Strangers

“The only true kindness is that offered to a passing stranger, when there can be no expectation of reward.”

– Melete the Stern, Atalante philosopher

Hanno did not feel as if he had come to a city, though the Gigantes called it such.

Hemera was nothing like what he had known, the cramped and organized streets of Arwad. The airy halls of the Gigantes were scattered across the mountain and sown as if by whim, each a small kingdom carved to the preference of its king: some were slender spires of stone, others singing mazes of glass and one built entirely of flowing water frozen in time. Pale roads of stone led them to one another, shifting with the mood of the ancient giants, and only a few were not so ephemeral. It was those that Hanno learned to follow, for they led him from the house he had been given to the heart of Hemera itself: the Proskenion.

The air was light and sunny today, the White Knight found as he rose with the dawn and began his walk down the pale road. It would remain so as long as enough of the Gigantes preferred the climate, for in Hemera the weather itself bent to the will of the giants. It stayed to their liking, following their moods. Hanno had seen both great lightning storms ravage the mountains with never a drop of rain touching a roof and pounding sun that would have turned stone to hot plates spare the most delicate blades of grass. Today the ancients had chosen the breeze and a gentle, glowing morning. Hanno smiled, his breath and the sound of his boots on the stone the only breaks in the quiet.

He liked morning like these best.

One did not tire walking the pale roads and always found where they were meant to go, but the White Knight had learned a trick to it. When you emptied themselves of desire, took a step back and sunk into the calm the Seraphim had shown him, you could follow the length of the road like running a finger down a spine. And from there you could navigate a detour like the one he’d chosen to take: past the pale stairs to the east, under the House of Ceyx and its winding emerald columns. It was the path that allowed him to see all of the Proskenion splayed out below, and live every time he’d come here the sight of the citadel of marble and air stole the breath out of him.

It was a wonder of hanging gardens and stone skene, beautiful halls where the giants gathered. Rivers and waterfalls had been sculpted as intricately as the stone while light was invigorated or dimmed so that every artful touch drew the eye while the imperfections faded. There was nowhere like the Proskenion anywhere else in the world, the Gigantes said, and Hanno believed them. Sometimes he could hardly believe his own eyes.

Yet for all that the beauty was moving, it was also deeply… different. Alien. Gigantes did not live as men did, keeping common houses or making families. They were solitary creatures at heart, coming together only for purpose or pleasure, and the Proskenion had been built to that truth. The mountainside citadel was where the giants came to debate their kind or display their works for the eyes of others, entire branches of it filling or emptying without visible rhyme or reason. Telekles, who was guide to Hanno whenever he cared to be, had said that it was also here the giants gathered to choose their chiefs – though this was rare, and the White Knight had never seen it. Allowing himself a moment to enjoy the sight in the morning sun, Hanno began to descend towards his chosen entrance: a strange garden whose many flowers were made entirely out of coloured stones. Which grew and mixed as if they were living things.

This day would make it a full month since had had come to Hemera, and Telekles had promised that with the turn of the moon there would be an answer to his request. The Chamber of Borrowed Lives had been built by spellsingers, in ancient days the Gigantes called ‘the Glory’, and with the Titan Seats forever broken now only spellsingers could allow entrance to it. Yet those elusive souls were not easily moved to haste, or even interest. Hanno suspected that if the touch of Judgement did not yet burn in him his request would not have been entertained as more than an amusing anecdote. Yet it had been, and Telekles had spoke of meeting at Sioemeros, the giant’s preferred skene.

Telekles had never mentioned a time, not particularly inclined to keep track of hours in a way common to his immortal kind, and so Hanno would come with dawn and wait until his guide arrived.

Thrice the White Knight was passed by the long stride of Gigantes as he made his way through the Proskenion, pausing to signify deference and gratitude by lowering his head and keeping his hands behind his back. His understanding of the nuances of the giants’ half-silent tongue was yet weak, so when they replied they kept to the broad strokes: acknowledgement, curiosity, and in the case of the third irritation. The last Gigantes stood still and Hanno had to remain in the uncomfortable pose, cold eyes on him until the bearded giant tired of exerting his right and strode away. Not all Gigantes had been pleased a human had been allowed into Hemera.

