This is an excerpt from Those Who Touch the Fire, near the end of the story. Embla has traveled to the distant Coast of Night, in search of the last material she needs to have the sword made: a star. It is a lonely place where the sun never rises, and there she finds the well she was sent to draw the star from. She leaves her horse, Ashwind, behind, and goes forward alone.
The path reached an intersection, a crossroad with an old stone well. Embla tethered Ashwind to a tree, then carefully stepped towards the well, her hand on her father’s sword. The water was still, dark and deep as the night sky. Lights sparkled in it, seeming to peer through an infinite distance.
Something stirred, rising up from the darkness of the water; a living shadow crept over the edge of the well, spilling out onto the ground and pooling like black honey. It stretched up, becoming a pillar of midnight, bending over the girl oppressively and staring down at her with a single, unblinking eye. The shadow breathed in, and Embla felt that it was trying to pull something from deep within her.
It spoke with voice like cold fog creeping over the landscape.
“Why come you into the dark, little girl?” It seemed then to have many eyes and many mouths, but for a second.
“I am on a journey,” Embla said at length, one hand pressed against her chest to hold her heart inside. “I’ve come long miles on an errand for Su Baba the blacksmith, to bring her a star that she might make me a sword.”
“And you come to me unafraid?”
“I am not afraid of the dark,” she said, realizing even as she spoke that it may not be true.
“What more has man to fear than the dark?”
Embla made no response and the shadow seemed to shiver, cackling to itself like distant, breaking limbs.
“My domain is night, my heart the icy moon, my breath the winter wind; what does a child think she can offer to the darkness? What price can be levied on a star?”
“I…” Certainly there was nothing to be paid. Embla had no jar of honey to buy her passage this time, and what gold remained seemed wholly insignificant in the night that never ended. “I have nothing to give you, but I cannot leave empty handed.”
“And what say you take something else? What if, instead of a star, I give you a kingdom? A world that serves you, people who worship your beauty. Ivory and absinthe and ruby slippers to walk no further than from bed to your palanquin. You’ll live your days in regality and your life will be songs and suppers.”
Embla saw through the shadow a moonlit castle, set upon a cliff by the sea. Light danced on quiet waves and glittered upon the many spires of the keep. In one high tower, where the moon looked in through a pretty glass window, a candle burned in a beautiful room, casting shadows on a feather bed draped in silks and fine furs. In the silver looking-glass, in the light of the candle, stood a dark woman, straight-shouldered and strong of nose and cheek. Her hair was brushed and clean, shaved and plucked beneath the arms and on the legs. Her smooth skin told of an easy life, as did the delicate gown that flowed across her thin figure. She seemed a kindly woman, but the dark, glittering eyes were those of a stranger.
Embla shut her eyes and took a breath, then blew out the candle.
“I do not want these things,” she said. “I’ve no taste for wine and ivory and pearls dressed with gold. What need has a shepherd for gowns and gossamer?”
“True,” observed the shadow, a silver knife being being drawn along the string of a viol. “But what need has a shepherd of a magical sword? Where are your sheep, young shepherd? Gone to ashes with your old life. You are no shepherd, child, you are a warrior.
“I could give you the life of a warrior, blood and battle and glory; you would have men and women who would follow you into all the hells that are and back, banners of your own streaming in the wind above a tide of steel and flesh. Your days would be action, the feeling of life in your muscles, the sounds of drums in your heart. Your nights would revelry and companionship, meat and mead, and whatever you wanted, you need only take.”
Embla saw in the night a camp spread across rolling hills, tents covered the land like mushrooms after rain, gathering in circles around unlit fires. Shadows moved like people, singing and dancing and fading in and out of the night. Reflected in a horn of dark drink was the image of woman, strong and scarred by years of living. She was wrapped in leather and fur, her brave nose pierced and ringed, her hair dressed in gold and pewter, a ruby in her ear. A candle sat near at hand, its light flickering across the stranger’s face.
Embla waved her hand and blew the candle out.
“I do not want blood and glory,” said Embla as she stood before the well. “I want neither friends, nor comrades, nor meat and mead. I am a traveler, and what I want is my home.”
“So the traveler says she wants a home; the child who pushes all others away wants a family.” It took a shuddering, gleeful inhalation, then breathed the words: “I can give you that.”
“I can give you a shepherd’s life, days and seasons and years in the quiet. Onions and apples and grass by the river, sheep and wind and falling summer rain. A life of peace, never more unsettled than by an autumn storm or the birthing of a lamb. I can give you a father, a sister, thirty thousand days and nights of simple suppers and honey from the tree.”
And through the shadowed mists, Embla saw a home, lone and cozy in a quiet night. Apple trees stood sleeping in the darkness, an old handcart leaning against the low stone wall of the yard. From the bedroom garret shown the wan light of a candle. A pile of ragged blankets lay atop a straw bed, keeping a little shadow warm against the autumn chill. In an old, bronze mirror, was reflected the image of a simple woman dressed in a woolen tunic. Her dark hair was tied back behind her neck, her weather-worn skin pulled tight across her high cheekbones and bold nose. Her eyes seemed older than her face, tired from years of work, but bright with the peace they earned. She saw the shadow in the bed, the woman in the mirror, the life they lived together, and though she felt a sense of familiarity, she did not know them.
Embla looked away and sighed, then quietly blew out the candle.
“That is not my sister, my father, or my life. Your conjurations are not substitutes for my goals. I’ll…I’ll have no more of your trickery and shadow games; I’ll have the star from you, or I’ll have nothing.”
The shadow shivered and rattled, dead leaves blowing together beneath the windowsill.
“The shepherd wants no sheep, nor the traveler a home. The lonely girl wants no family.”
“I want my family.”
“You want revenge,” and there was no more silk in its voice. “A star is too divine a thing to serve such base desire…yet I have failed to dissuade you. Still, with all things come costs and it is no less with stars. Your vengeance has taken from you three lives I might have given, three worlds you could have had. Now you shall have but one you did not see—the price of taking your star.”
And the shadow grew until it was all there was, and Embla saw a small, dark cabin with a fire in the hearth and bread upon the table. A bowl of warm water sat by the bed where a sleeping girl with spotted skin lay in fever. Reflected in the water was a one-armed woman, tired and worried as she dabbed her sister’s forehead with a damp rag. A pale scar ran across the bridge of her proud nose, her dark eyes wet with anxious tears. Embla held her sister’s hand and stroked it gently, waiting for the sun to rise.
The vision faded into what would become, and Embla stood alone in the night, beside the well where the two roads met.