Vash had been listening for the shuffling steps of the old man.

Vash had been listening for the shuffling steps of the old man, but what he heard at last was something strange.

His ears could hear a wind arising from far off, for the sound of wind traveled faster than the wind. In the winter, it would begin as a sigh in the most distant trees and rise into a moan as it approached. Then there would be all the creaking and clattering of the branches overhead, and finally the wind would touch his face and lift his hair.

What he felt was a wind arising from nowhere.

What he heard now—what he felt an instant after—was a wind arising from nowhere. There had been no distant sigh, but the bare branches all around began to shake, and the wind hit his face in a gust that blew his hair into his eyes.

Reflexively they squeezed shut, and he lifted a hand to push his hair away. When he opened them again, he was startled enough to stumble backwards and knock his shoulder painfully against the trunk of a tree.

He was startled enough to stumble backwards.

Where before the terrain had been dark and uncertain beneath the moonless sky, now he saw clearly the bedraggled underwood, glittering with frost, lit by a blue light that was cast by nothing.

And before the moonless sky, there was a dark shape blotting out even the stars.

Before the moonless sky, there was a dark shape blotting out even the stars.

He did not doubt for an instant who she was. She was everything she was supposed to be. Her skin was blacker than the night and seemed almost to absorb this cold light that came from nowhere. Her ears tapered into the long, sinister points she shared with her sister. Never had the white and radiant Nimea appeared more beautiful to him.

His people simply called her Nésha, the Dark Lady. The superstitious kisór feared even invoking her dark aspect, and they called her Mórkana, the Lake-Aunt—this although she was not their “aunt” at all, but their mother.

Vash did not know how to address her.

Vash did not know how to address her nor whether he ought to stand or crouch or kneel before her. He was the only elf permitted to stand to speak with Nimea at all, but he did not suppose he could presume to take such liberties with her sister.

She, however, addressed him not as “this elf”, but familiarly as “you”.

“You seem surprised to see me, Vash.” Her voice was low and cold, like the sighing of a distant wind. “Were you not seeking me?”

“I thought…” Vash swallowed. In his fear, his voice too was little more than a sigh. “How did I…”

'You did not summon me here.'

You did not summon me here.” She lifted her head as if the very idea were an insult. “I knew you were prepared to betray my sister. That was sufficient. I do not presently desire that she actually be betrayed.”

“Does she too know?” Vash croaked.

He had decided that Nimea could not see into his thoughts, for some of them had been so murderous in her regard that he believed they could not have gone unpunished had she known them.

“She may,” she smiled. “She may not wish to believe it of you: her beloved son.

'She may.'

Vash looked away. Even his senses were confused. Dark as she was, he had to squint his eyes to stare into her face.

“Ask me your one question, Vash. I am here for you.”

Vash had spent countless hours fantasizing about this meeting. He had already imagined she would tell him he might ask her one question. Perhaps she knew that too. But the fact that he had planned for it returned some measure of his confidence to him. He already knew what he would say.

He swallowed and began, tremulously at first. “Nesha, we have been taught that you and your sister know the future as well as the past. We have always put our faith in Nimea our mother. In the last years, however, what she has promised has not come to pass. This present seems not only different, but also wrong. My question is this,” he said firmly. “Why is everything going wrong?”

'Why is everything going wrong?'

It was a risky question, for she could tell him simply that nothing was going “wrong” at all—but even that would be an important piece of knowledge. It would at least prove that Nimea’s promises of a peaceful future were lies.

The Dark Lady took a deep breath and held it a moment, as if savoring the air. “What we know is not the future,” she said in a sigh, and the branches above them shook in a breeze that came from nowhere. “Except its conclusion, which is the end of all things. All else that we know is merely what was supposed to be.”

“And what was supposed to be has not come to pass?”

She shrugged and flicked her dark fingers at the air. “You are a being of still water, Vash. You know that if you drop a stone into a lake, the ripples will eventually reach every shore. In nearly every way, for nearly everyone, what was supposed to be has come to pass. You had the misfortune of standing beneath the falling stone.”

'You had the misfortune of standing beneath the falling stone.'


“This valley.” She tapped her finger against her chin and then shook it beneath his nose. “Tell me what you have learned: Why did the elf Druze and the woman Hel not stray far from the crossroads when they went abroad?”

“There is always more magic at a coming together of ways,” Vash murmured.

“That is so. You will then understand me when I tell you that this valley is one of the crossroads of the world.” She paused as if awaiting a response.

Vash said hesitantly, “There is more magic here?”

“And also much coming together of ways. Tell me what you have learned: What are the creatures not bound by law?”

These were lessons Nimea had taught him. To be drilled on such subjects reminded him of his betrayal, and he hesitated.

He hesitated.

“Do you not know?”

“Of the creatures not bound by law there are nine,” he blurted. “Of the creatures that walk, there are the wolf, the bear, and the cat. Of the creatures that fly, there are the owl, the raven, and the bat. Of the creatures that creep, there are the serpent, the spider, and the rat.”

“Do you know of the land Keme that is called Egypt?”

Vash hesitated again, confused by this questioning. “I have read about this land in the book that is called the Bible.”

“If you have read the Bible, you know the end of the tale. Here is the beginning: two and one half thousand years ago, a foreign prince made a journey into Egypt to marry the widowed queen and become the king, which is called Pharaoh. This was supposed to be, but it did not come to pass, for at the border a serpent bit his heel, and he died. Without this, the Hebrew people would never have left Egypt. Without this, the man Yeshua who is called Jesus would not have been born. Do you see what these creatures can do? Those ripples will reach every corner of the world.”

'Do you see what these creatures can do?'

“I see…”

“And here is the beginning of another tale, but I cannot tell you the end. Eighteen years ago, a raven plucked an arrow from the heart of a man who lay dead on a field of battle, and she set that heart to beating again. The ripples have not yet spread far, but I can tell you this much: four years ago the man Alred who is called Duke was supposed to fall from his horse while hunting and die. Then the man Egelric was supposed to take his daughter Iylaina and go to live in the country of his grandfathers. Because that would have killed one or both of you eventually, you would have gone to the man Sigefrith who is called King, and you would have had the elf Iylaina brought home again, and you would have taken her to you. However, on the day that the man Alred was to die, he was not here in the forest hunting, but on a ship.”

Vash could only breathe in short gasps.

Vash could only breathe in short gasps.

“That is what you truly wanted to know, is it not?” she smiled. “She was supposed to be yours.”

“Nimea didn’t lie,” he whispered.

“Not about that.”

“But what will happen now?”

“That is more than I can say. Moreover, I said you might ask one question. It is asked and answered, and now I shall go away from you. Do not betray my sister to Myrddin. Not yet.”

'Do not betray my sister to Myrddin.'

“But what should I do? If I am to lead these elves? Nesha?”

She was already walking away from him. Seen from behind, she was even darker than before. The light seemed to radiate from her black face.

“What did you mean, ‘Not about that?’” he called. “Did she lie about something else?”

The light faded only slowly, and the branches shook a while in a breeze that blew up from nowhere, but the Dark Lady was long gone.

The Dark Lady was long gone.