His jaw was set so tight that his head ached. He held his blade so fiercely that the fine grooves of the sword's grip dug into his fingers.
He heard them coming, as they always did. Coming for sport. Coming for vengeance. Coming for blood. And he stood ready to defend her, just as he always did.
But Bethany had another plan, just as she always did.
“We can't keep running for eternity!” William hissed. His words were roughened by exhaustion and adrenaline and he silently cursed himself for it.
“We don't have to run for eternity,” Bethany replied with that silky calm voice that whispered and sang in William's dreams and folded him in a blissful state of perfect rest. “We only have to escape now.”
Bethany sang the song again. The song that would part the mystic veil and allow them to retreat. William had heard the song so many times he no longer merely heard it. He felt it. He felt Bethany's vocal chords vibrate with the sublime incantation that brought forth the winds that swept her long black hair back to caress his shoulders and cheeks.
William heard the thunder descend from the blue sky as the ground quivered beneath his feet, and as a great swell of heat swept over him, he knew Bethany had found another route.
He began stepping back into the blistering swell, not knowing what sights he would see. Would Bethany's portal take them next to another country, or reality, or world? Would they be safe, or condemned upon arrival?
William corrected himself, not they
–me. Bethany would be safe. William would kill until neither the ground nor the fire could consume the multitudes he slew. If he were damned to the Pit, he would slaughter Satan himself and become the demon to save her.
He was halfway over the portal's threshold when he glimpsed them coming, as they always did. Coming for sport. Coming for vengeance. Coming for blood. And he stood ready to defend her, just as he always did.
Even at the cost of his own soul.
Then the blistering swell overtook him, the white flare took his sight, and there was silence.
“Open your eyes, my love,” came Bethany's mild voice. “We're safe now.”
William blinked his eyes open to an unfamiliar morning sky being warmed by the golden rays of a sunrise. It was cool but not cold and perfectly still but for the enigmatic drone of insects and the quiet hiss of tall grass flowing in a slight breeze.
“We're safe now,” William said, sitting up quickly and looking around, “but we will be attacked soon.”
“Perhaps,” Bethany replied, kneeling and leaning toward him with a soothing hand on his chest. “Do you know this place?”
“No. You've brought us somewhere new. Good.” William replied, still glancing around to get his bearings.
Bethany tilted her head. “Do you find it beautiful here?”
“There's a thicket of trees and shrubs over there,” William said, nodding toward the distance as he began to stand. “We should hide in there for now.”
Bethany studied him for a moment. “Do you think I'm beautiful?”
William looked back at her then. “You're the world's last true Spellspinner. You're precious.”
Bethany regarded him once more before tenderly caressing his face with her fingertips. “But do you think I'm beautiful?”
“Yes,” William replied, “yes, of course I do. But we have to hide now.”
“No one is here to harm us,” Bethany said.
William looked around again, his expression darkening. “They will come. They always do.”
Bethany gently turned William's face back toward her with one hand while placing her other palm on his chest. “Rest with me until they do.”
Bethany lay there, warmed by the heat of William's body as he laid half over her; hands on the ground on either side of her head. To others, they would have appeared to be sleeping in a lovers' embrace, which Bethany still believed was true. She loved William, and William loved her, but his love had changed.
She gazed upon the sky that was slowly filling with the light of the mighty sun; gently stroking William's brown hair with one hand while massaging his shoulders and back with the other. Her fingertips traced a path over and between muscles hardened by years of conflict, caressing the scars all those years of service had left upon him.
Each scar was a memory; a memory of the day William's father entrusted his son as Bethany’s protector. The day when the King, having mastered the mystic arts for himself, decreed that all other Spellspinners were to be slaughtered. She found the scar William earned the day the King's Witch Hunters came to search the family's estates, uncovered Bethany, and attempted to seize her. The injuries which left those scars had healed, but deeper wounds remained. Those wounds had been inflicted upon his heart and soul in the wake of lost family and friends; of terrors and betrayals too numerous to count. Those wounds had hardened William. He still loved Bethany; that she did not doubt, but his love had become a desperate fervor. He had grown so terrified of losing her, so obsessed with her defense, that he no longer saw beauty in her. She saw it in his face and heard it in his words.
And she felt it in how they lay.
A stranger would see them lying in a lovers' embrace, but their shared repose was now one of defense, not intimacy. Even asleep, William's hands gripped daggers, and seldom did his sword leave its sheath on his back, except for the all too many occasions when he was called upon for battle. He was a man scarcely emerged from boyhood, yet his face was weathered and lined with the rugged look of a veteran warrior.
There was still time for William though, time for the young man that he was, to rediscover the flavors of the world and the rewards of life. But he would have to be inspired to seek the wonders he deserved to find.
And, for all that to pass, his vow to Bethany had to end.
