PodCastle 590: Labyrinth, Sanctuary
By A.E. Prevost
Constance carves her timeworn tracks into the thirsty rock. With silent steps her footfalls smooth the stone, century into century, grooves and gullies growing green as time and seed take hold. Stone after stone, her hands build battlements and balconies, repair time-ragged trusses, stack spires towards the sun. Deep in the dark wood, with every aching year, her sanctuary spreads its restless roots.
Constance dreams of colonnades and courtyards, crafts finials from fingernails, weaves tapestries from hair. She climbs her spiral stairs into the storm-bruised sky, flings open feverish arms against the thrum of thunder, batters the balustrades with fists like driving rain. Constance lets rage run through her like the roiling storm, then huddles in the hollows and scratches broken nails across the thirsty roots that thrive between the cracks. So long as she keeps building, she is safe. Her moss-laced maze mirrors the spirals in her soul, and she repeats her one and only truth: in this, her sanctuary, no ill thing can befall her.
The poet’s path bruises the grass under their ash-grim boots. A hunger howls behind them, spreading fast, a wildfire that feeds on hope and spits out fear like smoke. With sea-green scarf wrapped fast against their face, they fill their mouth and nose with flowers and song, and walk into the woods, and do not rest. The poet’s heart enshrines the memory of colours; an ocean coils within, wine-dark and dormant, which pulses in their throat with every step.
There was an ocean, once; the poet walked its coast and paddled in its pearl-kissed waters, trading tales with sirens, learning the songs of stars. Children with laughter bright as birds called them cousin, and families fished feasts of colour from the swelling waves, repeating recipes whispered by the sea winds. The poet plucked gem-hued fruit from swaying shoreline trees, with names they tasted in the juices on their tongue, and flowers sprung from where their bare feet met the fertile ground.
The fruit trees, too, have fallen now. All colours are consumed; all names are ash. Only the poet remains, steadfast, song-laden. Their loping strides track sea salt onto the forest floor.
The wall juts up among the trees, tangled with roots, jagged and ancient. The poet stops, panting through sea-green silk, brushing their sea-browned hand against the crumbling stone. Songs tell of a labyrinth here in these lands, long-haunted, ill-advised; the poet knows there must be a path through it, for there is a path through all places, in time. The hunger howls in the dust-ridden distance. The poet raises reddened eyes and meets the gaze of a stranger.
The stranger steps back, blending into the shadows. The poet presses close against the wall, peering through the crack where they just saw the woman wreathed in vines and leaves.
Ahoy inside, the poet calls. Are you a prisoner? Or are you lost inside the labyrinth?
I am Constance, the stranger says, her voice a wraith among the whispering trees. I am not lost, and I am not imprisoned. I am Constance.
I am Daylily, the poet says, kneeling beside the barrier. An ocean’s worth of memories weighs heavy on my back. A hunger hurries behind me to consume the world – all wonder, colour, hope, all life, and love itself. Long I lived as a petal, borne on a breeze, but now the wind that drives me reeks of waste and ruin. Will you reveal to me the passage through this labyrinth?
This is no labyrinth, Constance replies. She finds her strength steadily as she speaks. No, this is no labyrinth, stranger, any more than I am lost. A thousand years I’ve travailed in these woods, and set down every stone with my own hands. No harm can hunt me in my sanctuary. This place is safe from that which seeks you, too.
Soon there will be no sanctuary to be had, Daylily objects. Ash has covered the colours of the land, undone the sea, and quenched the stars. Ash has filled the mouths and eyes of everyone I’ve known.
Constance approaches the split between the stones, picks at her side of it with dirty fingers. The poet’s eyes beyond are proud, night-dark and pleading.
I see your sorrow, stranger, but you should not fear. These halls are strong, and here no fire will find us.
The poet’s eyes burn bright behind the break.
Wanderer, if you wish, Constance whispers, you could remain, secure behind my stones. There’s room to spare within my sanctuary.
