iorne sensed my discomfort, she said nothing. She reached along the shelf, feeling the spines until she located a specific book. “This.”
I stiffened when I turned to the first page. The Lightchild language was rendered in pictographs, words of stars and moon-phases. This was a history book. I hesitated, then started reading.
Partway through the account, Iorne held up a hand to stop me. “Do you smell that?”
I did: burning, above us, with the hungry cry of flames. “Stay,” I said rapidly, and rushed out into the street. Someone had hurled torches onto the roof, whether with malice or in a drunken rush, and the fire spread in all directions. I stared. To attack the moon’s temple was like attacking my mother’s house.
I sprinted to pull the firebell, then plunged the well-buckets in as deep as my arm. Stumbling, I rushed back to the temple … and I knew it was lost. Two people couldn’t douse these flames, and I knew better than to expect the fire volunteers soon enough to preserve the building. I shouted at passing revelers; they shouted back words of praise and celebration.
Snarling, I threw myself through the door. “Iorne,” I said, “out. Now.”
She had an armful of tomes and pushed towards my voice. “We have to get the books.”
A crack from the ceiling, and spears of fire rained down, struck the altar, laid ruin to her cot. I grabbed her arm. “You go,” I said. “Then the books.”
Unfocused, she tried to stare me down – then she backed off. I didn’t watch her leave. I grabbed books at random, no time to wonder which meant nothing. I left the ones already burning; what words had shriveled were lost already.
I got two armfuls outside without difficulty. When I spun to return for the third, the ceiling collapsed in a shower of sparks. Sorrow rose in my breast. Farewell to who knew what knowledge, and how many other tomes in Lightchild tongue?
In the crackling night, Iorne stood perfectly still. “I saw her, you know.”
I had the last books pressed close to my chest. “Who?”
“The Moon.” We faded into the background even as a few drunk and stumbling volunteers drove their horses up with the fire-wagon. “The night after the massacre, I was assigned to sentry duty. The mere sight of her made me weep. It has kept me alive these many years.”
I envied her, suddenly and fiercely. Even as a descendant of the Moon, I had never seen her. Hidden away in the cave that had saved me, I had missed the tears cried over the corpses of my kin.
“Aren’t you worried about me?” I asked.
“Your abilities are dangerous for an entire race,” Iorne said mildly, “but harmless for an individual. The world is too bright as it is. Do you have a room in the city where I might bide, Lightchild?”
“You’re a priestess,” I said. “Anyone in this neighborhood would -”
“I am a forgotten woman, following a forgotten goddess. No one will notice.”
We left the wreckage behind and walked to the foreign district in silence. She needed little guidance, moving by sound. Only when I shut the door behind her did she resume her story.
“That memory is the last sight I can clearly recall, and it has always been the strongest.” Iorne seated herself on my bed. “She was whiter than stardust and smoother than glass, with eyes like pearls. Perfect. The world could end just seeing her weep.”
I tried to picture it, but felt as blind as Iorne was now. “What happened then?”
“I thought about stepping out of the shadows and confronting her, but the blade shook under my hand. Then she turned and spoke to me.”
Iorne chuckled. “Only a few words. ‘This is my end, but not forever.’ I was struck dumb; I couldn’t respond. She seemed to vanish, or maybe I moved. But those words stayed with me.” Her hands fell listless on her lap. “I left the army and set myself to finding out what she had meant. I discovered no answers. So many books over so many years. So many lines read until my eyes started to dim. I turned into the woman you see today, the one who is reduced to asking others to read for her.”
“Had you read all the books in the temple?” I asked.
We reviewed the ones that remained in grim silence, and came up short. Twelve tomes lost forever, and who knew where another copy might exist? I felt her loss as if it was my own, and shifted uneasily. Murderer, some voice in the back of my mind murmured, perturbed by this in closeness as I had not been when I heard her say it … but she had spent her life in her own version of atonement. What had I done?
“I think I will go to Great Hadacia,” Iorne said with a sigh. “One can find anything there, if one looks.”
How was an old woman, blind – however resourceful, however much it seemed the strength in her arms had not faded – to make such a journey? The city by the sea was a great distance away, across desert and harsh plainland few caravans were willing to cross.
“You’ll need a reader,” I said slowly. “Someone steady, not just any eye. Would you be willing to have a traveling companion?”