Bethany tilted her lips to William's ear and whispered into his dreams one last time, even as the catch in her heart brought tears to her eyes. For she loved him so much, this man that had suffered so much for her. Throughout their desperate adventures Bethany had secretly hoped she might find that land, realm, or reality where the pursuits would stop. Where they might live as simple lovers. In the face of what William was becoming that dream now felt selfish.
And it was time Bethany abandoned her selfishness.
Gently easing herself away from William, the Spellspinner removed her white dress, and spread it on the ground before her. She slowly took the blade from William's left hand and knelt in the grass. The blade cut through her long raven lochs easily, and she arranged the strands into a pattern upon her white dress. Breathing deeply, Bethany looked upon William's face once again, before reciting an incantation so powerful it could only be spoken once.
A few enchanted words later, and William was free.
The sun was a broiling torch that was already reddening his skin as William awoke from a miraculously restful sleep. Then he remembered his responsibility and his eyes opened wide with the rush of urgency. His hand twitched, and William was horrified to find his blade missing. In that instant, he knew tragedy had found him again.
“Bethany!” he cried. His voice was hoarse with hysterical hope that, somehow, he might have not failed as he scrambled to his feet. His eyes darted to the ground, and William loosed a primal scream of loss and grief as he fell to his knees and gathered the only remains of his love. He pressed his face into the dress to shut out his empty world. His love was gone, his life was gone, and William had only grief to breathe for.
Grief, and vengeance.
He would kill until neither the ground nor the fire could consume the multitudes he slew. If he were damned to the Pit, he would slaughter Satan himself and become the demon to avenge her. William vowed to spend what was left of his miserable life taking revenge upon them all for his loss.
A quiet and guttural sound interrupted his black and bloody thoughts, and William raised his head. William’s first brutal instinct was to slay the horse's rider and begin his crusade of vengeance, but his rage was swept aside by the sight he saw. The creature standing by the thicket in the distance was certainly a horse, though not of any breed William had known. Its hair was cloud-white, but run through with black stripes that flowed over the horse's body with an elegant and artistic flare.
His grief momentarily forgotten, William gazed at the wonder before him until the creature whinnied softly, breaking the spell. Finally William blinked, suddenly aware of the beloved garment he held. He looked at the clothing with new eyes, seeing the white material covered with strands of black hair that were very similar to–
“No,” he murmured, looking back toward the creature. “Not this way. Please.”
In that heartbeat, memories of the dreams he had awakened from came back to him. He had seen himself in the first dream, walking the fields of a farm that belonged to him, but was not of his lost family's estates. The crop was plentiful, the day bright, as he entered a house that was simple but proud. He remembered smiling when greeted by the woman whose face he could not see, but knew as his wife, and the equally enigmatic child he still recognized as his young son.
“That could have been our life,” he murmured toward the enchanted creature.
The wondrous creature whinnied softly again and, as she shook her short black mane, William recalled his other dream.
Again he saw himself; this time as a crazed old warrior, stomping over a field of bodies too numerous to bury or burn as he trembled and screamed in frightful lunacy for more enemies to attack. On a dark rock-face behind him was the monument he had carved to Bethany, his love. A monument covered with her blood-soaked dress as William screamed into the empty night with the madness of the demon he had become.
William's jaw fell as the truth crashed upon him. Those were no mere dreams he had awakened from, nor were they alternate dimensions Bethany had taken him to as he slept. She had shown him two possible futures of himself. Bethany had shown William what his life would become–what he would become–if they remained together, as he had sworn to do, or pursued separate fates, as Bethany had already done.
“No,” William murmured again. “Even you cannot know that.”
“Open your eyes, my love,” Bethany's voice whispered into his mind. “Open your eyes, and live.”
William blinked and, although his person remained still, his vision suddenly spanned thousands of miles. He saw across lands, mountains and oceans until he focused on an expanse of blue waters where whales whose sizes and shapes where matched only by their numbers. He turned his head and again his vision raced across creation until he saw a great desert; where mighty pyramids stood as monuments to the kings of the ancient empire that had built them. He looked in another direction and saw other ruins in a lush misty jungle, where another lost empire had left writings etched in stone; which he somehow knew spoke of the end of the world.
So many sights, so many wonders, and William felt compelled to go to them all. To stand in their midst and explore them. Although he may never live to experience all the wonders he had glimpsed in those magical seconds, still William was driven to make the effort. Yet, even as he chose the direction he would head, he knew his great adventure would someday lead him to his future house, field and family.
A family William knew Bethany would not be a part of.
He looked back toward the thicket in the distance, and swallowed the lump in his throat upon finding that magnificent creature was no longer there. With a small nod William retrieved his blade and began walking toward his first wonder. Although he mourned his loss, William found peace in that the magical Zebra was already far away, running under the protection of her herd.
The King's Witch Hunters came sometime later, as they always did. Coming for sport. Coming for vengeance. Coming for blood.
They found what they came for.
Nothing at all.