Comrade Song: Two of Three
Two of Three
Anita’s hands lost their grip on anything but air. She swayed, but she seized rope rail before the cliff fell away under her feet. The darkness seemed to hit a wall a long, long way across from her. She tripped back from the edge, hyperventilating.
The sky flashed. Anita’s hands flew to shield her eyes against the symbol lit on the opposite cliff. It was like two triangles kissing or a bowtie. A long, deep note sounded and lingered, a horn of alarm.
“The rune of emergence. They’re coming.”
The flat words made Anita flinch more, but they were nothing to the large hand squeezing hers securely and pulling her down the narrow path.
“What are you doing?” she cried to the back of the figure running ahead of her. They hurtled as the path sloped. Anita tried to drag herself away and scrabbled against the wall with her free hand. Loose dirt showered over her head.
“The rope is safer than the overhang.” The figure turned over his shoulder.
His fingertips, bare in cutoff gloves, brushed her palm as her hand slipped out of his. She backed up a step or two, avoiding the crazy pace he’d taken her. She’d seen him in the light of the rune on the other black cliff, and she would never forget that lined, rust-swathed face.
“You need to come with me,” he said. His eyes looked urgent in the white light, but his voice never dipped or rose.
“But it’s you. You brought me here!”
She hugged herself, standing still and cold. Maybe I’ve started dreaming on the doorstep, which means he’s real. Or maybe this world is real and the man is as cold as it is.
Or maybe the fire had just gone out. Anita straightened, collecting her thoughts. “Are you going to defend yourself?”
“Against what? I did bring you here.” He didn’t try to soften his voice, but neither was it harsh. “You agreed to finding your song. Let’s move.”
He turned and started skidding down the path. She tried to keep up without slipping and groped for the rope rail. The fibers bent, but it was something besides her visitor to hold onto.
“I knew I shouldn’t, but I bargained with you.” She sounded out of breath, but it was anger. “And that’s how you dragged me here.”
“I didn’t drag you.” A wind was howling up the path on the cliff, but his words reached her easily. “The doors to Faerie are opened in giving gifts, not in bargaining. I’ve given you nothing in return yet.”
No sarcasm on Christmas, Anita told herself and gritted her teeth. The crumbling path steepened. She nearly collapsed to her knees and slid down that way.
I gave you something, did I? You said you didn’t take my song—but I couldn’t have given it, because it was gone before you came… Why am I thinking this? He can’t hear me. “I can’t remember what I gave you.”
“What a shame. I treasure the right to find your song.” He glanced at her over his shoulder as they kept stumbling down the trail, grabbing the rope rail. The earnestness on his face startled her after his apathetic voice. “I’m going to help you until the last note’s swallowed.”
For the second time, Anita found herself squirming under his green gaze. “I don’t even know you.”
“I’m sorry.” He scooped her up from the waist, riveted her to his side, and swung over the rope.
Anita screamed until his scarf flew in her face, after which she stopped to spit out the fuzzies. They were still alive and racing down the side of the cliff by hanging onto a rope and giving gravity the workload.
“Doesn’t that burn your fingers?” she shouted.
“Oh, yes.” He buried his face into her whipping hair as she sheltered his side. With the wind rose a sound of splashing and smashing ice.
She heard scraping, and he pitched forward onto his knees. Anita kept stumbling in the solid ground. “We’re—we’re—” Panting, she glanced up. The rune light had gone out, but in the deep blackness she perceived blacker shapes looming up for ages. “We’re down? What was that? You said it a rune of, of emergence, and what does that mean?”
“Anita, please pace yourself.” The man didn’t sound winded at all as he staggered to his feet. “The rune means the other creatures are coming out. There is little life you can see and less light.”
Dream-logicked again. “Is that why you would help me?”
He steadied himself and held his hand to his chest. Finally he looked back up at a small, bewildered Anita. “This is not a place to be alone, now that the Sidhe have left who could.”
She drew in a sharp breath. “Then it’s Faerie, this.” And it’s such a dream; it has to be.
He threw his head back, looking up. “We’re at the last shelf of the chasm. Careful of the bank.”
The splashing again; the water here sounded icy. More scraping as the man started to drag something across the gravelly ground.