She turned her head towards my voice. “I know what you are. Would you put yourself in my hands?”
“I might argue who is in whose hands,” I said.
Her lips played into a smile. “Agreed, then.”
We set out the next morning, a journey of hardships more than dangers, discomfort more than pain. At every stop, we scrounged for books not found on the common market, and I read them out. I learned things, things I would not have imagined in the days before.
We made it to Great Hadacia by the end of the month and delved into its archives. Always, we brought two torches, one for reading and one for me. Iorne sat attentively as I read, often offering something she had heard before that made new sense of obscure and dense information.
Great Hadacia was a mélange of experiences, cultures packed elbow to elbow, spilling tidbits and secrets onto the streets. It was also reputed to be the cleanest city in the world, thanks to an advanced sewage system and a government-sponsored league of sweepers.
Summer passed, then autumn. I had never spent so long in one place, and I felt strange, confined. I debated how to break my agreement with Iorne. I had given her more than I had promised, but she had returned me knowledge that was without price.
I found her in the tiny room we had rented with a book on her lap, no surprise – but I realized with a start it was the book we had started to read on the night of the fire. Somehow, there were always new volumes to study.
“We never finished,” she said.
It seemed, somehow, a fitting end to our story. I would explain after. “I should start from the beginning.”
So I did, and the words of the Lightchildren flowed over me. History soon turned to myth in its pages, and I realized the author was a theologian – concerned with the lives of mortals only as the goddess touched them. He wrote of the Moon with a familial love no human could approach, as if he himself had seen the gentle hands.
Iorne put a hand on my shoulder. “Are you all right?”
“I am lost. But that is nothing new.” I sought composure in deep breaths and a drawing of the light. The room went dim as I read on.
The author spoke of how the Lightchildren had been conceived, the Moon in her earthly form waylaid as she explored the dark places of the world. Creatures of blackness and night, coveting and fearing her warmth at the same time, seized their opportunity when her foot was trapped under a tree-root.
No goddess could be caught so easily, the author claimed, unless she wished to be. His voice seemed to ring in my ears.
“The Moon planned to be caught, then?”
Iorne’s voice made me jump. “That’s what the Lightchildren always believed,” I said. “But it’s not a question you ask a goddess.”
The following pages contained a hymn on how the Moon herself had been conceived, and then meditations on the lines. I read, “If one recited her prayers while gathering up light from every place that welcomes sunshine, and continued those devotions for as many dawns as lay before her birth, then one might conceive and birth a spark of her glory.”
I went still, reading the lines again. “Sweet goddess.”
Iorne did not respond right away. “It’s not a metaphor, is it?”
“I think he means it literally.” The words quickened in my throat. “If one visited every land in the world -”
“Every place that welcomes sunshine,” Iorne said. “Every peak, every village, every valley stream? That could take centuries.”
“It might take as many dawns as lay before her birth. But with that light, she can be born anew.” I smiled; it burned inside me. “I’d say I have the time.” Perhaps that was why age had never caught up with me.
She squeezed my shoulder. “Good luck on your journey. I took the liberty of ordering a traveler’s pack for you.”
“How did you -”
“Know? I could feel you growing restless. And I’ve heard mutterings in the library. They can’t seem to keep the lanterns burning in the spaces where we’ve worked. It was only a matter of time. I will miss you, my friend.”
“You don’t even know my name,” I said.
Iorne chuckled. “I don’t need to.”
To not stay in any one city for too long, yet to soak up every angle of its sun’s rays – this was my challenge. I have plotted elaborate courses on maps, kept journals and logs for time I no longer know. But he was right, this writer from my past, and I can feel the seed slowly growing inside of me.
As many dawns – I do not know how many that is. I do not know how many have passed. But I do know that my mission will take me to the end of them. The last child of the Moon will become the mother of the Moon; the last drinker of light will bring it back.
She gave us life, and I will return it. It seems a fair trade.
Author Bio: LINDSEY DUNCAN is a chef / pastry chef, professional Celtic harp performer and life-long writer, with short fiction and poetry in numerous speculative fiction publications. Her contemporary fantasy novel, Flow, is available from Double Dragon Publishing, and her soft science novella, Scylla and Charybdis, is forthcoming from Grimbold Books. She feels that music and language are inextricably linked. She lives in Cincinnati, Ohio and can be found on the web at http://www.LindseyDuncan.com