Daylily reaches to Constance through the gap, their hands barely brushing.
Immortal architect, fleeing is all I have left, for if I am forgotten, so will be every hope once set in song. I beg you, now. I must pursue my path and travel through this place, or perish when the hunger reaches us.
Constance traces the tree-like whorls of Daylily’s fingertip with a feather-soft touch. Strange, the skin of another, sinew and rushing blood, blue-dyed nails, coarse hair. Strange, the shiver that ghosts along a bare arm at her breath. Strange, the distant drumming of a heart held fast in a fortress of flesh, a cage of bone. Strange, the smell of flowers and the sea.
Enter then, Constance says. Flee and be safe.
For the first time in a thousand years, a stranger stands on sanctuary stone. Constance collects small pebbles from the ground and stacks and restacks them in even piles. Daylily looks towards the forest line, past which their doom draws ever nearer, then down across the dark expanse of stone that winds and stretches out within the walls. Intentioned or not, a thousand years of building has birthed something well-served with the word Labyrinth.
I should continue quickly on my way, Daylily says. What path through is the fastest?
Constance pauses, a pebble in her hand. Thistles and thorns are threaded through her hair.
There is no map, she says, no method here but the one deep within my mind. But I can take you, I can, I know the way. Only I can show you out.
Daylily looks to her eager eyes, and nods.
Daylily’s boots follow Constance’s bare feet. The sun dips low, sending spears of copper through the cool dark trees. The labyrinth is floors and walls and stairs, but rooms throughout lie open to the sky; Daylily breathes in birdsong, dusk, and pollen, weaving its precious world into a poem.
What is it that you whisper as we walk? Constance asks. Often your breath is bound together with words I barely hear.
There is so little life left in the world, Daylily says. I must protect the poetry of it, wherever I can. Else my survival would have been in vain.
Constance runs her fingers along the familiar railing, her road drawing her deeper into the fortress.
Your survival saved you, she remarks. Even if you remembered nothing, that alone would be worth all your worry.
Do not say that! Daylily draws their features into a frown. Do not say that, Constance. I was a petal; I was never a stone. I was never meant to last, only to float like flotsam on the surface of the wave, my gaze turned gently to the dreaming deep. I was, and remain, nothing. Do not say that my survival alone is worth more than the memories I bear.
I do not think I said that, Constance says, stepping over a tree root in their way. But perhaps both have value. Yes, perhaps.
Daylily follows quietly in her wake.
The sickle moon shines silver light onto the columned court.
We should rest here a while, Constance suggests. There is a bed of ferns and feathers near where we can pass the night.
I have not slept since the hunger began, Daylily replies.
Does it follow so close? Constance asks, looking for the nest built long ago.
I fear sleep will devour my devotion, Daylily admits, and make me forget the folk whose songs I sing, or lead the desolation right into my dreams.
Well I have no such worries, Constance says from a soft-shadowed alcove. She stretches out her limbs and rests her head on ancient bird wings tied with red-dyed roots, and proposes they pause their travel until daybreak.
For one night, perhaps, Daylily presumes their quest can wait. Alone, they wander awake between the vine-wreathed pillars; they fill their eyes with infinite shimmering stars, their ears with the calls of cricket, owl, and frog. Under the milky moonlight, Daylily murmurs to remember, and Constance is lulled to sleep by their soft litany.
The dawn paints pink coral blooms on Constance’s cheeks and sets fire to the halo of Daylily’s hair. Birds with scarlet-tipped feathers follow them, hopping from stone to stone, from arch to arch.
Will you teach me a song from your life by the sea? Constance requests, ambling abreast with Daylily. We have a way to walk still before you leave, and I have no songs of my own save the sounds woven by the wilderness.
The wilderness is splendid in its song, Daylily says. I could listen a century and still be wanting.