Some yet remembered the days when Hanno’s kind had come here only as slaves, labourers and servants for their Gigantes masters.

Siomeros was not difficult to find. Unlike many skene it was not elaborately built, instead little more than a circle of columns crowned by a plain frieze. Within a few stone seats, larger than some houses Hanno had known, had been carelessly strewn. The wonder hidden in here was only felt when one crossed into the circle, instantly felt: silence. Complete, utter silence. It was as if Siomeros was a realm apart from the rest of Creation, untouched by its vagaries. It was oddly restful, Hanno decided as he passed by a great column. Brown eyes scanned about for Telekles, whose silhouette might have been hidden by one thing or another, but the Gigantes was not there.

Someone was, though, and the White Knight froze at the sight: it was another human.

A girl clad in robes of coarse brown cloth, tanned with long dark tresses going down her back. She was sitting with her eyes closed atop what would have been a seat for a giant but was a perch for her, brow creased with concentration. Hanno hesitated, lingering at the bottom of the stone seat. He was burningly curious, but she did not seem inclined to talk.

“I can feel you staring,” the girl said. “Don’t you have somewhere else to be?”

She did not open her eyes and her tone was mild, but the way she flicked her head implied dismissiveness. It was a subtle enough gesture Hanno almost missed it. She speaks their tongue better than I do, he thought.

“I do not,” Hanno replied in tradertalk, frowning as he realized he was uncertain what language she’d spoken to him in. “I am to wait here for another.”

The girl sighed, opening green eyes.

“I was told to come here because it is a fine place to meditate without distractions,” she peevishly said. “You are proving otherwise.”

“I apologize,” the White Knight replied. “I will find somewhere else to stand if you prefer. It’s only…”

She narrowed her eyes at him, like a gargoyle glaring down from above. Gigantes couldn’t do that, he thought. The muscles in their face didn’t allow them to do it.

“Only what?” she asked.

“We are the only two humans in all of Hemera, as far as I know,” Hanno said. “Are you not even sightly curious why I am here? I am certainly curious about you.”

“It’s human business, so it has nothing to do with me,” the girl said. “I’ve left all that behind.”

“It seems to have followed you here,” Hanno drily said. “May I ask for a name, at least?”

The girl rolled her eyes at him.

“I am Antigone,” she said. “Now go away.”

The White Knight smiled, offered a bow.

“Hanno,” he said.

“I didn’t ask,” Antigone called back.

He went away, leaving her to her meditations as he had offered. Telekles arrived past noon, by the look of the sun, but Hanno was left smiling anyway for his guide brought the answer he’d wished for: the Chamber of Borrowed Lives would be opened to him.

The second time Hanno of Arwad met Antigone she set him on fire.

Not on purpose, mind you, but his eyebrow was still scorched right off. He’d been heading to the paths after a long day in the Chamber when the column of flame fell down from the sky, and though he managed to call on the Light he was just a little too slow. The same girl as before leapt down from a jade rooftop, frowning at him as he hastily patted out the last of the flames on his clothes. Antigone looked highly displeased and Hanno dimly wondered if he should be reaching for his sword.

“Why were you in the middle of the road?” Antigone asked.

“Why were you setting the road on fire?” Hanno incredulously shot back.

“It wasn’t about the road, you idiot, I was finally hearing the-”

Halfway through the first sentence of what promised to be a furious chewing out, the dark-haired girl closed her mouth. She breathed in and out, and instead of continuing to speak raised her chin high. Contempt. She then flicked her head to the side twice, exaggerated dismissal, and let her shoulders slump.

“I have no idea what the shoulders mean,” the White Knight noted.

Antigone’s frustration visibly mounted and she touched her left shoulder with her right hand. Flat palm, fingers tight. Unfortunately for her, he had no idea what that meant either.

“Is there a reason you cannot speak to me out loud?” Hanno asked.

She sighed.

