Beneath Rythe


The conclusion to the Rythe Quadrilogy.


Sample Chapters:

Prologue


The time of gods pass. Sunlight fades. Men die and darkness rises and then it is demons who rule the night and the shade. Men fear demons more than gods because it is those blackest souls which men understand best.
   Worlds, too, are half dark, half light. One needs the other just as men need demons.
   With the darkness which fell over Rythe came the cold. The seas in the temperate lands were chilled, and where once the waters were calm, ice floated by. Waves tugged and shoved at the shore, sluggish but insistent. The creatures of the seas knew death, too. The leviathans stirred. Kraken and whale, seawolf and gransald, and all the tentacled and long-toothed things of the depths moved across the wide seas, searching for surcease from the doom that came from shifting ocean floors and tidal waves.
   Winter came to a whole world, and with its bounty of snow and ice so too came famine.  Land once lush plains, or untamed forest, or fertile farmland froze and crackled with cold. Trees snapped inside. Food could not grow from ice.
   War raged far and wide until those white lands turned red from it. Fallen warriors, bodies and blood frozen in battles of steel and fire became lost under the snow or joined the nameless among the mounds of dead. Cities which flourished in the light cowered in the day’s gloom, and the weight of the night. Sunlight became a sputtering candle and the Elethyn were the hungry wind that blew like the frosted breath of death’s dread hounds.
   These hounds did not flee the day; they devoured it.
   The planet’s twin suns Carious and Dow watched the land, unable to warm it, or keep it alive, powerless before the black-hearted Elethyn – those known to most as the Sun Destroyers.
THEY WILL EAT ALL THE WORLDS – those words the thoughts, the soul and feelings of the suns themselves, and unutterable sad.
   Suns do not fear their own death. They fear the loss of their children, even those who turned from their will, like the Naum who were not lost, but shunned. The Naum had made their choice. They embraced the dark and ate of their own flesh long before the suns forsook them.
   Even the Elethyn were not cursed as the Naum.
   WE DIE, said Carious in the majestic language of the stars.
   Even moonlight faded until it was only a pale ghost.
   Beings born of light needed the light to see. They need it to feel, too...the Elethyn needed no such thing. Though the Elethyn were few in number they tore Rythe asunder. They turned wood to ash, bodies to bone and stone walls to dripping, molten rock. Men and women – humanity – hid in the deepest places they could find as fire rained from volcanoes, seas rose to wash away villages, lands quaked and split the very bedrock.
   The Elethyn did not hate, nor love, nor fear. They bathed and they fed, and the suns’ light and the suns’ power was all that mattered to them.
   Humanity cowered within the black embrace of a world become an enemy, and what choice, then, but to die, or to fight the void? Whether that manifestation was as evil or good, dark or light, dead or living, man or monster, it was no choice at all.
   Rythe fought not for victory but because the true foe was oblivion, and to battle it was eternal.

*

Cold can always grow.
   Forest, field, desert, mountain, rivers and seas...these became as cold as those places where the warmth of suns never reached. Cold as the caverns and caves, or in the graves and barrows. Cold as the drowned dead who mouldered in the pits of the seas.
   The coldest were the cursed ones; Naum, the undying, those buried in graves of yew or iron. All those beings denied the light until the death of the world itself were still there, though. The dead remained, whether bone or mere spirit, beneath Rythe.
   One who still remembered the languages the dead and dark things spoke softly, but in a voice that even death would not deny.
   ‘The time to rise has come,’ said the Queen in the dark.
   And they rose.
Part I.
The Queen in Darkness
Chapter One

