The Torch and the Tower
by Cooper Young
I was lonely as a child. Maybe if I hadn’t been–if I’d been anyone but the girl with the weird name who read too much–I wouldn’t have to do what I have to tonight. I don’t even know for sure that I have to. I don’t want to, even if it stops you from being taken from me. I want to want it just for that, and I know that by not doing so I’m failing you even as I try to save you, but…
But I started this at the beginning, and it’ll make no sense at all if I don’t tell things in order.
There used to be an old abandoned theme park about half a mile past the last house on the edge of town. People always called it “The Fair”, even though I don’t think it was ever used for a state or county fair, or even renaissance faire. I think that last one was what they meant. It was old, post-First World War by the look of what was left of the paint, and there was little left of it. Rusted beams sticking up out of the ground at all angles. Bits of wooden signs without words that had somehow kept their gilded edging. Five to ten foot stretches of wall and fence scattered across the field in a half-hearted labyrinth. A carousel with a single Arabian charging nowhere, his head down against the wind that sent waves through the tall grass.
The only thing even still half complete was the fun house on the far side of everything. The castle. It was huge, ending with a slide at the top of a tower, and it was a beast to try to get through the first time. The second floor was a donut-shaped mirror maze, and the first time I tried to get through it–alone, in the dark, in a building older than my parents full of old wiring and vermin–I honestly thought I might not make it home by dinner time. Or bedtime. Or ever. Eventually, though, I came to know it, and that castle became mine.
The tower became mine more than the rest of it. More than anywhere in town, or anywhere on earth. No one could get to me there. No one could tease me, no one could bully me. No one could hurt me. That was where I kept my best books, the ones my brother made fun of me for having. I moved them there after he found my copy of Le Morte and threw it out the window into the garden.
“It’s like you think you are Igraine. It’s just a stupid name.”
So I hid them in the tower. I would sneak out to the edge of town, out across the field of rubble, up through the crooked rooms and the mirror maze, just to have a place where I could read. I lived in that tower–the rest of life wasn’t living–and I lived in those books. Le Morte D’Arthur. The Once and Future King. A badly translated version of Historia Regum Britanniae–that was my favorite. That was where I met him, squinting over the mangled corpse of a great Latin work in the single beam of dirty sunlight that trickled through the slide opening.
It was only natural that I fell in love with him, if only because I wanted to. All girls–all bookish girls–do that at some point, fall in love with a character in a book, and if there’s a character with your name…well, you start to feel something for her love interest. You want to. It makes the story yours. And so when I say I lived in those books, I mean that.
Up in my tower I wasn’t just Igraine, Girl Whose Braid Sandy Jenkins Cut Off Just To Watch Her Cry. I was Igraine, Duchess of Corwall.
That was my life until I met Gary. He was the first real boy I loved. We married too young. We had your sister, and I continued my mother’s trend of naming children ridiculous things. I left my books in the tower. We fought loudly and often.
Your sister was five when the afternoon came when he walked out. I hardly remember why now. He walked. I left your sister with my mother and went out for a walk to clear my head. It was around sunset when I got to the Fair, and though I hadn’t intended to go there when I left the house it was where I was meant to end up. Once I was there, I realized I had never been happier to be anywhere in my life.
The maze took me longer than I expected, and by the time I reached my tower the last of the light had gone. I opened the little half-door that led out to the slide and sat down next to it, watching the wind make my Arabian prance in the light of the rising moon. I put my head against the frame of the door and tried to breathe slowly, tried to recapture the peace that tower had brought me years ago.
I had almost found it when I looked down and saw someone at the door to the castle.
I assumed it was Gary, come to find me, berate me, and drag me back home. He walked out fairly frequently, but he’d made it clear that I wouldn’t be allowed the same freedom. I could have taken the slide back down to earth once I was sure he was lost in the maze, but I didn’t. I waited. That night he’d made me want to die. I was trapped. I didn’t love him, and I never really had–I’d wanted to, because he’d said he loved me, and I’d failed. I was stuck in a life that wasn’t mine. I resolved to throw myself from the tower the minute he walked into the room. I wanted him to see the end.
It took him two hours, and when that door finally opened I thought for a moment that I’d somehow gone back in time to when the park was thriving, and that an employee had come to throw me out. He wasn’t Gary. He was a little older, fair haired, bearded, and dressed as though he worked somewhere medieval-themed. I reconsidered the slide.
He stared at me for a moment, tired and a little startled, and then he said something that sounded like he was choking on his own teeth. I didn’t understand. I said as much. He recoiled at my ugly language. He didn’t understand. We stood in silence staring for a moment, and then he put a hand to his chest and said something I did understand: “Uthyr”.
Shaking, I imitated the gesture and did my best to not mangle the name too badly: “Eigyr”. I don’t know that he understood why it was there, but I know he saw the joy in my eyes. I think he knew that I’d been waiting for him for a long, long time. He crossed the room, took my face in his hands, kissed me on the forehead, and called me beautiful in words I couldn’t comprehend.
Neither of us left until morning. When I went home, they told me Gary’d rammed his truck into a telephone pole and died with a bottle in his hand. I couldn’t make myself care.
I never saw my king again. I don’t know if he went back where he came from, or even how he got here to begin with. You’re the only proof I have he was ever here. I just know that one night when I wanted more than anything to leave a world I’d never belonged to, the world I did belong to came to me. He wasn’t a revenge lay. He was comfort. He was vindication. He was the universe made right for a moment.
But I’ve come to understand that I must make the universe as it pertains to me wrong forever if I want to save you. I read those books a thousand times–I know better than any mother alive what will happen to my son. I know how badly you’ll be hurt.
So I’ve left you this because I’ve gone to burn my castle. It’s all I can think to do. I don’t know how the magic works–if you’ll be pulled into that world or if this is your moment to reign again. I don’t know, and I can’t. But as a mother I have to try.
Even if there’s nothing that hurts more than the thought of severing my tie with that world. My world.
So if you’re reading this, and I somehow didn’t make it back, know that I loved you enough to burn my world for you. If you’re reading this, and I did make it back, pray that what I did worked.
And if you never read this, I’m sorry I lost my nerve.
Written in response to Mr. Wendig’s Game of Aspects, Redux. My die gave me time travel romance, an amusement park after dark, and a mysterious stranger, because apparently I owed it money in a previous life. By my word count, it’s just under the limit at 1499. Sorry it was a day later than my usual posts.