Chapter Seventeen: Fire in the Heavens

He raised his lantern to the night air. The forest was empty—only the bare skeletons of branch and bough remained, naked to the wind. Dead leaves littered the ground, paper thin and limp. The color had gone out of them, victims of the damp.

The Knight trudged on. The moon was new, the sky was cloudless. The path ahead was dark. There was no life left in the forest or the world, he thought, only silence and stillness. Winter was near.

He fumbled for his key.

The garden was in bloom, renewed, fit to burst. The moonflowers were open and welcoming, the daffodils were silvery stalks, the vanilla clung to the cypress, shimmering in the night. Even the day-lilies, cloistered away, were beautiful, anxiously awaiting the coming of the dawn.

The Princess was waiting in the meadow, a shawl around her shoulders. “My Knight!” she said, “you’ve come.” She offered him her hand to kiss. “I thought perhaps you’d gotten lost along the way.”

He knelt, and pantomimed kissing her fingers, for he dared not remove his helmet. White moths glittered in the lantern light—they settled on the silene, drawn by the sweet perfume of the midnight flowers.

The Princess gestured to a picnic blanket she had spread out on the ground. “Come now and sit, and watch the stars with me.”

As she spoke, a meteor passed overhead, blazing against the night sky. For one moment, one brief moment, it burned proud, a silent spark of light against the dark—and then it was gone, leaving no trace of its passage, like it never was.

“They’ve been falling for two nights now,” the Princess explained.

The fireflies were dancing in the pine.

“Where was this wayward star born, where now doth it go?” the Knight wondered. “The dull lantern light of a ship passing in the night, seen through the mist of a distant shore—”

The Princess took his armored hand in hers. “Well, no matter,” thought the Knight.

Another meteor grazed the sky, disappearing as quickly as it came. “Tell me a story,” said the Princess.

“About the stars?”

“No—of the mountain. Of Olympus. A-and fire.”

The Knight frowned. “As you wish,” he said, “though you know this tale better than I.”

“Stories I could not bare to hear, or so I thought. But it seems that I can bare quite a bit indeed. Please, tell me.”

The Knight nodded. “Where are they now, those gods of old?” he asked. “Where are the alters? No more festivals or sacrifices, Sages or Sibyls. The sacred groves have been chopped for firewood, the holy temples have been desecrated or left in ruin, abandoned by the devout, now dead.”

A third meteor flashed across the sky—it burned with all of heaven’s might, no more than a tiny light to those watching from below. “The golden bough has turned to iron, has turned to rust.

“Consider mighty Zeus, the mountain’s King. He of divine wrath! He who commanded thunder and called it forth—no! No more doth he smite the earth with might and thunder. No more has he a godly body, a body of sinew and strength, of muscle—no! He has faded, he has become his favored weapon, he has become the storm itself.”

The Knight looked up, half expecting the rumblings of a coming storm—but of course the sky was clear and calm. “A storm’s crack, or distant thunder, these are the remains of a god’s righteous voice, a voice that once called all of heaven to his throne. His lips are mist, his arms are clouds, his legs are hail and he is slave to the wind. And we laugh at him, and call him nothing but a summer’s storm, a rain that will pass with the hour—all that is left of a god of old.”

The Princess clung to her shawl. “And Hermes, the Messenger?”

“He ran. On the morning of reckoning, he fled. Brave, swift Hermes—he took to flight. He ran across the heavens, he ran across the sea, he ran across the earth—and death chased after him, snapping at his heels.”

Darkness pressed in. “His footfalls split the water and cut the air,” said the Knight. “He raised great tides that flooded the land, great cracks in the earth that swallowed cities whole. He shook the very mountains. The sky was split open and wept holy ichor. Once, it is said, he stole a backwards glance and wept to see the ruin of his wake—but not for one moment did he stop running. Such was his fear.”

The Knight laid a hand on his aching breast. “Fool, Hermes—he ran for a thousand days and nights. He ran until his legs failed him, until they seized and snapped. He bucked, and was carried off to the space above the heavens—spiraling, twirling, spinning, like a chariot without a rider.”

His breathing slowed. “These falling stars above us now: might one of them be him? Damned Hermes, still tumbling in defeat?”

The Princess lowered her eyes. “And fair Aphrodite, the Venus?” Lit by lamp alone, she had all the pale of a ghost.

“Turned to ash in the fire,” the Knight answered, “the great blaze that felled Olympus. Aphrodite lay sleeping on the marble throne, drowsy from much song and drink. Draped in lace and gown, the creeping fire lapped at the hem of her dress—and caught her all ablaze.

