Authors: Cassandra Golds
He reached out towards her. He wanted to take her hand, to kiss it, to rub his cheek against it; he wanted to hold her, he wanted to bury himself in her; he wanted, he wanted.
Nothing mattered like Deirdre. Not even this. He could live knowing that his heart had been taken from his body. He could not live without his love for Deirdre.
âIt wasn't your fault,' he began again faintly.
Deirdre hung her head. She wished she could believe him.
âThink, Deirdre,' he urged, for it was desperately important to him that she understood. âShe took the heart â but what did you do?'
Deirdre stared at him mutely, abject, like one condemned.
âDeirdre, what were you doing all those nights, visiting my heart in your sleep?'
Deirdre cradled the crystal box against her breast. Her eyes filled with tears. Finally, tentatively, she whispered, âI was looking after it.'
âYou were keeping it alive! You couldn't have stopped her taking it. You were only five. You didn't understand â how could you? And she had such power â over you, even over me. Her will was so strong, she could make me leave you. She could make me do the thing that I least wanted to do in all the world.
âYou're not a witch â or not the kind your grandmother is. Because, Deirdre, there are two kinds of witches.'
Deirdre looked startled.
âTwo kinds?' she whispered.
Gal seemed to be gaining strength. He pushed himself upwards with the heels of his hands.
âThere's the kind your grandmother is,' he said. âAnd then there's your kind. You're a white witch. A healer. You have power too. But it's all in your love. Don't you see?' He took a deep, rasping breath, and then another. âShe used you, to keep the heart alive. She couldn't have done it by herself. But she lied to you. And she crushed your vocation. Or â bent it to her needs.'
Deirdre stared at him sadly.
âI was a healer,' she repeated, remembering that she was dead, and that it was all too late.
It was so plain to her now â how wrong she had been to obey her grandmother unconditionally, to let the old woman live through her. She had been given her own life, her own vocation, her own beliefs, and yet she had handed them over to her grandmother to dispose of. She thought about all the ways in which she had privately disagreed with her grandmother, thought her judgements harsh, unreasonable, and yet had shut her mouth and acquiesced. Even when her heart almost broke.
And she thought of how, by choosing not to go with Gal on that last occasion, she had in effect chosen death.
âA healer,' she whispered again.
And she looked down at the heart in her hands.
Suddenly she knew what she had to do.
âGal,' she said. âListen to me. I'm dead â my life is over â but I'm haunting Corbenic because I can't leave your heart, because I'm guarding your heart. You're alive â but you're haunting Corbenic too, because your heart has been stolen from you, because your heart is imprisoned here. While ever your heart is in this box in the centre of Corbenic, neither of us will be free.
âIt's like you said, Gal. I was meant to be a healer. And I still can be. Don't you see? I have to undo the evil my grandmother did. I have to disobey her. I have to act on my own free will. As if I am my own person, and not her slave. I have to give you your heart back.
âThen you can live â and I can die.'
For a moment there was silence. Gal was so dismayed he could hardly move, hardly talk, but he shook his head faintly and whispered, âNo!'
All he could think, all he could feel was that he was about to lose her again. It was too cruel. He couldn't bear it. He slid to his knees, still holding onto the plinth, and said, holding his arms out to her, âDon't die again.'
And he was a child again â five years old â but even as a child his face had never looked so vulnerable.
Deirdre knelt and put the box on the ground. Then she crawled over to where he sat on the ground, put her arms around him and cradled him against her.
âDon't choose death.'
âBut I can't do it,' he said. âI can't go on living without you. All the years, Deirdre, all the years in front of me, and all without youÂ .Â .Â .'
âI'm a ghost, Gal. But you belong to life. You have to live.'
He shook his head.
âNot if you destroy the heart.'
He had pulled away and was looking at her steadily. She had never seen him look so serious.
He made a sudden movement towards the crystal box. Instinctively, she placed herself in front of it.
âPlease, Deirdre. Destroy the heart. I don't want it back. I don't want to go back to life. I want to come with you.'
Destroy the heart.
Deirdre gazed at him. The tears filled her eyes, again and again, fell steadily down her cheeks. She stroked his hair, kissed his forehead, his nose, his chin, his mouth, and all the while he pleaded with his eyes.
Her heart was breaking.
She had always been so timid, so obedient, so afraid of her grandmother, so easy to manipulate. But there was one thing she knew she would never have done, on pain of death, even if her grandmother had told her to, even if Gal had asked her.
âI will never destroy your heart, Gal,' she said. âI would keep it alive even if I had to feed it with my own.'
And Gal looked at her as if his last hope had died.
âOh, Gal,' she said, âit was Grandmother who always said
. You always said
Gal clung to her.
At first he thought he could not do it â that he simply could not face life without her. Everything within him rebelled. It was true, all he wanted to say was
no, no, no
â just like Mrs Dark.