Renir Esyn, King of Sturma, stood at a long window and was barely able to see anything outside. Afternoon only and the constant gloom stole the land away. This, the country which was his to protect. His to hold him down and to weigh so heavily on him, too, it seemed.
   The people had rebuilt most of Naeth in mere months since the battle that saw the end of the Order of the Sard and so many friends dead. Drun Sard was gone. Shorn, gone. Shorn, who had always been something more than a friend, something less.
   Like a brother.
   Renir missed them both. He thought pain was finite, but now he knew it was not. His wife Hertha, a witch wiser by far than he, still lingered in his mind.
   Wiser, yes...but she died to the Drayman blades without choice. Drun, Shorn...they died in a war they were born to fight. So should I be so bereft for the loss of friends who died their own way?
   Drun had been a priest, but one schooled in war who had trained his whole life in the ways of magic to stand beside the true paladins of the Order of Sard. Shorn was a warrior who might have easily have come straight from the womb to a life of endless battle.
   And they died for what? Their legacy was this crushing darkness. Sturma was a country fading into shadow. Her people cowered in fear and that darkness had grown so bold to steal the day itself.
   Is this the world we fight for? Is this the spoils of a war we cannot win?
   Renir shivered. Everywhere was cold now. At the King’s back a great fire pit burned, piled high with new wood which spat and crackled. The flames did nothing to touch the biting chill in the room.
   His council waited on him.
   Renir Esyn, King of Sturma, leader of an army lost. The man who stumbled from the life of a fisherman to that of a warrior, and was now doomed to be the last king of a dying kingdom.
He could not ignore the men and women at his back and stare at nothing for the rest of the day. Just for a moment he imagined himself out in the shallow, calm seas of his home village on the coast of the Spar, a place far behind and long ago. A moment of respite in his mind. It was just him, net trailing through blue seas which had once seemed to stretch away forever. An ocean of possibility under the light of the greater and lesser suns. He almost felt the tingle of salty breeze on his face.
Then he crashed back to reality. Cloying damp air, the stench of woodsmoke. Outside the throne room low grey skies like angry seas turned upside down covered the land. He was drowning far beneath them, flailing in currents he did not understand.
   He turned away from the window to those waiting in the throne room. His throne was just a simple wooden chair at the head of a long table stained and scarred from heavy-handed men careless with cutlery. The fire burned in the centre of the room, and tables surrounded it. His council looked to each other through the flames, or to him.
   Like the Sturmen Thanes of old, Renir chose to meet visitors at the tables rather than separate himself from them by making them stand before him while he lorded over them, a fisherman in a chair looking down at men and women or no more, or less import, than himself.
   His throne room did not feel kingly to Renir, but more like a mead hall.
   What am I but a barbarian king?
   Once he’d allowed himself to be swayed, to be like a king was expected to be. High on a platform, set above other men. The Order of Sard pushed him.
   ‘You must wear your fine armour. You must be seen to stand above other men. You are a symbol now, not a man...’
   Most of the Sard were dead while he still lived. Cenphalph and Quintal were all who survived of the Sard. Paladins, masters of war.
   Fools when it comes to people.
   Renir gave Tirielle A’m Dralorn a half-nod of acknowledgement. Tirielle sat at the high table, beside the Throne.
   Perhaps wiser than the Sard, but still, she does not understand.
   ‘I’m ready,’ he mouthed. She was his adviser...she was also a Lianthrian, alien and foreign with her dark hair and short features. A woman born of a different land, who also told him he must be above, must set himself apart and rule. He had listened and set himself above other men, and his friends stayed at the inn in the city, Shorn had been taken and beheaded by the beast Klan Mard.
   Renir took a deep breath, then sat on the plain throne.
   He wore the Crown of Kings on his brow, but it was the only symbol he would permit. His armour was his – worn and battered and no greater than any other man’s. His axe was just steel. His heart was that of a fisherman, not a King.
   And that is good enough, he thought.
   Renir shook his head.
   ‘No man should be set above,’ he said. Then, for an instant, he could not catch his thoughts. He held up a hand to stall any interruption. The fire crackling was the only noise, it seemed.
   ‘No man is greater than any other. We are brothers and sisters. Set no man above. Friends...we did that. We set Caeus above us. Drun, perhaps. The Sard. Great men and...creatures,’ he said. Caeus had not been a man, but he had proven a force for good. An Elethyn, but to call the crazed Red Wizard Elethyn would be no more accurate than calling Caeus a man. He had been something else. ‘Caeus was great, yes, but no greater than us, the whole. I say we shall place no wizard, nor priest, nor warrior, nor lord, higher than his fellows.’
   ‘Renir...’
   He shook his head and stalled Tirielle, at his right hand.
   ‘And certainly no king.’
   And what of Queens, and thieves, and the dead beneath the dirt? She set herself higher, didn’t she?     Or, should it be ‘lower’?
   But this wasn’t the time to talk of the Queen. This was about humanity.
   The world is too broad, right now. We lose our thoughts in such a wide place. Start small, he thought, lest it overwhelm us.
   ‘The world of Rythe is two worlds,’ Selana, Queen of Thieves, had told him. ‘A world split into the dark and the light. Divided between death and life.’
