Bright as Stars
"Nothing lasts forever."
Bastian stared at the pile of bones. Most of them were partially buried under the frosty soil. It was difficult to tell how large they were. Really, they might have come from any animal.
"How do you know it was a dragon?" He asked his tutor.
Ice crunched under Bastian's boots as he prodded the bones. His cane wasn't much good for walking in the mountains, but if he could use it to dig up something especially interesting, Bastian thought that he might feel better about the pitying looks people gave him when they realized he was a cripple.
The old centaur smiled slightly, catching Bastian by the hood of his cloak before he slipped and fell. The young man was still unused to his cane, and sometimes forgot that it wasn't a weapon he could be reckless with.
"It was my arrow that brought it down," he said. The last beast ever to darken our skies. Fifty-seven long years ago. Come now, we are losing sun."
Bastian nodded. As his tutor continued up the mountain, he followed.
Sarifah Tallrushes was gray from head to hoof. His beard, tucked into his belt, was heavy with beads and talismans of all kinds. Symbols for protection and wisdom were sewn all over the colorful blanket he wore over his human shoulders. Like all of the centaurs of the Winterplains, the horse portion of his body grew a thick and shaggy coat. It had been a ruddy color once, but like the rest of him, had long since lost its color. His knees made ugly crunching sounds when he walked uphill, and he leaned very heavily on his spear when he rested, which was frequently.
"How much further is it?" Bastian asked.
"Not far at all," Sarifah replied. "In fact, we are already there." He pointed with his spear to the end of the road. There was a tall cliff, and a space of about fifteen feet where the snow had been swept aside. Pierced into a square slab of stone was a single sword.
Bastian slowly approached the Sword of the Warrior. For being thousands of years old, it was surprisingly free of rust, and looked as if it had been abandoned only recently. It was silver in color and unadorned. Its bare blade shimmered in the fading sunlight. The shape of it reminded him of a needle.
"What is it made of?" Bastian wondered. He'd studied metallurgy, and whatever was in front of him did not look like anything he had ever seen.
"Starsilver," Sarifah replied. "From the sky. Forged by dwarves, quenched in dragon's blood. Beautiful, isn't it?"
Bastian nodded. The sword was beautiful, but he was still disappointed. He'd hoped that the place where it was would feel special, and all he felt was cold. All of his life, Bastian had been hungry for magic, but not the sort of magic that stupid women performed after drinking poisonous oleander. Somewhere in the world, his heart told him, the wondrous powers of a forgotten age still dwelt. But if those powers could not be found on the Precipice of the Sword, where were they?
The wind that blew his cloak was frightfully strong, and he stared out over the vast, white, Winterplains. Though a Prince by birth, nothing made Bastian feel more unworthy of his name than seeing the whole of his mother's kingdom. In fact, from the Precipice he imagined he could even see smoke rising from the fireplaces of Peregrine Roost, the border fortress where he'd spent most of his childhood.
Sarifah coughed. It was an especially unpleasant sound, and the way he quickly wiped his face immediately caught Bastian's attention. The old centaur did not want anyone to know how ill he was. Bastian had heard the whispers in the village. His tutor would not last another winter. Many thought it was a waste that his last student would be an ungrateful two-legger, weak even by human standards, and surely unworthy of Sarifah's great wisdom.
Though Bastian did not always have an easy relationship with his tutor, he respected him. It was not until he'd met Sarifah that he had realized how very little he knew about the world. As bad as it was for a prince to be weak, Bastian realized that it was far worse for a prince to be ignorant.
"Well?" Sarifah prompted.
Very slowly, Bastian knelt down to pay his respects.
"Noble Sword, bright as stars
Because you freely gave what was yours
We freely give what is ours,"
He recited the proper verse, and took from his rucksack the offering he had brought. Before proceeding with the ceremony, Bastian glanced up at his tutor.
Sarifah was staring at nothing, or at least it seemed that way. His horse-like ears twitched as if he was listening to something far away, though Bastian knew that his tutor was half deaf. The way that the old centaur sometimes looked at the sky left Bastian convinced that he could see the stars even when no one else could. It was the folly of two-leggers, as Sarifah so often said, to believe that something was gone merely because it could not be seen. The stars did not "come out" at night, he insisted. They were ever present, only obscured during the day by the brightness of a larger, closer star... the sun.