But deep inside he knew he was beaten. He knew she would never destroy his heart. And he knew he could never choose death over life, no matter how lonely that life would be.
âLie down,' she said. âGive me your jacket. I'll put it under your head.'
He stared at her with such love she almost wavered in her resolve. And she thought, surely I am mistaken. He doesn't want to let me go but he can't love me, not really, not after all that's happened.
âLie down,' she said again softly.
She couldn't help him; she was holding the heart in both her hands. But using the plinth as support, he let himself down onto the mossy floor of the cave, gazing at her all the while.
âI love you,' he said.
She stared at him, astonished.
âYou love me?' she repeated. âStill? Knowing all this? Gal, how could you?'
âBecause I do. Of course. No matter what. Forever. That's what love is, Deirdre. Even if it had been your fault, I would still love you.'
Deirdre shut her eyes.
âYou love me,' she said. âStill. Despite everything.'
She thought for a moment â she thought about the entirety of her life. Then she whispered, âI was loved. No matter what. I loved, and I was loved! Oh, Gal, how could anyone ask any more? I love you too. Forever. Nothing I could give you would be enough. But I can give you back what is yours.'
And she knelt and placed the crystal box on the moss beside her. Then she leant over, kissed his lips one last time, parted his shirt, and began to kiss the wound in his chest. She felt a burning from it on her lips, as if she were drawing the pain out into herself. And the wound parted, as she knew it would â but not violently; it was if it opened to her, like the door to the most sacred of caves.
He was gazing up at her with the most profound expression of trust in his eyes. He was like a five year old, then a man.
And she took the heart from the crystal box into her white hands and felt it beating between them, soft and powerÂful â for the heart is a muscle that grows strong with use, and Gal's heart had been used and used and used.
She brought it up to her lips and kissed it, that pure heart. Then she reached in and replaced it in the cavity of his chest. And kissed the wound, again and again, kissing it shut.
His eyes were growing heavy. She gazed into his face and stroked his hair back from his forehead.
âYou will be released now,' he murmured. âThere will be nothing to bind you to earth.'
âYou will be free too,' she said. âFree to live. Go to sleep. I'll stay with you.' And as he lost consciousness, she said, âSleep, Galahad. Then wake, and live.'
The first thing he felt was the sunlight on his face â the red-gold of it on his closed eyelids, then the sound of a breeze through leaves above him. He was lying on his back. His head was supported by something very warm and soft and yet firm. He began to feel that it was a person before he opened his eyes, and when he opened them he looked up into the face of a young woman with dark eyes and very long, very fair hair â a girl who was familiar to him at the very deepest level of his existence.
The wound in his chest was exposed. He had been freed from his armour and his chain mail and his shift and the young woman was pressing a cloth against it, dampened with some kind of healing ointment that she had by her in a bowl in the grass. The bowl was made of crystal.
He gazed up at her.
It was Deirdre, of course. But she had changed.
She seemed, in some indefinable way, to be more herself than she had ever been before â to be truly herself for the first time.
And she was happy â so happy there was an aura of light and warmth about her.
He had never seen her happy before.
She smiled, and leant down and kissed him on the lips. He sat up slowly. He saw the forest about him; the castle behind him. And he saw that the castle was no longer in ruins, not evil, not diseased, but strong and wholesome and shining in the sunlight â the castle of his dreams; the castle of his heart's desire.
But he remembered how it had been before.
âI was looking for you,' he said to Deirdre. âYou were crying. It was terrible. I wanted to comfort you. I wanted to rescue you. But I couldn't find you. You were lost in the castle. And the castle was infinite.'
She cupped her hand against his cheek and kissed him again.
âYou rescued us both,' she said. âBut I wasn't crying.'
He stared at her, confused.
âYou weren't crying?' he repeated.
âIt wasn't me who was lost in the castle,' she said.
Just then he heard it. Just then, the dream, if it was a dream, seemed to turn into a nightmare again.
The weeping, the keening, the little girl's sobbing, in all its utter vulnerable desolation, had begun again, or was still going on, inside the castle.
And it was as unbearable to him as it had been before.
He was sick with dismay, with disappointment; he searched the girl's face, the face of his beloved Deirdre, looking back at him with love. Was it possible that despite this, nothing had changed?
âI don't understand,' he said desperately. âTell me what to do. What can I do?'
âYou have your heart back,' Deirdre said. âWe are neither of us my grandmother's slaves any more. Just do what you want to do.'
âI want to find the child who's crying,' said Gal.
âThen find her. I will follow you.'
She helped him up and, with great tenderness, took up his shift from where it lay on the ground and pulled it over his head for him. âDon't get cold,' she said, and put her hand in his.
He entered the castle as he remembered doing before, through the great arched doorway. But the door was not a ruin, there was no grass growing through the stones, and when they came into the great hall the roof was not open to the sky. Instead there was a ceiling above them. It was painted dark blue, with a white sickle moon in the centre and stars all around it. Sunlight streamed in through the crystal windows, making rainbows on the stone floor.
