Still, in most ways, there was something sweet in returning to this past. A romantic like Daniel might say chivalry had never really died, but then, Daniel had a complicated relationship with both love and death. Roland had lived among this early brand of chivalry for years. It was nearly over now in the Middle Ages, and it was certainly dead in the present tense Roland had just traveled from. There was no question in his mind.
But once upon a time …
For the briefest moment he remembered a glimmer of golden hair streaming in the wind.
He flipped up the visor of his helmet and gasped for air. He would not think of her. That was not why he was here.
He nudged Blackie forward and shook his head, trying to clear his mind.
Roland was less than a mile from the band of knights he was seeking. He scanned the horizon: the sweeping dip of vales to the east, a rainstorm behind him and to the west. Ahead, the road wound up and around through twists of hills that formed a protective barrier for the city. Also ahead stood a castle that he intended to avoid. He would ride a wide berth around it. And on the other side of that castle was the road—if it was still in passable condition—that would lead him straight to the Daniel of this era. And to his own medieval self.
In his long-ago memory of this era, he remembered how the strangely clad knight had appeared before them, bearing orders from the king.
The knight had slowed his horse at the threshold of their tents and had passed around a decree commanding the men to abandon their post for two nights to celebrate the new St. Valentine’s holy day, as was God’s will. Only a few of them could read, so most of the men took the good news on faith. Roland still remembered the whoops and hollers that came from his fellow knights.
The knight had not spoken a word—had simply delivered the decree and galloped away … on his coal-black horse.
Strange. Roland looked down at Blackie, stroked her silver-white mane.
If this was Roland’s destiny—to be the angel behind the visor who gave Daniel a Valentine’s Day gift, directing him back to the arms of the girl he loved—then some event would have to transpire that would allow him to swap his white horse for a black one. And someone would have to place a king’s decree in his hand.
Stranger things happened, he knew, nearly every day.
He put his heels to Blackie’s flanks and rode on, sweating one moment, shivering the next.
Eventually, Roland rode right up to the castle. It guarded the northernmost fief in the county, the last outpost on the way to the knights’ camp. He sat astride his mount for a moment, taking in the familiar stonework.
The castle towered before him like a colossus. There were chalk-white chimneys over each chamber, narrow slits to afford a view from each façade. Corbels and cornices decorated the dark-gray blocks of stone, whose magnitude made Roland feel small. The castle’s size boggled his mind. It always had, even for that brief stretch of time when he had passed through its gates nearly every day—and climbed its grooved stones to reach a single balcony every night.
His knees shook against his horse’s flanks. His heart felt as if it had swelled to ten times its natural size. It beat as if every palpitation might be its last. The backs of his shoulders burned, and he wanted to fly far away, but his wings were encased in the full metal jacket on his back and he would not take it off.
Besides, no matter how far Roland flew, he could not escape the terror spreading through his soul.
Inside this castle lived a girl named Rosaline. She was the only being in the universe Roland had ever truly loved.
Blackie neighed softly as Roland slipped off her back. He led her to a budless apple tree at the southern limits of Rosaline’s father’s property and tied her bridle around the trunk.
How many times had Roland circled the trees in this orchard, carrying his love’s wide woven basket on his arm, trailing behind her, adoring her slow movements as she plucked red fruit from the branches?
Her father was an earl or a duke or a baron or some other variety of greedy land magnate. Roland had stopped caring about such mortal titles after a thousand years of having to watch their kind play at war games. This mortal’s sole passion in life seemed to be exactly that: waging war and stealing the riches of nearby fiefdoms and making life a living hell for all his neighbors. The band of knights Daniel and Roland served with fell under his sway, so Roland and his fellows had spent many hours outside and within these castle walls.
He dug into Blackie’s saddlebags and found a dried apple, then fed it to the horse while he took the measure of the situation.
He remembered this Valentine’s Day Faire. He knew that it took place after his affair with Rosaline had ended. Their love would have been over for … five years by now.
He shouldn’t have stopped here. He should have known this would happen—that the memories would flood his mind and cripple him.
Not a day went by, these thousand years, that Roland did not regret the way he had ended things with Rosaline. He had designed his life around that regret: walls and walls and walls, each one with its own impenetrable façade. The regret formed a castle inside him many universes vaster than the one that stood before him now. Perhaps that was why this English castle’s size moved him so dramatically—it reminded Roland of the fortress within him.
He was far too late to redeem himself with her.
And yet …
He gave Blackie an encouraging scratch and made for the castle. There was a stone-flagged walkway lined with hibernating primrose bushes, which ended at a heavy metal gate. Roland avoided this and took a side path. He walked under the tree line of the bordering woods until he could slink along out of sight in the shadow of the castle’s western wall. It towered over him, rising fifty feet in the air before the first window offered a glimpse out.
