Coat Like White Fire
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Long before dawn, Eloise Elethar arises, stepping out into the last rays of moonlight to ready her mount for battle. The world is silver; let the long-gone dwarves and dragons love gold, silver has always been the metal for the elves.
Areth Elan, he is named, and his coat shines, gleaming like the moon even within the darkness of the stable. His wise eyes watch her approach; he knows what the dawn may bring for both of them.
She brushes his coat and mane, and feeds him berries from her hand, cleans his hooves, polishes the spiral horn that thrusts lance-like from his brow. And, when she has no more comforting routine to give him, she holds to his neck and touches her head to his.
Four hundred years is no great span of time for elves, who live forever if they are left to. Four centuries ago and more, when Eloise was but a child, she walked into the depths of the forest and waited. There were wolves big as bears, in the dark places of the wood. There were spiders that spoke whispering entreaties to her and begged her to be a guest in their silken halls. There were strange spirits of twisted trees that watched her with a hostile gaze. All these things are gone, now, but in those days the deep forest was a place of fear and wonder, even for the elves.
Four centuries and more, Eloise went alone to the deep forest and drew wards in the air to protect her from the monsters which made that place their last enclave. She went and she waited: to die or to be found. She was young, and pure of thought and deed; she had one ambition only in her life and that one chance to realize it.
And there, in the depths of the forest, in the deep of the night, Areth Elan had come to her, radiant as moonrise, and touched his horn to her shoulder, and from that moment they had been together, neither of them to love any other.
She can hear some of the humans, now. Areth Elan shares the stables with their common steeds, brown horses who watch the unicorn with wide, dumb eyes. Still, when Areth Elan rides to war, they follow with a song in their hearts. Just as the humans stare at this elfmaid in their midst with awe and hope and reverence and fear, so do the horses look upon their horned exemplar.
They are not like Areth Elan; the humans are not like Eloise. She is older than their king’s lineage, older than their borders and their nation. She has ridden to war in battles their history books have forgotten, against foes they know only from fairy tales. When they curry and groom their horses, it is as a shadow; the affection they feel for their mounts is a fleeting thing. But then everything about her allies is fleeting. Only the elves were meant to be forever.
She hears the jingle of harness, and a pair of men come to the stables leading tired steeds. They have been patrolling all night, scouting out the disposition of the enemy. When they see her there, they stop with that familiar expression. They cannot know her; they cannot understand her. The sight of her speaks to something deep within them that they have no words for.
Awkwardly, one of them bows. It is not the gesture of respect he would show his superior officer; he reserves it only for her.
“Tell me, what news?” she asks him.
He takes his cap off, rubs a hand across his dirty brow. “They’re not coming to us, that’s for sure. They can wait there day and night.”
“That’s good, isn’t it?” the other man breaks in. “I mean, that they’re not on the advance. That sounds good to me. Maybe tomorrow they’ll pull back.” She thinks he is younger than the first man, but they are all so young to her that she is not sure. Even the oldest of them, silver-haired and crease-faced, is like a child.
“They’re not going away any time soon. They’ve made themselves right at home,” says the first man, the older. He steals a glance at Areth Elan as though he would like to touch him; as though touching a unicorn would make everything all right.
“And what word from your prince?” Eloise presses.
The men exchange glances. “If it’s come in since we left for patrol, we don’t know, ma’am,” says the elder. The silence he leaves after seems to say that he hopes no word will come.
Her life has been war. The many hosts and clans of humans fight constantly, but even the most bloody-handed champion has not known so many battles as Eloise. Four hundred years ago, the great kingdoms of the elves were at their zenith, and at every border was a tribe that wanted what they had. As the forest shrank to the axe and the torch, as the world’s other children rose out of barbarism into kingdoms and empires, so the legions of the elves fought. They fought to defend their own, but more than that: the elves had been made as light in a shadowed world. When darkness drew the sword they were the shield.
When she was young, it had seemed so easy to tell dark from light just by looking.
And the years and the decades and human lives had come and gone, and borders had changed. Religions and ideologies had risen and fallen amongst the kingdoms of men and still, from time to time, perhaps once in a generation, there had been a battlefield set to silver fire by the coming of the elves. They would thunder at the enemy lines, and the horns of their mounts would be their lances, as they loosed their unerring arrows at the foe. Their white streaming cloaks would shine bright, but not so bright by half as the coats of their steeds.
And yet, some historians marked, each time there were fewer, for the lands and the lineages of the elves were not what they had been. Each time they were diminished, and dwindling too had been the certainty that once drew the sharp line between light and dark, for the wars of men are many and tangled and fought for many reasons all at once.
And yet, in this war, when the ancient allies of the elves had found themselves beset by the boot of the invader, overrun and outmatched, they had cried out for their erstwhile friends, and the elves had heard them. Eloise and her fellows had saddled their bright steeds and ridden to one more war, shining in the sun, radiant under the moon.