“My teachers say that I should unlearn the need to talk,” Antigone said. “That is a deficient human habit and hinders listening to the world.”

Hanno stared at her blankly.

“Teachers?” he slowly repeated. “As in plural?”

She cocked an eyebrow, then started and made herself smooth her face. Gigantes faces, he remembered, were not expressive. Nuance was expressed by gesture.

“Yes,” she said. “What of it?”

“I barely even have one,” the White Knight told her.

Telekles did not consider him a charge, Hanno thought, so much as a recurring obligation. Like painting a wall or scraping the barnacles off a ship’s bottom. The giant had time for him only occasionally and was not interested in a closer tie.

“You must be deaf, then,” Antigone shrugged.

He did not quite catch the meaning of that, but the undertone was even more dismissive the head flicks.

“And you are being taught by multiple Gigantes,” Hanno said, still astonished. “What is it you have done to attract their interest?”

It was her time to seem startled.

“Kreios told them to,” she said.

Ah, that would explain it.

“So you know someone,” he hummed. “May I ask who? I did not know any of the giants still cared for events beyond the Titanomachy.”

She looked at him as if he were a particularly dim gnat.

“I just told you who,” Antigone said.

He frowned.

“The expression actually goes ‘Kronia told them to’,” Hanno informed her. “At least, that is the way the sailors from Levante say it. I was asking who among the Gigantes it was that has spoken for you, specifically.”

Her frustration visibly ticked up. Hanno was not sure why, she’d just used a common saying for ‘orders from above’. It was only natural he’d wonder as to who that above was.

“Kreios told them to,” Antigone repeated, slowly enunciating every syllable.

A pause.

“A dead Titan told the Gigantes to teach you magic,” Hanno repeated.

He met her eyes.

“How long have you been out in the sun?” he gently asked.

The second time she set him on fire, it was very much on purpose.

The third time Hanno of Arwad met Antigone she was wearing a mask.

It was made of clay and painted over in bold strokes of colour, covering her face entirely. With the hood of her robes pulled down and the long sleeves covering her hands, there was not a visible inch of skin for anyone to see. It was not him that had found her this time, for the White Knight had been in Siomeros for hours now. Leaning atop a great seat of stone, looking up at the night sky. Cloudy, tonight, so that the moon’s beam could stand out starkly. It was soothing after a day in the Chamber to lie there and watch, to do and hear nothing. His limbs were not tired, but his mind was. Drifting away into the nothing was the closest to peace he could find.

Sleep was no longer restful, these days. His exhaustion was not the kind that closing his eyes could mend.

Antigone had climbed up the side of the stone, which could not be coincidence. There were other, further places for her to sit should she wish to meditate. All that set this one apart from the others was his presence. Still, Hanno did not spare her more than the first glance. The stone was cool under his him and the sky above was all smoke and moonlight. He let the sensations soothe him, ignoring her even as he heard her move. He was not in the mood to discern the nuances of the Gigantes tongue in the hands of someone much his superior in that lore. She lost patience, eventually.

“You are the White Knight,” Antigone said.

Accused, almost.

“I am,” Hanno said.

“You never said,” she replied, definitely accusing.

“What does it matter?” he shrugged.

Antigone scoffed.

“What is it you are doing here, White Knight?” she asked. “The Patient Craft did not say, only that it was a duty of angels and should not be meddled in.”

The Patient Craft, Hanno recalled from the lessons of his friends in the Luminous Echo, was the smallest of the choruses in the Titanomachy. Yet it counted the most spellsingers, most of the time, so it was held in great respect. It concerned itself largely with the practicalities in the work of maintaining the greatest works of the Gigantes but also spoke broadly in favour of isolation and mandatory children-making. That Antigone’s teachers were so respected spoke to the truth of what he had first disbelieved: a Titan had spoken for her. The Riddle-Maker himself, the last of his kind.

“I am here to learn,” Hanno finally said.

The girls stood there awkwardly, shuffling on her feet.

“That is commendable,” Antigone said.

