A Final Choice

I dream of Gil. I rarely recall my dreams, but I always remember when I dream of him. I know it isn't real because everything is in monochrome, grainy blacks and greys, jagged slightly, as if it were not truly flowing, time out of joint. I rise from my hard pallet, feeling the chill of the stone beneath my feet, a sharp draft of air cutting through my shift and see, though the corner of my eye, colour.

Looking through the slit window, I see a scene I haven't seen in over ten years, the courtyard and green of the old covenant, below me in the moonlight; a laden cart, people atop it and walking alongside, the colour of their clothes contrasting with the grey of the surroundings.


I had first entered that courtyard myself twenty six years ago. I remember little of the journey there, as the drivers of the carriage had spoken little and were urgent to make good time. It was autumn and the first snows of winter were not far off, the first lowering clouds forming on the northern horizon we hastened towards. I'd been taken from the streets of London by a dark clad woman, who had then entrusted me to the drivers. I'd had no choice, but cared little, for nothing could be worse than another winter picking for scraps with the other lost children of the capitol.

We travelled north along forest roads - the horses seeming untiring, the men taking turns to sleep - for days, weeks even. I couldn't tell as the days blurred and I slept in the rocking carriage as well as I could. Eventually the woodlands gave way to hills, painted blue and green with ferns, gorse and heather, with silver lakes nestling in the valleys. As dawn came one day, I was sitting atop the carriage, the horses straining up a steep hill, the pale autumn sun bring a little heat to my thin body, when we turned a corner and I saw below us my home for the next sixteen years.

It did not take us long to reach the covenant itself and as we drove through the gates I saw the courtyard and the green I saw twenty six years later in my dream. Then, they were clean and neat, with people milling about their business. Stablelads came to take the horses and a fat women, her pink face sweating beneath her wimple, came bustling out. She exchanged words of greeting with the drivers, who grinned broadly - the first time I had seen them smile - and then came for me. One of the drivers hefted me down from the carriage and she smiled briefly at me before grabbing my hand in her damp palm and tugging me towards the grey stone of the buildings.


My new mistress explained much to me that day, showing me the space I was to sleep - when I was allowed sleep - and the duties I should perform. She explained who she was, but more importantly, what she was, and what - should I succeed - I would become. Those first weeks were full of excitement, as I took my first lessons, learnt the layout and the people of the covenant, tried my best to please my mistress. But I was exhausted. She left me little time to sleep when my work had done and after the extra exploring I insisted on I reached my pallet each night so tired that I was asleep as soon as I lay down, unaffected by the cold. The snows had come and it was a cold winter. My mistress did not seem so affected and so I discovered the kitchens, where the cooking fires were kept alight all the time, bringing smoke and warmth to the cold stone of the castle.

It was in the kitchens, on midwinter night that first winter in the covenant, that I first met Gil.


From behind the travellers' carriage, rocking and swaying into the castle, a horse and rider emerge, the rider hooded and dressed in black. At first I think it's the monochrome of the dream, that he's really dressed as the other jongleurs in bright colours, but slowly, through the dream haze, I realise he wears black like midnight. I can see the silver glint of moonlight on steel, a tear of blood red cloth beneath the cloak as he raises his hands and brings down his hood. His head is lowered and his long dark hair covers his face, but I know then, with a lurch in my stomach, who it is. His head lifts, the hair falls back from his face and he smiles.


It was snowing hard that midwinter night and I'd had to run across the courtyard dodging the snowdrops and avoiding the drifts to get from the tower, where my mistress lived and worked, to the kitchens. As I opened the door I felt a blast of warm air and heard the sound of laughter within. I crept inside, as usually there were few people in the kitchens at this time of night and I was curious to know what was keeping most people from their beds. Entering the kitchen itself I was surprised at the people there: the autocrat - the first woman I had met at the covenant, the drivers and other retainers, the stablehands, some of the guards, the kitchen staff and general covenant servants: all stood rapt, their attention focussed on a young man - a boy really - who sat on a stool by the fire, his eyes concentrating on a battered lute he was playing, his soft voice half-way through a story. It was magical in a way I barely understood, having been taught only the rudiments of my mistress's magic: he did not speak in Latin, nor move his hands, except to pick out the sweet tune on his instrument; he did not feel as if he had the gift, nor wore any markings on his clothes to suggest he did, but it was magic nonetheless. He continued on for some twenty more minutes: I did not understand the story, for I'd missed the start, but I allowed myself to become as caught up in the dreamlike effect of it as the others had, standing swaying at the back, the magic holding back the tide of tiredness I felt. Finally it stopped, but I barely noticed, my eyes drooping and my body still swaying. The man beside me, a shield guard, looked at me, and another in front of me turned and soon everyone's eyes were on me as I stood there barely aware, swaying. The last thing I saw before I dropped into unconsciousness was the young man, standing up from his stool, his lute left on the floor, his hand on his hip, his eyebrows raised and a slight, crooked smile on his face.