A year ago, Bastian would have scoffed at the notion of the sun and the stars being essentially the same. Of course, the longer he spent amongst the centaurs, the more Bastian came to trust in their quiet wisdom. Probably, he would not return to Corith stronger in the spring, as his mother fervently hoped. But his winter would not be wasted. He was learning new things. Or maybe… like the Sword, the things he was learning were old.
In front of the Sword, Bastian placed the broken object. Sarifah hadn't elaborated much on what the object needed to be, so he'd settled on a little wooden toy. It was supposed to catch a ball on a peg, but one of the colts had accidentally crushed it underhoof.
When he placed the toy , he realized something troubling.
The Sword of the Warrior was also broken. From a tiny, almost imperceptible nick, a very fine crack had spread across the width of the blade. Probably, if it were ever used again, it would break. Of course, no one would think of using the sword. As far as the centaurs were concerned, it was sacrilege to ever touch it. How it remained clean in all sorts of weather was a mystery.
Sarifah gave a grunt of approval. "Well done. Let's go."
Bastian blinked in surprise. "Is that all?"
"It is cold," the old centaur replied.
"I'm not cold," Bastian lied. He pulled his cloak tighter.
The old centaur set his hand on the young man's skinny shoulder. "Are you disappointed?" He asked.
Bastian shook his head furiously. He knew he was being stubborn and childish. They had been away from the village not even a whole day, and already he could feel his terrible, unforgivable weakness washing over him. He was supposed to the be the Prince of the North. Northmen were tall and strong, and yet he had bones like a bird under his heavy cloak and ill-formed lungs that made him prone to gasping and wheezing. The injury to his leg made matters worse. He was supposed to still be recovering, but Bastian had already heard the healers say that he would always walk with a limp. A great warrior he would never be, though his mother might dearly wish it. Wintering with the centaurs would not change Bastian into his father.
"Well, that is a lie," Sarifah chuckled. "But I told you, there was nothing to see here."
"What do you know about the Warrior?" Bastian asked.
"What does anyone know? They were great, and they died well," Sarifah replied. He coughed once, shallowly, and then several more times with force.
"You need some more of your tea," Bastian observed.
"I'm fine," Sarifah snorted.
"It's going to be dark before we get back to the village anyway," Bastian sighed. "I know you have your kettle. And I brought thyme with me. I could use a little tea myself," he added.
His lungs weren't bothering him, but Bastian coughed slightly to draw his tutor's attention. Though the old centaur did not like admitting his own weakness, from his perspective all two-leggers were fragile, and Bastian was notably more fragile than most. The young man was also the Prince of the North, even if only by blood and name. Bastian had no power himself, but Sarifah and all of the centaurs were blindly loyal to his mother.
"All right," Sarifah snorted, turning away with his arms folded stubbornly across his chest. "Gather some branches, and we'll make a fire," he ordered, gesturing around.
Bastian assembled a small pile of twigs and dry moss. When he had what he needed, he reached into his rucksack and produced his firestarter.
"Ah, your little torch!" Sarifah exclaimed, watching Bastian light the brush. "Such a splendid thing!"
"Worth every coin I paid for it," Bastian agreed.
The firestarter was a little bottle filled with alchemical fluid attached to a wheel of flint and steel. By flicking just a thumb, it was possible to make a spark that would light the fluid, and the firestarter would burn like a tiny torch. As dictated by tradition, Bastian had only been permitted to bring four things with him to the centaur village from his home, and the firestarter was one of the things he'd chosen. He had not regretted it once. All of the centaurs marveled at it, which made him think that the tinker who'd made the thing was missing out on a magnificent business opportunity.
The warmth of the fire when it began to burn was refreshing. Under Sarifah's blanket, he carried a number of useful items on leather straps, one of them being a small copper kettle with a cork in its spout, filled with water especially for making tea while out on the plains. As the water began to boil, Sarifah broke up a bit of a thyme branch and added it to the tea. It was good for the lungs, he claimed. Bastian had not noticed much difference in the condition of his own lungs, but the taste was not bad, and a little honey actually made it pleasant.
They sipped their tea in silence for a long while, until Bastian was able to form his question. "I'm curious. If there is nothing here, why do your people come to sweep away the snow? Why do they leave offerings?" He asked, with some hesitation.