And he had so much still to learn, Hanno thought. The Chamber of Borrowed Lived seared that knowledge in him, broke into his bones and forced him to swallow it down, but it always seemed as if there was more to do. To see. Another lesson, another battle, another choice. Every day he left the stone coffin aching from every pore of his body, limping, but it was not enough. He was not yet prepared for what lay ahead. The Tribunal meant him to be the sword that would slay a great Evil, and even when his body bent in pain they did not believe him ready.

“You have impressed with your ability to withstand the Chamber,” Antigone tried, when it became clear he would not answer. “It has been commented upon.”

“I have withstood harsher glare than what burns in there,” Hanno quietly replied.

The girl sighed.

“I am trying to say,” Antigone said, “that I am like you.”

That was enough to have him glance at her again, for never had that seemed less true: under moonlight in those hooded green robes, with her masked face, she looked more a spectre than a girl.

“I am the Witch of the Woods,” she told him.

Ah, he thought, breathing out. That had been what he felt, scratching at the edge of his senses. Keeping his curiosity alight. The sensation was dimmer these days, like everything else, but he didn’t mind that so much. Everything was easier to see clearly when the calm was on him. Still, Hanno found himself smiling.

“Perhaps I should have asked for a Name instead of a name, when we first met,” the White Knight said.

“Maybe,” Antigone said, body moving to imply doubt.

Then, to his utter surprise, she sat by his side.

“What is it like, seeing a Choir?” she asked.

Hanno felt the cold stone beneath, saw the cold light of the moon above. The nothing he had been drifting into felt far away now, out of reach. But he answered, and quietly they spoke under the night sky. The sound of her voice, the White Knight found, kept him tethered here and now.

The following morning, he woke up rested for the first time in a year.

The night under the cloudy moon had been as an opened gate: the two of them sought each other out now. Not frequently, for both had been brought to Hemera by higher callings, but whenever the time could be spared they met in the Siomeros. It was a balm to him, speaking with another after the hours in the Chamber. It… grounded his thoughts, kept them in the here and now. He drifted less and less into the nothing, and though his body still ached it was a different sort. He was learning, growing. Staying in himself. Else who would he be, when he spoke with Antigone?

She, too, was changing. Her teachers loomed tall in her words. They had taught her secrets and sorcery, but they pressed more into her hands. Silence, a face that was made of clay and a disdain for what lay in the lands beyond the Titanomachy. Human business, she’d called it, as if it was something to be purged out of her. A weakness standing in her way before she could become like the Gigantes, perhaps even be one of them. Hanno asked of her parents, but she had never known them. Antigone had been raised by a creature that had once called itself a god, deep in the woods.

“Hunters came sometimes, looking for the shrine,” she told him. “To loot and steal. And sometimes the desperate tried their hand at chasing rumours, thinking I would end all their troubles with a wish.”

“There is more to people that what you saw,” Hanno replied.

“It doesn’t matter,” Antigone said. “What do I share with them, or they me?”

Hanno studied her.

“Is it your words I hear,” the White Knight asked, “or those of the Patient Craft?”

She did not answer and avoided him for a sennight after. Neither apologized, but they began spending time together again regardless. Antigone led him into the wilds below the mountain, where she introduced him to a great wolf she had known all her life. Lykaia, her name was, and she was large as a house. The White Knight was carefully polite and did not lose his hand when he offered it to be smelled, which he considered a fine outcome. Lykaia later offered him a strip of raw deer that evening, which Antigone assured him was a mark of approval.

The weeks passed, then months and years. Changes came with them. They grew into the mantles, she under starlight and he lay in a coffin of stone. It was his third aspect, the one that was not the Sword of Judgement or the White Knight’s, that nearly broke him. It was the realization that he would never truly leave the Chamber of Borrowed Lives, that it would stay in him until he died. Once he grasped the truth of that it swelled in him like a river, bursting out as a single word: Recall. He was his own Chamber now, forever echoing other songs.

He retreated into himself, hiding away in the mountains. Barely eating or drinking. It was Antigone who found him, made him bathe and sleep in a bed. She stayed with him for days, rarely leaving the room. Eventually he spoke, though not once did she ask.