“She woke with a horrid screech, clawing at her burning clothes, but the silk clung to her skin, and seared her flesh and soul. She ran through those marble halls, alight, and the fire consumed her and all that she touched.”

The Princess shuddered.

“Finally—in her death throes—she flung herself from the highest peak—a burning fury for all to see,” the Knight said, “and her body crashed upon the beach that birthed her, and she was reduced to ash.

“Some passing Maidens found her remains, and saw the beauty there. Defilers! With magics and talents they weaved her ashes into powder, and imbued her spirit into blush and rouge, the color of lips—and so Aphrodite’s beauty lives on, in all women’s vanities.”

“Speak no more of it,” said the Princess. “Tell me of a kinder fate.”

The Knight thought for a moment, rapping his fingers on his armor, the hollow sound echoing into the night air. “Hephaestus,” he said at last, “the holy Blacksmith. On the day the old powers broke a great bletch of sulfur erupted from his solitary forge, deep within Mount Etna. The countryside was swallowed by the burning fog, poison to the lung. It is now a cursed land, where men cannot tread.”

The Knight ran a hand down his scabbard. “Is he dead then, you ask? No! He has isolated himself, and he is happy, no longer burdened by the duties of royal armorer. It is for pleasure now that Hephaestus works his forge, and every masterpiece he makes is his, and his alone.”

When was the last time he’d drawn his sword? Had it been a week, a month, a year? Try as he might, the Knight could not recall.

No matter.

“They say at night, in sleep, with an ear pressed against the very earth, those of the artist’s ilk can hear his hammer’s blow—and each strike upon his anvil conjures up a thousand ideas within their dreaming minds, a thousand creations yearning to be.”

He stared at the sky, the stars blurred before his eyes. “While others are driven mad by that ceaseless drumming, and fall unto despair unending.”

The Princess frowned. “And Athena?” she asked.

“There are rumors, and stories—that she foresaw the coming calamity, and lived. That the Virgin shepherded her away, that she took shelter in the bosom of the wild. That she still stalks the earth, under disguise, cloaked, a pale shade, a withered husk of what she was, an old woman who pays homage to the libraries and universities, delivering to them ancient knowledge and rite.”

He flicked his wrist. “Or perhaps she is dead. Consider Apollo—man grew jealous of his youth and vigor, and in a fit of fury fueled by the crashing of an age, Apollo’s own consorts descended upon him, and ripped him to pieces, hoping to gain his strength.”

Again the Princess shuddered, and again the sky was streaked with stars.

“They tore at his flesh,” the Knight explained, “like hungry dogs—but his strength was not in his flesh. So they tore at his muscle, but his strength was not in his muscle. They cracked his bones with their teeth, but his strength was not in his bones. They ate him all up, until there was nothing left of him but his strength, a strength they could not find.”

One final meteor made its way across the sky. The Princess shied from it, hiding under her shawl.

“I could tell you more stories, if you like,” the Knight said, sensing the Princess’s discomfort, “but I am afraid they all end the same. Hera and the eclipse, the drowning of the Nereids, Satyr’s wine—when an age ends, it ends with violence.”

He studied her face—the fullness of her lips, the softness of her cheek, the sadness in her eyes. “So little remains,” he said, “so very little. The gods, the heroes, they have all passed on. Except you.”

“Except me.”

“You linger.”

“I linger,” the Princess agreed.

“Undimmed,” said the Knight. “Perhaps you are that lonesome leaf, still clinging to its branch. Alone, and beautiful. Green, and alive.”

He looked to the east, and saw the first hints of the coming dawn. “Perhaps it would be best if you stayed here forever. Preserved within these walls, winter will not touch you,” he said. “Is that not a good thing? What has lingering brought you but the pain of absence? What has wandering brought you but the misery of my company? What could the future bring, but more sadness, more pain, more doubt?”

He clutched at his heart. “Why,” he asked, “why do you hold out hope for a thing that will not, cannot be?”

The Princess did not answer.

Slowly, degree by degree, the sun crept its way over the lake, through the willow trees, over the hill. The stars faded into the light of dawn. The day-lilies opened, the squirrels scrambled down from their dens in search of breakfast, the cicada hissed and stretched their wings, the minnows danced in the shallows.

“Why?” the Knight cried. “How?”

The robins woke and made glorious song, their red breasts puffed and swollen. And the Princess—the Princess was silent.