He smiles at me in my dream, and my stomach churns and my whole body aches with my grief. It is the same smile I had first seen that midwinter's night: the slightly raised eyebrows, the left side of the mouth upturned more than the right, the dark eyes shining. Dreaming, I feel the wind blow, see it whip at his hair as he stands there smiling at me, blowing it into his eyes. He flicks it away and I imagine I can see him saying my name. But I hear nothing. I cry out his name, over the wind - "Gil" - but it is dissipated and lost in the aether.


When I next woke Gil was there with my mistress, together speaking in low voices. As I opened my eyes he turned round and, kneeling by my pallet, took hold of my hand in his.

"Gilbert tells me I've been overworking you girl..." My mistress smiled faintly. I stammered, but Gil shook his head.

"Rest now, little one. Sleep." And turning to my mistress he smiled, turned back to me and winked, "And don't worry about that old dragon, for I can take care of her." I gaped a little, looking expectantly at her to become angry, but she merely shrugged her shoulders, smiled and left the room.

Gil stayed there all night and for the rest of my apprenticeship. Not all the time, mind, for he was a wanderer, but his home was with the covenant, and its people and when the wanderlust was subsumed by tiredness or loneliness he would make his way home to regale us with his tales of life on the road. At first, he was a friend, a protector, showing me the hidden places near the covenant that had delighted him in his childhood. Together we went swimming in the icy waters of the mere, walked in the hills to secret nooks where he'd hidden when life at the covenant had become too much, before he was old enough to go abroad on his own. Caves and hilltops, mountain streams, nests where hawk chicks were born and took their first flights, wide meadows where sheep grazed and we would run, the wind in our hair, our feet cool on the fresh grass. We saw those things together, when I was not working on my magic or doing chores for my mistress, and he was not away or on duty.

When in the covenant, being a storyteller hardly sufficed to pay for his keep, so he honed his skills with the guard. Often, I would slack off from my work and kneel on the bench by the window in the lab and watch as he practised swordplay with the other men. He was a beautiful swordsman, graceful and economical and, though he was still in his teens, could beat most men in the covenant - another facet of his own magic.


My heart beats faster simply at the thought of Gil, even after these years. As I dream, I am running down the corridors of the old covenant, my heart beating so much I can feel it within my chest, beating as much for the thought of Gil as from the running. I can feel him within the covenant, his voice on the wind, his smell everywhere, his presence choking me to tears. And I run and I cannot not find him. Sometimes I stop and look out of windows or down into interior courtyards and he will be there, and I call to him but my voice is lost in the mute of dreams of the past, and I cannot reach him.


By the time I entered womanhood, I knew that I loved Gil. And that he loved me. Instead of running through the meadows we would find a place in the shade beneath the trees and lie together, talking sometimes, othertimes just lying silent. We talked of everything: he would bring tales of the mundane politics of England, of London, news from other covenants; we would talk about the Order and Magic; of philosophy and religion; of the Fae and the Demons, but rarely about the future. Neither of us would broach the subject, but rather it would sometimes sneak up on us unawares and we'd become silent and uncomfortable: while my apprenticeship lasted then life would be stable, but after? There could be little future for a magus and a mundane. We both knew it, but neither could accept it. Instead we would pledge undying love beneath the oak trees and one midsummer, we stood together in the moonlight beneath the an old yew tree and slitting our hands to mingle our blood, we pledged our troth and then made love.


The wound hurts even in dreams, and as I race about the covenant, empty and echoing, sheathed in shadows, I notice I am in black and white too, except for my hand. My hand is traced with a blood red line from that midsummer night twelve years ago.