"The stars have a very clear view of this place," Sarifah replied, gesturing to the sky and the plains below. "They can see what we do, and what we do not."
"And would you be punished if you stopped caring for the Sword?" Bastian pressed. What he wanted, what it seemed that his tutor would not give him, was an assurance that indeed, there was magic in the place. Perhaps, he only lacked the ability to properly sense it. That seemed cruel to Bastian, but also very likely. Why should he possess talent for magic? Merely because he wanted it, or did he deserve to be compensated somehow, for being born small and weak?
No. That was stupid. If the world were fair, war would be an unheard-of, and power would be wielded only by those who respected it and used it well.
"If we ever forgot our promise, our honor would tarnish. Perhaps the Queen of the North would not notice, for she sees us most often from a distance. But we who are accustomed to its shine, we would know the difference," Sarifah replied.
Bastian frowned. Centaurs were inquisitive and liked to question and consider many things, but their concept of honor was as difficult to bend as their powerful dragon-hunting bows. Never mind that no one had seen a dragon in over fifty years. If such a beast were to rear its ugly head again, only the centaurs would be prepared to actually slay one.
"You are unhappy with my answer," Sarifah observed.
Bastian sighed. Of course, his tutor could see right through him. "Why did you take me as a student?" Bastian asked finally. It was something which had been troubling him for months.
"I was asked by your mother," Sarifah replied.
"So it was a question of honor?" Bastian pressed.
"Are not all things?" Sarifah nodded. "But..."
"But?" Bastian smiled slightly.
"Though it hardly matters, I find that I like you," Sarifah replied. "Now that the kettle is empty, warm up my cider," he said, depositing a small barrel on Bastian's lap.
Bastian opened it and gave it an experimental sniff. As he'd expected, the contents were quite alcoholic.
"Have you been drinking this all day?" Bastian wondered.
"Do you think I would climb to the Precipice sober?" Sarifah snorted. "Such is the pain of old age. When I was but fifteen summers, I was as spry as a mountain goat! And on a good day, I could leap the southern bridge. Eight feet. A record, I believe, still stands. Alas, I fear we will not make it back to the village this night. My apologies. I should have brought more blankets. You are going to be cold."
"If you knew this was going to be so difficult, why did we come?" Bastian asked.
"That is my question for you," Sarifah replied.
"I was hoping there would be magic here," Bastian admitted, glancing over his shoulder at the swords.
"Do you not see that Sword?" Sarifah pressed. "The honor of the Warrior is bright as the stars, and it will shine forever. Long after both of us are dust. What greater thing could you imagine?"
"But what if it won't last forever?" Bastian asked.
"Only those the Warrior chooses may wield the Sword," Sarifah argued. "In the hands of the unworthy, it weighs a thousand pounds. If an evildoer so much as touches it, it shines so brightly that it will burn his eyes out. And it does worse. It was stolen once, and it gave the thief such visions that he cut his own throat."
"The sword is cracked," Bastian replied. Everything Sarifah had told him, he'd heard before, and he was certain that most of it was superstitious nonsense.
The old centaur coughed, showering him in spit and cider, and almost extinguishing the fire. "It is only chipped!" he protested. "And it shines in spite of that!"
Bastian squinted. The setting sun caught the chip in the sword and reflected the light directly into his eyes. It was bright, as Sarifah, claimed, but the light hurt his eyes. Was he unworthy to look at it? That fear sat like lead in the pit of his stomach. What if the stories were true? What if he suffered because he deserved to?
Bastian realized that it was not the Sword he was seeing. There was something miles behind it on the horizon. The light grew larger until Bastian realized that it was a wildfire, tearing through the forest beyond the centaur village.
No normal fire had ever burned with such ferocity. The flames were blue-white.
When Sarifah saw the fire, he paled. "Impossible". He whispered.
The fire moved with the swiftness of a living thing. It should have stopped at the river, but it easily fluttered over it. And then, as Bastian and his tutor watched, the sea of bright flames drew in on itself, leaving smoking husks of trees in its wake. It came to rest in the center of the plains, burning whiter than the snow.
The fire coalesced into a serpentine shape, momentarily revealing a iridescent reptilian beast with a long sinewy neck, whiplike tail, and the feathered wings of an owl.