You could stay, Constance says. Put roots down in the woodlands for a while. When your hunger comes, my walls can withstand it. Nothing will make ash of us in here.
Daylily faces forward, steadfast and unforgiving. They walk in silence down the winding stair.
Truly, Daylily says, your sanctuary is spectacular.
Constance gathers loose gravel, lays it aside for later at the angles of hallways.
Most of the time, now, I reuse what crumbles, she says. But sometimes I dig deeper in the rock and bring out a new boulder with which to build.
And you have truly done this for a thousand years? Daylily asks.
Your hunger is behind you, Constance says. It chases you. Mine is within. It waits for me in quiet moments, in my belly, breathless. Its patience is perfect. Building keeps it at bay.
And you have never left, not once, in all this time?
In leaving, I would lose all I have made, Constance mutters, scratching her skin against the stone. My castle would crumble, and I would surely turn into dust, dissolve, and drift away.
I would not want you to dissolve, Daylily says. But if you could escape this place, perhaps we could travel together. I would hate for the hunger to consume you, drain your dreams from the world, wither your vines. I would hate for a thousand years of stories to be swept into ash.
Constance crouches and straightens out the little stacks of slate that line the edges of the pin-straight path. She only rises once the stacks are straight, and turns to her companion rather than check again.
I am more than stories, and so are you.
Daylily looks away, into the dappled light cast through the canopy of towering trees.
Daylily, Constance asks without approaching, will you teach me one of the ocean’s songs? By nightfall we will near the end of my expanse, and you will flee, and I will remain rooted in my fortress. I ask you this one kindness in exchange for seeing you through my sanctuary. Do not leave me songless and on my own.
Silence stretches between them like a thread, spider silk, shivering in the breeze.
I do not sing, Daylily says, their face turned towards the forest. I did, before, when I lived freely among friends, the ocean churning out new canticles with every crashing wave. Our fables flowed, easy as breath, through child and fruit and star, and we stitched stories into fish scales, told tales on wax-printed fabrics, dyed sand to sketch sagas into the beach, triumphant and then vanished with the tide. Easy as breathing, in and out, a beauty borne by all of us together, new stories spreading like wildfire down the coast, blooming in different colours on each vine, and then releasing seeds upon the wind.
But only I remain now, and I fear that if I share the songs that I have learned, I will lose them forever. And my family, my ocean, my stars and flowers will fade, leaving me empty. One day, perhaps, I will find an apprentice, and pass my tales along for another to carry. One day, perhaps, I will be ready to be nothing once again, and to die. But until then I collect, and flee, and do not sleep or sing.
Constance remains a moment, then relents, guiding the poet onwards through a narrow arch and up a passage to a parapet, a path that overlooks the vine-encrusted woods.
It seems a pity, she says, at the top, that such thriving songs should stay bottled within you. To hear you say it, a large part of their beauty was the way the poems passed from breath to breath, from heart to heart. If you keep them inside, is that not hollow? Is that not how the hunger itself behaves?
I am nothing like the hunger, Daylily states.
Yet you believe yourself empty and worthless, Constance says. Save for the songs that you deny the world.
I’m not the hunger!
Then prove it, wandering poet. Sing for me.
Daylily kicks their boots off and faces her, brow feverish, feet rooted to the rock. They pull their sea-green scarf down from their face, revealing a strong nose and blue-dyed lips. Behind them in the sky clouds darken, their clotting shadows covering the day.
The sky draws close, yearning for devastation, draining the colour from the trees. The birds go quiet, blotted out by the questing silence. Behind Daylily, the blanketing moss dries up and the ferns shrivel. Constance chokes on dust and watches rivulets of ash race across the stone towards her like spring thaw.
Daylily, she says, Daylily, sing.
It begins with a single hummed note hovering between them, timid and intangible as hope itself. The hunger pauses, a predator taking a breath before descending on its death-marked prey. Daylily feels its breathing on their back, dry, thirsting. Tears fall as they close their eyes and find their voice.