As my apprenticeship drew to a close I fretted, worrying that Gil would become more distant, but, though some days were worse than others, most of the time he was more intense. He rarely left the covenant and when I'd finished my work he would be there for me and we would walk together and talk or stop and make love, unable merely to sit together in silence anymore for fear of wasting time. Time was short: my gauntlet would be that winter and I would be presented to the Tribunal the following spring - it held no fears for me magically - I was confident I could pass my gauntlet - but personally, I was frightened: frightened of the commitment, frightened of losing Gil.

So I confided in my mistress, and she listened quietly nodding her head, smiling faintly.

"I knew there was going to be a problem..." she said finally. I bowed my head, numb. I wasn't sure what I wanted - for her to tell me that I could both be a magus and keep Gil?

"There are no easy answers. None. We all have to make sacrifices, though we rarely tell others of them. You have a gift, Marian. A great Gift. You cannot sacrifice that and so you must sacrifice anything that stands in its way." I shook my head, tears forming in my eyes.

"No, I don't think I can" I whispered.

"You must."


I reach the courtyard of the dream castle and the jongleurs have taken down their instruments and begun to play. The tune is a gentle one, predominately the lute and I recognise it from somewhere, its melody haunting me. I listen awhile transfixed, to the music and the story: of two young lovers who betray each other and are lost from each other forever. And then I remember: it is the story that Gil sung that first night we met in the kitchens. It is our story, and with a cry I rush at the singer and grabbling his shoulders demand to know where Gil is. Slowly, he raises his head, scratches his bushy red beard and, his eyebrows raised in surprise that someone should disturb his story, he says simply.

"Gil is gone, sweet one."


My mistress did not leave anything to chance. The senior magi at the covenant spoke to Gil and suddenly he was gone. That last winter I wept most nights, my sorrow turning to anger at his betrayal. Then, I could not understand how they could have forced him to leave. How his love wasn't enough.

I passed my gauntlet and became a full magus and left Cumbria and my old covenant behind. Left my old life behind. I tried not to think of Gil and threw myself into my work, exhausting myself in belligerent anger, gaining a fearsome reputation in my new covenant and advancing quickly for one of my age. But it was not enough and I was not whole. I was a power-hungry young magus, soon to be able to take an apprentice of my own and taking on greater responsibilities for as many covenant things as possible. Except those to do with mundanes - I preferred to remain at arm's length from them if at all possible.

The seasons passed until five years had gone by since my gauntlet. I was lonely as ever, and one evening, I took a walk in the moonlight outside the covenant. The Pyrenees loomed over us to the South and the walk was hilly and not easy but it was midsummer and my hand ached and I was tired of the covenant, feeling claustrophobic at its insularity, and I needed to get out. I rarely walked at that time, associating walking with my days with Gil and so after I had walked a little while, my calfs ached and my hips ached and I needed to sit down. It was a warm night but a breeze had picked up and I sensed him before I heard him.

"You used to be able to walk further. You must be out of shape, my sweet." He whispered behind me and I turned, slowly, to see him smiling at me, smiling that same Gil smile. "But you are as beautiful as ever you were".

He was just as I'd remembered and I felt that same leap of joy as I saw him there. His black hair was a little longer, his black- clad frame a little slimmer and he wore a new sword at his belt but it was Gil. Gil whom I had loved. Gil who had betrayed me. I turned away.

"What was I supposed to do, my love?" I turned around, standing and glared at him, wanting to hurt him there and then.

"You were supposed to stay. You were supposed to love me."

"And so I do."

"So why didn't you stay?" The years' hurt and anger, built up in so many dark evenings of sadness, overflowed and I beat at his chest as he stood there, the tears flowing from my cheeks. "Why did you leave me?"

"Because you would be a magus and I, a mundane. Surely, you know that it couldn't work and they told me why. I didn't know, you never told me, about the potions and the aging, your denial of death. Perhaps, I should have guessed, seen the magi at home not aging as they should, but I was a boy then and all the magi seemed old and strange. Perhaps I could live knowing that I would age and you would not, and perhaps I could die. But for you to see me age? I didn't think you understood what that meant. And for me to die, knowing I would lose you forever, that you wouldn't die but simply go into Twilight? I couldn't bear the thought of you being hurt." Gil stopped and looked at me, straight in the eyes.