For the first time in his young life, Bastian felt the magic he had so desired, and he immediately wished he hadn't. It washed over him with the force of a raging river, and he felt painfully small.
"What is that?" He whispered, though he knew.
The dragon gave an earsplitting shriek, something between anger and anguish. Its powerful wings threw up a cloud of snow and ice as it leapt back into the air and flew towards the mountain.
"It's coming towards us!" Bastian gasped.
"It is a dragon. All dragons come here at least once in their lives, though they surely know they will never take our mountain from us. They are tempted because they have a great love for treasure, and here sits a treasure beyond comparison," Sarifah replied. He gestured to the Sword.
"We must leave. Now," Bastian said, tugging on his tutor's arm.
"We cannot," Sarifah replied, watching the dragon winging its way closer. He tightened his grip on his spear.
"You can't fight a dragon! You can barely walk!" Bastian protested.
Of course, the centaurs, like all the men of his own family, did not like to admit weakness.
"Do not get in my way," Sarifah warned, shoving him. Bastian slipped and fell into a snowdrift. Though ill and old, the centaur was still far stronger than he was.
The dragon landed with a force that shook the earth, directly in front of the Sword.
Sarifah gave an incoherent war cry and immediately charged. His spear met its target, just above the dragon's eye, but he lacked the strength to hold it and his front knees collapsed from under him. The dragon howled in pain and reared back, fire crackling in between its jaws.
Sarifah stared up at it, and at his lost weapon in wonder and horror.
Then, resigned to such an end, he closed his eyes. Perhaps it seemed fitting to him, since he had always been a warrior, to meet his end facing a dragon. Perhaps it seemed better than becoming ever weaker and eventually wasting away.
Bastian did not care. All he could think was that he was not ready to lose his friend.
"Stop!" Bastian cried.
The dragon wheeled to face him. Its eyes were gray and sightless, like a dead fish, and a Sarifah's spear was lodged in the beast's skull. Blue-white flames leapt from its tongue as it approached him, breathing heavily. Blood dripped down its face from the great gaping hole made by the centaur's spear, staining its pearly white scales.
"Bastian, no!" Sarifah protested.
"Get up!" Bastian ordered. "Run! I know you think your time is over, but your village still needs you! Think about your children and your grandchildren!"
Sarifah faltered. Bastian could tell he'd struck a nerve.
The old centaur slowly stumbled to his feet. The dragon glanced at Sarifah, as if considering whether or not it should first finish off the one who'd already wounded it.
Bastian could not think of another way to distract the dragon. Although he knew that the centaurs forbade touching the Sword, he had no weapon of his own. He couldn't even find his cane or his rucksack. In fact, he had nothing at all except his firestarter. He reached for it, but his heart was pounding and his hands were shaking. Cursing his own weakness, he immediately dropped it in the snow.
It struck something that sounded like a rock, and Bastian realized it was another dragon bone.
Sarifah seemed convinced the dragon had come for the sword. By his own admission, he'd slain a dragon on the Precipice before. But why?
Why did dragons come to the Precipice? Why would such a creature furiously burn its way across half of the North only to arrive weakened at a spot where it could easily be killed? The dragon was powerful, but it was unimaginably old and its body was failing. Like the old centaur chief and the sword, it was a relic of a lost age. The dragon waited for a very long time, watching him, watching Sarifah, and watching the sword.
Bastian stared. He no longer feared the beast, but felt a terrible sense of pity.
Was this why he never found the magic he so desired? Was magic dying?
"Is this what you want?" Bastian asked, slowly backing in the direction of the stone. Though he knew that the centaurs forbade touching the sword, he reached for blade. A strange force nipped his fingertips as he touched it.
There was magic in that weapon, just as there was magic in the dragon. It was not something that could be perceived with the naked eye, but with his hand on the hilt of the sword, he could feel it becoming lighter and sharper, as if it might swiftly slice through even steel.
The sword slipped from the stone easily. Holding it, Bastian felt stronger than he had ever felt in his life. Sarifah stared in wonder and bewilderment, and Bastian realized that he had just done something wholly unexpected. At least, unexpected by the centaur.
The dragon bowed its head. As if it could sense Bastian's weakness, it brought itself low so that even he could slay it.
"I don't want to kill you," Bastian said. Though the beast did not speak, he felt certain the dragon could understand him.