Rosaline used to wait for him there, her blond hair trailing over the window’s edge. It was the signal that she was alone—and awaiting Roland’s lips. The window was empty now, and to gaze upon it from the ground below gave Roland a rusty feeling of homesickness, as if he were very, very far from the place where he belonged.
No guards looked down from the battlements here, he knew. The wall was too high. He left the shadows and walked over to stand directly beneath the window.
He ran his hands along the wall, remembering the grooves his feet had found so many times before. He’d never dared then to unleash his wings in front of Rosaline. It was enough to ask a mortal like her to love him despite the color she perceived in his skin. Her father never saw Roland without his visor, and would not have permitted a Moor to fight for him.
Roland could have changed the way he looked; angels did it all the time. How often had Daniel changed his mortal guise for Luce? They’d all stopped counting.
But it wasn’t Roland’s style to follow trends. He was a classicist. His soul felt comfortable—as comfortable as was possible—in this particular skin. There were occasions, like today, when his looks caused some dull hassle, but it was never anything Roland couldn’t withstand. Rosaline said she loved him for who he was inside. And he loved her for that openness … but she didn’t really know. There were still some things about himself Roland knew he could never expose.
He would not expose himself now, not by shedding his armor or baring his wings. Habit would help him scale the wall the old-fashioned way.
The path within the walls came back to him, as if it were illuminated by the same golden sheen his exposed wings cast upon the world.
Roland began to climb.
At first, he was cautious in his ascent, but even in the creaky metal armor, he soon felt nimble again with light memories of love.
A few short minutes later, he reached the top of the outer wall and heaved his legs onto the narrow ledge of the parapet. Righting himself, he slunk along to the far turret and gazed up at its conical sienna spire. From there, it was a treacherous climb up to the ring of arched windows circling the tower. But he knew that there was a narrow terrace outside one of the windows, and a fine lip of stone encircling the tower. He could stand upon it and peer inside.
Soon enough, he arrived at the ledge and clung firmly to the stonework alongside the window. That was when he noticed the open balcony door. A red silk curtain billowed in the wind. And there, beyond it, a brush of mortal movement. Roland held his breath.
Blond waves of hair, long and loose, hung down the back of a glorious green dress. Was it her? It had to be.
He longed to reach in and pull her from the window, to make the world the way it used to be. His fingers grew numb from his hard grip on the ledge, and in the pivotal moment when the golden-haired goddess spun around, Roland froze so quickly, so completely, he thought he would tumble like an icicle to the ground.
He pulled himself away and back onto the ledge, his chest flat against the wall, but he could not pull his eyes away from the girl.
It was not her.
This was Celia, the lord’s younger daughter. She must have been sixteen now—Rosaline’s age when Roland had broken her heart. She resembled her sister: fair skin, blue eyes, rose-petal lips, and all that stunning flaxen hair. But the fire within her—that mighty conflagration that Roland had adored in Rosaline—was a dying ember in Celia.
Still, Roland was riveted, unable to make the slightest move. If Celia swept out through the window and onto the balcony, as she looked like she was about to do, Roland would be caught.
That voice—like a stringed instrument, only richer. Rosaline!
For a fraction of a second, Roland saw a shadow in the doorway, and then: the clean, graceful profile of the only girl he’d ever loved. His heart stopped. He could not breathe. He wanted to cry out her name, to reach for her—
But his sweating palms betrayed him and his grip faltered. For several eternal seconds, Roland felt like he was hovering in the air—and then he plummeted six long stories to the muddy ground.
The open doors of a dilapidated barn.
Roland recognized it as the rickety structure on the northeast corner of the castle grounds. The sun swept past the doorway at about six o’clock on summer evenings, so Roland guessed by the golden light on the hay that it was nearly seven. Nearly suppertime—or the ever-too-brief stretch when Roland could persuade Rosaline to steal a few moments alone with him.
Through the wide wooden doors he saw two silhouettes huddled in a dark back corner. There, between the chicken feed and a rusty pile of sickles, Roland saw his earlier self.
He barely recognized the boy he’d been. They were one and the same, and yet something made this boy actually look young. Hopeful. Unspoiled. His woolen tunic hugged his body, and his eyes were as bright as a newborn filly’s. She did that to him—stripped away millennia spent toiling on Earth, his entire existence in Heaven, and the weighty Fall afterward.
He might have been experienced at war, at rebellion against the divine, but when it came to romance, Roland’s heart had been the heart of a child.
He sat on a three-legged wooden stool and gazed—so earnestly it embarrassed him to recall it—at the gorgeous blond-haired girl before him.
Rosaline reclined on her side in the hay, oblivious to the thistles that clung to her satin gown. Her hair had a luster that was lovelier even than he remembered, and her skin was as smooth and bright as fresh-skimmed cream. Her downward gaze meant that all Roland could see of her fair blue eyes was the soft curtain of lashes drifting over them. In those days, her full lips had two expressions: the pout they clung to now and the brief gift of a smile she sometimes bestowed on Roland. Both were desirable. Both did strange things to him.