She lets Areth Elan out from the confines of the stable and he stands looking up at the stars, his breath frosting a little in the cool pre-dawn. Over there, in their commandeered farmhouse, she knows the humans are looking. Young men who should be cooking or cleaning have stopped their work to stare. And they are all so young, yes, but even Eloise can see that some are little more than boys who have never yet needed the razor’s touch.
They are all being roused, though. She hears the quiet murmur of a company of human warriors rising, complaining, drawing on their war-gear. Young, but there is no sound of life or laughter to them, no music or joy that was the meat and drink of the elves. In this one way the war has already made them old.
And when some of them cross over towards the stable, pausing to take in Areth Elan’s radiance as though it was a fire to warm them, she knows. The human prince has sent his orders, and they are to fight.
One of their captains is already walking towards her; he has a slight limp, an old wound, but he is as good ahorse as any human. His moustache is peppered dark and light but still, when he looks on her and on Areth Elan, there is the hope of a child in his eyes.
“Your prince sends his word,” she observes as he stops at a respectful distance.
“The generals, yes.” Translating her concepts into his as second nature. “They’re...” He clears his throat awkwardly. “Well, they’ve taken in what our scouts have seen of the enemy.” His hands make a nebulous gesture in the direction of the foe, who have made their home in a village of this man’s native land. The peasantry have been driven out or killed or enslaved. Now only the enemy warband remains, taking its ease amidst the spoils of war. Or so Eloise assumes. That is how conquerors behave, in her long experience.
She realizes the captain is waiting for some response from her and so she nods encouragingly.
“They’ve ordered the charge,” says the captain. “There’s a battalion of infantry moving in but they need cover and they think we’re their best chance...” His words tail off, his eyes flicking from her to the lambent coat of Areth Elan. “They want us to attack,” he adds. He sounds like a man in a dream. And yet a man still waiting for her to say something.
She glances from him, and sees all eyes on her. Men stand in the courtyard before the stables, they are at the windows of the farmhouse or in the doorway. They have heard the orders, and they are bound to follow them, but they watch her. She is not under the command of their princes or generals or whatever titles the humans give themselves. She can just ride away.
And in that moment she wants so desperately to ride away.
When the call to arms resounded through the forest, through the last stronghold of the elves, she and her fellows went to battle joyously. They sang and laughed, in the manner of their kind. They rode into the fray shining like the sun, gleaming like the moon. Their ancient allies called, and they came, no matter that the allies who sought them out barely believed in them. The humans who had come to the elven court had been following the half-remembered tales of their great-grandparents.
And Eloise and her fellows had gone to war one last time, glorious and proud and fierce. They had ridden and they had fought and they had fallen.
If she touched heel to Areth Elan and guided him from this place, back to the deep forests where her people – even there – are barely more than a memory, would these young and gallant warriors do their duty? Yes, she knows they would, but with heavy hearts, with the battle already lost in their minds. Their last thought would be of her, and it would be of mourning.
The captain is still waiting for her response, and nothing to him save his eyes speaks of his great need. He is a man made brittle by too many reversals. He needs her, because all other sources of hope have abandoned him.
And in the end, she has no choice. She has become a creature of their beliefs and longings, more dream and reflection than truth. She finds sometimes that even she doubts that she was ever real.
“Yes,” she says, and his whole face brightens. Yes, I will ride with you.
She mounts Areth Elan and raises her sword high, seeing the light that simple gesture brings to their frail faces. Swiftly, with renewed determination, they bring out their own steeds, saddle them and mount. She sees in them the echo of a hundred other hosts, the gleaming chivalry of another age.
She cannot tell them that she is afraid, how very afraid she is. Areth Elan knows it, from her merest touch. He is her courage; it is not in the nature of a unicorn to fear.
It was not in her nature either, once upon a time. When her comrades rode at her side; when the sun flashed on their bright blades, their white cloaks, how could there be anything in the world to strike fear into her valiant heart?
She can see the town ahead now. They have walked their mounts, sparing their strength – or are they dawdling, hoping against hope that when they arrive there will be no need of them? Except there is need; except the messengers arrive moment to moment, telling them that the infantry cannot make headway, that the swift charge the generals ordered must save the day.
She feels Areth Elan’s love and trust of her, as his pace picks up, as they all move to the trot. The young warriors about her are drawing their sabres, their faces pale, the dull green of their uniforms almost black in the first light of dawn.
As one, they are coursing faster. Ahead are the low, dark buildings of the enemy-held village, pocked with scars and craters. Her cloak streams, dark, like sack-cloth. White cloaks are no longer fit for war, just as her gleaming armour has had its shine blacked away. But Areth Elan still shines. There is nothing that can dull the bright fire of a unicorn’s coat.
She stands in the saddle, her sword directed towards the foe as though its slender length could bridge the great distance she still must ride. She gives voice to a great war-cry, the battle-song of the elves, but by then the machine guns and the artillery are speaking back to her, and their voices are so, so much louder than hers.
© Adrian Tchaikovsky 2020