The poet’s song starts soft but quickly grows into a symphony of colour: sapphire and tourmaline, topaz, carnelian, white sand-caressing waves and sweet sun-ripened red. Their words litter the ground like leaves, hover over Constance’s skin like hummingbirds, thunder against her fortress like a flood. Constance’s heart beats ruby-dark and rushes warmth through her. She takes a step towards the singer, hand outstretched, and the creeping ash shrinks back.
Fish flit like dragonflies in the gem-clear shallows, reflecting sunlight on their rainbow scales.
Constance’s fingers touch Daylily’s hand. Beneath the poet’s bare feet, sprouts spring up, new green twining around their toes. Constance hums the tune she hears, in halting echoes that turn into harmonies.
Children stack shells into a shiny game, gathered by size and colour, counting their collection as they win and lose.
Constance’s dress of vines writhes and awakens, flora erupting up her thighs and flanks, cascading down her shoulders in a mantle of morning glories and pea blossoms. Sunlight and gentian gather in her hair.
Strong arms lay out baskets of sweet sun-baked berries, sea-salted leaves, round thumb-sized roots boiled and seasoned with spices, sugar wine. Barrels of seaweed and whisper-thin white fish, fermenting to be reborn as broth.
Daylily holds on to Constance’s hands, Constance’s voice. They turn to face the howling hunger together, pouring an ocean of stories down its throat as saplings spring up around them on the parapet. Crawling nasturtium vines chase ash from stone, bursting open in sunset-scarlet blooms against the grey.
Elders gather from up and down the coast, bringing a pot-luck of plates cooked by grandchildren and great-grandchildren and great friends. In the firelight they forget their differences, sing songs of storms that only they survived, laugh at old jokes, rekindle relationships long since burned down to embers. They watch stars that have wandered far longer than them, and that will still fill the night when they’re forgotten.
Constance and Daylily face down the dust, hands clasped. A crack of thunder punctuates their song. Exhilarated rain ruptures the sky, sinks into their garments as warm as love, and waters their growing garden. Rain rinses ash away and replaces it with roots, rushing throughout the sanctuary and beyond to erupt and scream out in greens and reds and yellows. Birds nest in newborn trees, sheltered from the rioting rain, and each drop on their plumage echoes a song of the ocean, which they weave into their own.
Under the bright and noisy canopy of the wide woods, deer raise their russet heads, and ring-tailed rodents leap to lower branches. Constance can see the whole of it laid out, the triumphs and struggles of life being lived beyond the boundaries of her home. In the clearing distance, as the ash recedes, a glimmering line of light traces the end of the land. And bright as a dream, along the sparkling shore, she sees elders laugh around fires, children count shells, bright-patterned figures gather garnet-glowing fruit. She squeezes Daylily’s hand as the hunger fades and flees – for now. There is so much there, in the world beyond. Perhaps there will be time to see it all.
About the Author
A.E. Prevost loves writing about found families, language, gender, mental health and mental illness, and good things happening to interesting people. Their most recent publications are in the battle poet anthology Sword & Sonnet and the Gender Diverse Pronouns special issue of the magazine Capricious. Their story from Capricious, “Sandals Full of Rainwater”, made the 2018 Tiptree Honor List, and will be reprinted in the upcoming Transcendent 4: The Year’s Best Transgender Speculative Fiction.
A.E. is a linguist by training and one of the people behind the linguistics educational video series The Ling Space (on YouTube). They also love making constructed languages, and they have been lucky enough to get to apply their skills to feature films and other secret projects. In their day job, A.E. helps run an independent bookstore in Montreal, Canada, as well as working at a nonprofit that provides advocacy and support for disabled students pursuing higher education. A.E. has a Patreon where they put up miscellaneous new writing and adorable cat pictures every month. You can support them for a dollar or more a month, at patreon.com/aeprevost.