“I am not sure,” Hanno confessed, “how much of myself is me.”

Green eyes watched him unblinking.

“The make more of it,” Antigone said, and leaned forward.

Her lips were soft against him. It was not his first kiss, but his first in many years, and neither stopped. Not even when hands wandered and clothes were thrown aside. Afterwards, they lay together and he felt her breath against his neck, the warmth of her skin against his. She’d been right, he thought. This was him and no one else. He could not become lost so long as he followed his own path.

“Thank you,” he murmured against her ear.

He felt her smile back. Neither of them spoke of it again or returned to that bed, for the night had not been meant as a promise. Antigone cared more for stars than sex, and Hanno… he was not certain he had it on him, to be with another. Not since he had become the White Knight. There would be parts of him he would never be able to share, callings that would supersede any other, and it would have been a half-hearted affection to pretend that could be enough. But he did not forget, and neither did Antigone. It was a sort of love too, what they had done.

And one that would not ask either of them to bend who they were, so he counted himself lucky for having it.

Hanno held the artefact in his hands, reverent.

The gift from the Luminous Echo looked like a sword, but that was a passing thing. Under his fingers, following his will, it changed into a spear in a moment and then into a warhammer. He had told the giants he was not worthy of the gift, but they had refused the answer. The chorus he had befriended was friend to the Choirs in turn, and they had disdained the thought of letting the Sword of Judgement leave these lands empty-handed. For the White Knight was leaving, after all this time. An acquaintance in the Sublime Auspice had brought word to him from the broader world: the League of Free Cities had erupted into civil war.

Foretelling by the spellsingers spoke of Evil coming down from the north, down the river, and great slaughters to come. Hanno could wait no longer. He had learned what he could from the Chamber and the learning had changed him. He would carry it with him until he died, an aspect carved into his soul. Now there was only the duty that lay ahead, and that duty awaited in the Free Cities. He had requested of the Sublime Auspice, who of all Gigantes kept closer ties outside the Titanomachy, to arrange for him a ship. One would soon sail towards the coast, a galley from Levante that would bring him to Nicae. All that was left here for him was goodbyes.

He found Antigone where they always met, in the heart of the Siomeros. How many mornings, how many evenings had they spent together in the silence of these tall columns? Too many to count. Antigone stood alone atop a seat, her mask at her belt and her hood down. The sun was dipping down across the horizon, the clouds framing the descent perfectly symmetrical on both sides of the burning redness. He climbed to stand by her side, their arms just closed enough to brush against each other.

“How long?” Antigone asked.

“I leave with dawn,” Hanno said. “The ship will only wait for a few days at the coast and there are no roads for me to travel.”

She nodded, silent.

“We will meet again,” Hanno gently said.

He would return to Hemera, one day. He could feel it in his bones. Antigone’s jaw tightened.

“Yes,” she murmured.

Her back straightened.

“Yes,” Antigone said, tone grown firm. “We will. I will find you, Hanno, when my learning is done.”

He went still, not hiding his surprise.

“There will always be more to learn,” the White Knight said.

“Creation is large,” the Witch of the Woods conceded. “And I have seen little of it.”

“It will be human business, out there,” Hanno warned her.

A long silence. Her eyes met his.

“That, too, I will learn,” Antigone said. “You did not lessen yourself in Hemera, Hanno. Did not carve away at who you are.”

She looked up at the burning red sun in the distance.

“Neither will I.”

5 thoughts on “Strangers

    1. Axel Rafael

      Also, it’s definitely not suuuuper important to tell the main story, but it gives so much more depth to simple shallowly understood moments in between characters.

      Like, I would’ve probs for Hanno at Antigone’s death if I had this backstory.

      Like, wow ❤️ how to write something “non – vital” but still Incredibly important and meaningful….

      Just next level

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Steve Neiman

      My favorite was probably Refuge II, because it retroactively made Hye’s death more satisfying to reminded of what a horrible person she was and how much she went out of her way to fuck up her students psychologically.

      Liked by 1 person

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