Galahad remembered both the ruin, and the infinitude of the castle of his nightmare. He remembered his longing to rescue, to console the child within it, the one uttering that terrible cry, and his despair as he realised that, no matter how hard he looked, he could never find her.
He was afraid it was all going to happen again; that it would go on happening forever; that this was his fate after all.
And yetÂ .Â .Â .
It was hard to think beyond the pain that the sound of the weeping caused him. But he knew he had to listen, not so much to the sound itself, as to where it was coming from.
It was like playing a desperate game of hide-and-seek. The sound was so difficult to locate he almost wondered if it was inside his own head.
Still holding Deirdre's hand, he crossed the great hall to a large arched doorway. Beyond it there was a stone kitchen, winsome in the crystal light. He noticed a trapdoor. There must be a cellar below, he thought.
And yet the crying was not coming from beneath them, he was sure.
He listened, he listened, he seemed to have to go deep inside himself to listen. He allowed his feet to lead him, and they led him back out of the kitchen to the great stone stairway that led up out of the hall.
They climbed it, Deirdre and he. There were two flights, and the floor above was composed of a corridor with bed chambers and sitting rooms on either side of it â stone walls and floors with carpets and tapestries and canopied beds and heavy damask curtains pulled back from crystal windows, and always the sunlight streaming in and the rainbows on the floors.
But the sound was not coming from here.
At the end of the corridor was a further stairway, a narrower, smaller one, at the top of which they could see a stone door with a stone bowl carved into the wall beside it â an ancient cross and a heart above it. It was filled with water.
âIt must be a chapel,' said Galahad.
He and Deirdre looked at each other in wonder. They hesitated for only a moment. Then they climbed the stairs. They dipped their fingers in the water and blessed themselves. Then they opened the door and entered.
The sound had seemed to be everywhere â no louder in one place than in another until now. But as soon as they entered the chapel everything was different. They knew this place was its source and they knew something else. The castle was not infinite â or not any more. In fact its size was perfectly comprehensible. At the same time, Galahad thought, its size is not wide; it is deep.
You found something, not so much by searching, not so much by covering ground, as by staying still and listening.
There was an empty iron plinth in the entrance. It was the plinth that once held the crystal box with the living heart inside it. Now it held nothing. But there was a child huddled beneath it.
She had her back to them. They could see the short blonde bob of her hair and the back of her black dress. She was about five, and she was curled up and rocking in distress. And the terrible sound was her weeping.
Gal stood staring down at her.
He knew her at once.
So this was the one whose weeping had tormented him, whose grief he would have done anything to console.
Not Deirdre. Not his beloved. Deirdre's grandmother. His enemy.
Galahad shut his eyes.
This was the woman who had hated him so viciously and caused him so much anguish, who had separated him from his love, crushed her spirit and hounded her to her death, who had torn out his very heart.
This was the woman against whom he had felt such anger, on Deirdre's behalf, on his own â the woman who had persecuted them, denied them sympathy and love, tried her best to warp their minds.
But this, also, was the child of his nightmare, the defenceless little girl whose pain he would have done anything to stop.
For in her essence Deirdre's grandmother â the enemy of all he loved â was no more than this poor little child rocking and weeping before him, a tiny creature made of need.
Deirdre had always said that. Deirdre had forgiven her, long years ago. Perhaps Deirdre had never felt there was anything to forgive.
He felt so big. She seemed so little. And yet all the suffering in the world seemed contained within her tiny frame.
He knelt down.
âWhy are you crying?' he asked softly.
And the light in the chapel suddenly brightened, as if the sun itself had grown stronger, and all at once the little girl fell silent. But she went on rocking and hugging herself with her back turned to him.
âBecause you've left me!' she said, her voice muffled and utterly forlorn. âBecause nobody loves me!'
âI haven't left you,' said Galahad. âI'm here. I keep returning here in my dreams. I can't leave you. My dreams won't let me. And it's not true that nobody loves you. I love you.'
And although he said it before he had time to think, he realised it was true. Her suffering was his suffering. He would still have done anything to stop it.
The little girl said nothing. For a moment, she was still. Then, hesitantly, she turned and looked at him.
The blonde bob with the fringe, the piquant little face. But it no longer changed in a kaleidoscope of rage from little girl to old woman. Her face was simply that of a five-year-old girl, her eyes large and filled with tears, her red mouth as vulnerable as a baby's.
She stared at him and at Deirdre behind him, and there was no hatred in her eyes. She seemed to be considering.
Gal's heart ached inside his ribs. But it was not the pain of a wound. He held out his arms to her. She jumped up and came forward and fell into them. He stood, holding the child against his chest, and Deirdre came closer and held them both.
His anger had passed forever. Now there was only love.