The dragon appeared to be blind, but it apparently had sharp ears. With the way it constantly flicked its fiery tongue, Bastian wondered if it didn't see the world in the manner of a snake, by feeling the vibrations in the air. In any case, it obviously knew exactly where he stood.
The dragon took another step towards him. It growled, and its breath on his face was searing, immediately heating up the medallion he wore around his neck so hot that it burned his skin. The snow around his feet melted, and he could see the ground was littered in huge bones. Dragon bones.
Bastian still held the sword, but he reached out with one shaking hand. Probably, he'd lose his left arm to match his injured leg, but he felt deep in his gut a desire to touch the dragon, to be certain that he wasn't somehow caught in a dream.
The dragon balked, seeming to sense his hand. Bastian burned his fingertips brushing the beast's throat, but he ignored the pain. The dragon's heartbeat, fluttering and faltering, he could feel through the blade in his hand.
It was suffering. It would die, with or without his help.
It was asking him for mercy.
Still, he knew very well what he was doing. He'd been hunting magic for most of his life. Could he really destroy it so soon after discovering it?
A hand came to rest on his own. It did not belong to his tutor. In fact, it did not belong to anyone he could see. The presence, all the same, reassured him that he needed to hold his ground, and that, difficult as it was, what he was called upon to do was both right and necessary.
Bastian took a deep breath. He held out the sword, closed his eyes, and braced himself.
He did not see the moment the blade pierced the dragon's chest. He did not want to watch the magnificent creature die. A force that should have knocked him to the ground shook his body, and then he felt the most transcendent lightness. Very slowly, he opened his eyes. The sword was burning bright white, and a haze of fragmented white fire filled the air. It looked as if snow from the earth was rising back up into the sky.
Bastian dropped the sword. The sense of strength and certainty that he'd felt a moment before immediately deserted him, and the full weight of what he'd just done had descended mercilessly upon him. There was nothing left of the dragon but a pile of burning bones, and its blood on the sword at his feet.
Sarifah stood over him, a very grave expression on his face.
"I'm sorry," Bastian blurted.
Very carefully, Sarifah bent down and picked up the sword. He stared at it childlike awe for a long moment, slowly rising from his knees without the usual cracking and popping sounds that made Bastian grimace. Looking young again for the briefest of moments, he gave the blade an experimental swing.
"It's magnificent, isn't it?" Bastian smiled.
"As I often imagined it would be. So very light! I think I understand now, why the dwarves call it the Freedom Sword," Sarifah admitted.
"The Freedom Sword?" Bastian echoed. "I thought you said you didn't know anything about it."
"I don't know anything. I've only heard the stories, and most of those could be lies," Sarifah admitted. "But it has been said that the Guardians who created the Sword never meant it to be a weapon. It was not intended to add more pain to the world."
"Then why make it a sword at all?" Bastian asked.
"Because nothing can last forever. That is the reason the Warrior likes offerings of broken things. It reminds us that all things break. And that there is no shame in acknowledging their impermanence. And in fact, by letting some things go, we give them dignity. As you gave Hraesughar."
Bastian glanced at Sarifah. That was a name he had not heard.
"The dragon," Sarifah replied.
"You knew him?" Bastian blinked in surprise.
"We centaurs have an interesting relationship with dragons," Sarifah smirked.
"I bet. Why didn't you tell me any of this before?" Bastian asked.
"I had to be certain that you were honorable. And worthy of such knowledge. And now that I am certain, I have much to tell you when we return to the village," Sarifah paused. He studied the sword. "You can't leave blood on that blade," he said. "It will tarnish."
"It was never my intention to dishonor the sword. I apologize," Bastian replied.
"Bastian, there is something you should know about tarnish," Sarifah slowly wiped the blade on his blanket. "It can be cleaned."
He offered the sword back to Bastian, who returned it to its proper place. The broken toy he could not find, but he did notice his firestarter. The glass was smashed. As much as he loved the thing and was sorry to lose it, it seemed appropriate that he leave another offering as a thank-you for the Warrior.
The last rays of sun caught the sword's blade. It looked perfectly at home against a background of velvety black. "Bright as the stars again," Bastian smiled, gazing up at the clear night sky, tracing the constellation of the dragon with his fingertips.
"No," Sarifah said. "I believe it is… a little brighter now."