The darkness lifted a bit, and she saw him heave a rowboat toward a grassless bank and a wicked river. Hollows filled the water that were probably swirling mouths, all throwing themselves headlong down the chasm. Icy crowns that slipped off behind them, almost moving backwards.
Anita couldn’t see his face through his twisting hair and scarf, but his whole body strained against the boat to move it inches. Spraying gravel, she ran up and started to pull from the other end.
“Thank you, Anita.”
Her feet scrabbled as the boat moved with their effort. “Keep in mind, we’re not friends.”
“I know your name.”
He blurted it so far as coming out of nowhere was a judge, but not once did his voice waver.
“I know you know. I don’t know you, but you seem to know me. You probably stalked me for weeks before you were sure I wanted a song. Are you proud?”
He pulled down his scarf, and she first saw his expose face in the half-dark. His vulnerable mouth made him look almost heartbroken.
I’m sorry, Anita found herself thinking.
His warmed lips parted, and a cloud drifted out without the sound of breathing. He pulled the scarf back into place so roughly she thought the knotty yarn would burn him like the rope.
“My name is Tovarisch,” he said.
She wondered what language that was, but she remembered they were in Faerie. Besides, he hadn’t any accent, not even hers. His words neither lilted nor faded; he didn’t even grunt pushing the boat. That was as uncanny as this whole place. Even people who couldn’t carry a tune to save their lives had music in the way they spoke.
“You can step away now,” he said into their silence. “You’ll fall in if you back up any further.”
“Look,” she sighed, rounding the boat to the other side. “I’ve hurt you, and I’m sorry. Tovarisch.”
He didn’t look at her, just leveled the boat toward the water.
“A faery picked you because you would have come here eventually, but not in time to find your song. Believe me.”
He closed his eyes and gave the last push. Anita covered her face in case the splash reached that far. When she peeked through her fingers again, Tovarisch was in the boat in the water. With one hand he gripped the bank, and the other he held out to her.
“I only came to help you,” he finished. “Trust me.”
She almost gave in. “All ri…” No. Those stupid words all right had signed her world away. It was all wrong, so she didn’t take Tovarisch’s hand again, but she got in the boat. The current ripped them away before he’d completely released the bank.
“Where are you taking me? I mean…” She screwed her eyes shut. Be kind. “Where are we going?”
“The river opens into a lake not far from here, or it used to. I’m sure we’ll find the island anyway.”
“Good old changing Faerie geography, aye?”
He used the oars to avoid blocks of ice coming toward him. Since he was doing it backwards all on his own, she didn’t want to distract him and wreck, but it was a bit boring to stare.
What a lie. She would have preferred boredom to the terror of being alone with her thoughts in a dark dream.
“Do you sing, Tov?” she asked, watching his shoulders move under his coat.
“First ‘sir,’ now ‘Tov.’” His hair blew as he shook his head.
“Just answer the question.”
“What answer do you hear?” Water rushed and ice crushed against the oars. “Do I sound as if I can sing?”
Anita faltered. “Just… You wouldn’t care about the right to a song unless you sang, too.”
He hunched deeper into his scarf. “The right to help you is my created purpose. You would not deny me my created purpose, would you?”
“You’re mocking me.”
“Suppose I am. What would you do?”
Anita reached forward and pulled down his scarf. His eyes pierced her as she patted his cheek. “Oh, nothing,” she said in tones suggesting that she had planned something fearsome indeed.
He jerked away and yanked his scarf back up.
She crossed her arms. “Just remember, you don’t get a song by caging a bird.” She took a moment to smooth over the breaks in her voice. “I wanted a song for my darkest place, and I’ve come there to find out. Now I need to know everything is going to be all right.”
“Even if it isn’t?” he asked, glancing her blow to the side.
She smiled at that. “Are you sure you’re not a singer?”
“I wasn’t mocking you, just myself. My own bitterness.”
She just knew that he was telling her the truth, and that was enough for a dream. She let her smile grow. “You don’t seem bitter to me.”
“I’m making an effort.”
They kept the next moments peacefully on the raging river. Anita didn’t think about her song or Tovarisch’s reason to be bitter; she just gazed at the bank running away. Light must have been shining somewhere, because her eyes adjusted more by the minute. She’d become sure of the creatures in the water with them, because now and then Tovarisch bashed something with the oars that wasn’t ice and howled unlike the wind.
