Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams

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Fiction

Between the Stones and the Stars

His rival appraises him with a measured stare, but he is used to such scrutiny, insults half-whispered through gritted teeth. He stands his ground, here among the windswept ruins of broken pillars and half-buried busts, before the vine-choked temple in the thin mountain air. He stands his ground, and the woman studying him smirks.

He has not come all this way to be defeated by that.

His rival leans against a sunken marble building, curls spilling down her back and muscles rippling under her sleeves. She’s beautiful in the winter sun, brown and freckled, with reddish hair and the thick, fine furs of the northern kingdoms. A lauded hunter, perhaps. A treasured daughter. His own threadbare satchel and cracked hide armor betray his humble origins. He’s a delusional farm boy facing a true warrior, but he made it to the temple, same as she.

Said temple looms beyond them, matching the mythic poems only in its impressive size and bearing. Bones litter its steps from previous seekers and stack its halls from those who returned its treasure and stayed. Through its open doors, down a dark corridor of unknown length and size, the chalice sleeps.

The chalice they both seek.

The hunter fingers a hatchet, and he grips the hilt of his sword—ready for this final fight, one last obstacle before salvation. He can already feel the force of her steel clashing against his blade, and he shivers with anticipation in her shadow.

But something she sees stays her hand. Instead she cocks a hip and pats the pack on her shoulder.

“The day grows late,” she says. “And I’m tired of camping alone.”

He has tubers from foraging, but she, miraculously, has bacon. She unfurls bedrolls as he stokes the cooking fire, his glance flicking between her tall frame and the temple steps. It seems possible to outpace her with the element of surprise, but doubtful she would let him out alive. Under the cover of darkness, then. Time enough to plan.

A large branch cracks in the fire, and he jumps to his feet, brandishing his blade. The hunter takes in his earnest stance and falls onto her haunches laughing, painting the mountainside with her joy as he sheepishly sits down. Her voice is richer than the scarlet sunset and warms the brisk air with its notes. It draws his attention to her full lips and wide eyes, and for a moment he stops calculating the distance to the chalice’s keep.

Once they start talking, conversation is easy.

“Marsh ghoul. Harpy nest.” She points to the pale scars on her forearms and clavicle. “Rock troll outpost.”

“Freshwater siren.” He indicates a shortened finger and missing patch of hair. “Mine orc. And a concussion by the masked spider.”

“Whose face did it wear?”

From anyone else, the question would be rude.

“My father,” he says.

She kicks a coal back into the fire. “Mine, too.”

They talk into the purple twilight as the sky opens onto a field of stars. He whispers how the whirls of galaxies remind him of sailing the moonless sea for endless nights, and she responds with a harrowing tale of the howling caverns, inching closer to him in the firelight. The hunter is a fellow seeker and likely plotting various ways to kill him at dawn, but here, in this liminal space, they have a truce. For the first time, he speaks with someone who understands his path, who doesn’t recoil away.

For the chalice isn’t a quest for heroes. Heroes have dragons to slay and royals to rescue. Achievable goals for quotidian ends. The chalice is a longer, harsher road, for a prize that grants the seeker the one thing they desire most. It’s a quest for those no one expects to return, and those who do can no longer be ignored.

He leans forward to shift a log, and their knees touch. Even through the furred cape, she’s warm and solid and human. And she doesn’t move away. It’s been a surreal comfort to share his story with a stranger, but he can’t remember the last time someone willingly touched him. His sword is out of reach as he turns toward her, and heat licks his cheeks as she grins.

She traces the claw marks on his hide armor and a frisson runs down his spine. His world fills with the sensation of her: tumbling hair, sharp cheekbones, scent of sweat and spice, the tickle of her furred boots against his hand. For the past several years he has thought only of the chalice: things he would wish for, things he would change. But as she traces the wounds he suffered alone, his thoughts sputter like a flame in the wind.

Surely by now she has noticed the slope of his shoulders, the smoothness of his chin. Surely she noticed it hours ago.

She hooks a finger under the sinew of his breastplate, and he kisses her, framing her face with both hands like a portrait. He wants to kiss her like this, at the edge of the world; so if he dies tomorrow, he will at least have that. Her hands work deftly, shedding his armor and unbuttoning his shirt to reveal the binding around his chest, what she clearly expected to find.

Her hot fingers graze the binding a mere moment before sliding down his hard stomach and grasping at his belt.

He has never kissed a woman before, has never even seen a woman like her. She sucks his neck greedily, bruises his jaw with her thighs, and drags cries out of him that ricochet off the ancient stones and shatter the stars. Then she holds him in her arms against the cold mountain night, so he is warmed by the fire on one side and her on the other.

“What is your name?” she whispers, honey in his ear.

“Tem,” he replies. He’s had time to think on this during the lonely days and practice on the badgers and the birds. It’s a name fit for a chalice-bearer, one even the queen will have to use when he returns triumphant. But he has never uttered it to a person before, not even to the villagers who took pity on him or the bog witch who could read his dreams. Only here, cradled to her side, does he introduce himself at last.

“Tem,” she breathes, and his life locks into place.

“What is your name?” he asks. “Why do you seek the chalice?” But she only smiles into his brow and guides his hand between her legs.

Afterward, she offers him a canteen, and it puffs an acrid snap of herbs from its mouth. But he takes it and stares into her eyes as he drinks, absolving her with each swallow. Being killed by her after being known by her is a better end than returning home, alive yet apart. And he is tired, from so many different trials.

She strokes his hair as his eyelids fall. He sighs into her and dreams of her conversing with his mother, their newlywed cottage by a waterfall, and him breaking in horses for her strong, sturdy legs. His warrior-wife with the full-throated laugh.

The piercing summit sun greets him as he wakes—alone—underneath her fur-trimmed cloak. The silent stone pilgrims tell no secrets, but he knows the temple is empty and the chalice gone. His quest is at an end.

Down the opposite side of the mountain is a trail she could have easily hidden, marked by bent meadow grass and muddy boot prints. He wraps himself in her cloak, its heavy length hitting his ankles, and goes seeking treasure once more.

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A.L. Goldfuss

A.L. Goldfuss. A white person with short brown hair and glasses wearing a robe covered in colorful tropical birds and flowers.

A.L. Goldfuss is a queer non-binary speculative fiction writer. Xe lives in the Pacific Northwest with xir twin collections of tea and carnivorous plants and looks forward to riding trains again someday. In the meantime, you can find xem at algoldfuss.com.