"You should have given me the choice, Gil. I could have chosen to be with you. Now..." I sighed, my shoulders drooped, my eyes leaving his to stare into the infinity of the night. He grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me. Tears were in his eyes. "I love you, Marian. I have given everything up for you: my family, my inheritance, my name, my lands. Without you it is nothing. I know that now. I've made my choice. You can still make yours."

And I shook my head, a faint smile on my face.

"You made your choice six years ago, when you left me. I made my choice five years ago when I promised to uphold the Code. All our choices are made, Gil. It is too late." And Gil stood there as I walked away, breaking into a run, back towards the covenant. At the top of the first hill I stopped for breath and turned around and he was still standing there, the wind blowing in his hair, looking utterly lost.


I thought much about Gil following that time. He would figure in my waking dreams as I worked in my lab or stood reading in the library. In the corner of my eye, I would see him as I'd seen him last, standing watching me, the wind in his hair; waking I would imagine him as I'd seen him that midwinter, smiling as I woke from my exhausted sleep. But life continued, my power increased and only on the solstices, as my palm hurt, did I think hard about the choices I had made.

And it was midsummer and I dreamt of Gil.


"What do you mean, gone?" I shout at the bearded jongleur. He smiles, and the men and women move to stand about him.

"Gone, my sweet."

"Where?" I cannot help myself. "Where?"

"Whoever loves him will know and those who don't won't care, my love."

"But I do..."

"Do you? Do you really? I thought you'd chosen not to?"

"We all have to make sacrifices." I say, and even saying it, it sounds hollow. Hollow, like I am, and I look down and my body has gone from black and white to transparent, limbs like gauze.

"Where is he?" I repeat, my voice faint.

"With friends. Gil is with friends. He gets our love and they..." he pauses and his beard fades to nothing, his face slims and his features change. I look about me, and the others are changing too "... we get his magic, his music and his love back. Quite a deal, I would say. There are few mere mortals that please us so much... so very few."

"The Fae" I whisper.

"If you want Gil you have a few final choices to make, sweet magus." And he passes me something, his cold hands brushing mine. And they fade to nothing, smiles on their faces, and everything fades to black.


"Mistress, you a'right?" I woke to see a small face, peering into mine. "Mistress, you were crying out, I was worried." I shifted up on the bolster, the covers of my bed tangled about me. My face was damp with tears and my apprentice stood in her grubby shift and bare feet beside my bed. As I shifted, I realised that I was holding something in my hand. I was still blurry after the dream and after shaking myself a little to wake myself and shooing off the child, I opened my hand and took a look. Resting in my palm, on top of the pale pink of the scar, was a sphere. Curious, I raised it towards the light, to examine it closer.

With the morning sun shining through it, the sphere was more than a sphere: pale translucent colours danced about the globe and within, delicate gold fibres held something that seemed out of place in such dainty beauty. It was black and seemed solid, but only as I twisted about the sphere did I realise that it was a lock of hair, black hair, bound together by gold thread. I knew then what my choice could be.


I had prepared the longevity potion throughout the season just gone with the help of the apprentice. It had seemed the thing to do and I had put all my misgivings to the back of my mind. The previous winter had been bitter and I dreaded becoming old and decrepit, but sometimes, especially that spring, I had though more about what I was doing. It was true, I had made a choice. I had chosen to become a magus, but Gil was wrong, becoming a magus did not require me to deny my humanity. I held the bottle in my hand. It was a small bottle, plain, but of such importance: this was the choice - which to sacrifice? The opportunities the Order offered: power, respect, extended life, as Gil said 'a denial of death'; or the opportunities of humanity: life, love, birth... death. I stood looking out of the covenant window to the forests to the west, dark and brooding, unknown and impossible Faerie, and then about the room where I'd lived for ten years: comfortable, comforting, and I raised my hands, balancing the globe in one and the bottle in the other, looked at them for a moment, smiled and hurled the bottle into the fire where it exploded with a puff of lilac and green smoke.


In the moonlight beneath the yew tree that stands in the deep wood of dreaming Arcadia, two lovers stand barefoot: one, raven hair whipping in the wind, dressed in black, takes hold of the hand of the other, a woman with long auburn hair, and he smiles.

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