“C-c-can I help?” she asked eventually, feeling useless. She tried to huddle, but her muscles stiffened and locked her in place.
“From your teeth chattering, I don’t think you’re in a condition to help.” Tovarisch cocked his head. “Stand to get your blood pumping harder, just don’t do anything crazy.”
“Good. The river is challenging, and we don’t want to tip.”
“No, I c-can’t—can’t stand. My jeans are frozen.”
Tovarisch let the oars rest as the current swept them on and wrapped his hand around one calf. Her grey jeans crackled when he squeezed even slightly.
“Your boots are good for nothing. Soles no thicker than a fingernail.” His voice stayed flat, but the half of his face she could see expressed disgust. He held his scarf against his mouth with one hand and started to shake off his coat.
“No,” cried Anita, “you need it. You deserve it, doing the work.”
“The rowing keeps me from shivering.” He threw the coat across her. Underneath he wore a brown-speckled-and-green cabled sweater. His legs had shown before, but now Anita noticed his blue jeans. For the first time since coming to Faerie, she wondered if he was human too.
“Well, wear it.” Tovarisch turned to resume rowing.
Anita loved oversized coats, but she could have venerated this one as a saint. Tovarisch’s body warmth already filled the soft lining, and its excess fell over her legs. If she wrapped the flaps around her torso just right, no heat would escape through the loose seams pulling apart at the shoulders.
“Don’t fall asleep. You might freeze to death.”
“I always thought that was a rumor,” she said to his back.
“Not taking any chances.”
“Don’t you know?”
“Some guardian you are.”
He fell silent.
“Lighten up, Tovarisch,” Anita said in a small voice. She’d been projecting for so long that she wasn’t sure he heard that.
“You’re right; I’m badly equipped.”
“Don’t beat yourself up. I really like the coat.”
“I should tell you that I can’t leave for our world.”
You’re trapped? Good grief, still no emotion in his voice! But earlier, just before he’d said his name…
She bit her tongue as the boat hit a chunk of ice Tovarisch missed. They rocked, and Tovarisch and Anita both flinched as water sloshed over the prow into his back. Anita pressed her hand in the too-long sleeve over her mouth, while Tovarisch choked up on the oar and pushed away. Water dripped from his hair, which splayed around his face because of the force from behind.
Anita’s gasp turned into a giggle and finally a laugh. “You want the coat back?”
She couldn’t see his mouth, but she was sure he was smiling because of the wrinkles around his eyes. “Keep it, love.”
“Tov.” She said the nickname more experimentally, and he nodded. “How did you come to be in Faerie?”
His green eyes still smiled. “Sing for your supper, Anita.”
Anita sighed, her muscles relaxing inside her cocoon. “I’ve missed singing.”
“So have I,” said Tovarisch. He started once he spoke, and Anita didn’t know what to say. Was he missing hers or his own?
She sang an experimental C major scale. The notes carried well over the same water jarring them in her throat. The music stuck awhile before they’d flow, but once they struggled free, they were free indeed. Summer-bird-free.
“This place could be so beautiful,” Anita sang on random notes that fit the strange thought. “What song would make it so?”
“You want a song for your darkest place, but there are so many of those. So many songs,” said Tov. “What’s more about light and darkness than Christmas?”
Anita smiled back. It didn’t feel like Christmas yet, however much time had passed. But the world had waited for the first one, too.
“O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel…”
She knew she could sing harder than that. She started the second verse with shorter, stronger notes, almost brutal against her own doubt. The refrain began to stab at her lungs as she cried for her own salvation.
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”
Her eyelids squeezed half-shut as Tovarisch guided the boat from a bank to a shoreline of black, salty sand.
“O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here.”
She wanted to go home. She hated this place with so much of her heart that it was ripping out. Tovarisch’s chest heaved, too.
“Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.”
And there went the mourning, the fear—maybe everything could be all right even if she died in the dark—
Emmanuel—shall come to thee—O Israel!
Emmanuel has come to thee, O Israel!”
She gasped, clutching her throbbing body. Somewhere on the surging lake, a beacon lit. Tovarisch rowed for it.
“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is a twelfth-century Latin hymn and under the public domain. The version I imagine is Phil Wickham’s: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yoshUj_lL50
Tovarisch is a Russian word that means comrade. I picked it for the sound and got a title out of it.