   ‘People need to see what they expect to see, Renir,’ said Tirielle. ‘A shining crown, someone magical, unattainable...’
   Bourninund snorted. ‘Renir? Unattainable? Two groats and he’s yours, Lady Tirielle.’
   Renir smiled, despite the weight he felt in his soul. Bourninund and Tirielle were both right, in their own way. No man should be higher, but people did need some symbol, whatever or whoever that may be, to focus upon.
   Like I need something focus on. Sturma – because this world is just too much to see.
   Renir laid his hands on the arms of the chair beneath him. It was more comfortable than the old things in the low rooms. Dusty steel thrones, or one with flaked paint of silver, or the mildewed and wood which must have been hundreds of years old. Probably chairs the Stewards had sat upon. Not, certainly, a thousand years old. The last king’s throne would have been long, long gone. The last king had been Tarn, and while Tarn was ages dead the man’s memories were not...all Sturman kings lived on, in some sense, in the diadem upon Renir’s brow.
   ‘I won’t do it, Tirielle. I won’t be a pretty, dancing on a white horse for the common folk to swoon over. I am the common folk. I was a fisherman...’
   ‘So you are fond of saying, my mighty, brave King,’ said Tirielle, bowing her head. Wen and Bourninund laughed, because no matter how often she told Renir to behave like a king, she spoke to him like a woman scolding a child. ‘But it is a time for kings and warriors. Not fishermen.’
   ‘And darkness, and witches, and the dead,’ he replied.
   Renir understood those closest to him on his council tried to lighten this room, at least, because the world outside had become so dark. His thoughts, though, bore heavy as armour on a man.
   ‘Yes,’ said Tirielle. ‘It is a time of witches. Magic has returned, Renir. We can’t...’ she waved her hand at the dark outside, ‘simply blow out a candle and hope it will go away. The dark grows, and she fights it. You ordered this, Renir. You.’
   Renir didn’t reply or argue. She was right. Shorn and Drun died at the hands of the skin-mage Klan Mard, and it was Renir who had agreed to let Selana to rise from the bowels below Naeth.
   ‘Then where is she? Where, Tirielle?’
   She shrugged – a pretty and careless gesture – but she was clearly troubled, too. His advisors, his council (my friends, he thought, like we are all children playing at courts and lords and ladies) were all concerned.
   ‘She is powerful, but cannot send the Elethyn forth with a flick of her hand. She needs allies.’
   ‘The dead,’ said one of the Ladies of the Lare, the region north of the Spar.
   Renir watched Tirielle, her stern eyes and smiling mouth, as she looked around at the assembled men and women of the council. Her at Renir’s right, Bourninund to his left. Wen, the Thane Frederik, Sutter the Guard Captain. A few men at the foot of the square, hidden in the firelight, who Renir didn’t really know.
   Garner, the mage, watched silently. Turpy, Garner’s brother mage, was off on some errand or other. Cenphalph Cas Diem and Quintal on either side of the square. Two ladies of Naeth, a miserly man with a broad, fat set of jowls from Gern’s Crest.
   ‘The dead or the living,’ said Tirielle. ‘Counsellors – do such things matter in face of oblivion? Rythe is two worlds, and both living and dead – all belong. Witch-kin, thief, maid, farmer, murderers and soldiers, gamblers, vampires and wights...we belong. The Elethyn do not. Once, perhaps. Rythe is not their world. It is two worlds, but there is not room for three. You ask where the Queen goes? She goes to bring allies and allies she will bring. This world fights and trust her or not, she does fight for Rythe and for us.’
   She turned all her attention to Renir. The council listened as well. Tirielle had a strength of character about her. When she spoke, people did listen.
   ‘This fight is not yours alone, Renir Esyn. You do not own the fate of Rythe. I ask you this only; remember that. Why are we here?’ She indicated the council, all sitting, all watching her now. ‘Are we here to ease the weight on your shoulders? No, Renir. We are here to remind you to set it down sometimes.’
   Some nodded, some shrugged.
   Wen Gossar huffed.
   ‘She’s no idiot,’ he said.
   Tirielle sighed. ‘Wen.’
   ‘I agree,’ said Quintal. ‘This fight is Rythe’s. Not Sturma’s. The rahken stand, the mages, the witches’ and thieves’ covenants answer calls to war. The Draymen...’
   ‘The Draymen care not,’ said Bourninund.
   ‘An emissary came, and perhaps some do,’ said a voice from the shadows. One or two of the counsellors jumped as Roskel Farinder, the Queen’s Consort, stepped into the light.
   ‘Once there were Bladesingers in Draymen lands. Maybe...again.’ Roskel shrugged. ‘I am no prognosticator, but I cannot imagine even the Draymen are uncaring as to the Elethyn. Some clans have offered safe passage west, if not warriors. They will not forget the skin-mage’s evil in a hurry, and an enemy of an enemy...’
   Renir nodded a cursory greeting, unsurprised Farinder had wanted to watch from the shadows before making himself known. The Queen’s lover was stealth itself. Renir knew that well.
   ‘Roskel, the Draymen tried to exterminate us. I would rather not rely on them, only know that they will not side with the Elethyn...’
   ‘They did what they did at the behest of the skin-mage, my King,’ said Roskel, with a slight bow. ‘I think the Draymen are decimated. They will not march on Sturma again. But side with the Elethyn?’ Roskel shook his head.
   ‘Are we to take counsel from the undead, too?’ said one woman, with an unattractive, permanent sneer.
   Lady Hanrath? Lady...
   What does it matter? thought Renir.
   ‘Yes,’ he said, stern and short and hard and his glare shut her mouth with a snap. ‘A mage who wears the skin of whomever he wishes murdered my friends,’ said Renir. ‘A mage who is powerful enough to walk where he pleases. The Elethyn? We see them. We cannot fight them...but we see them. This mage could walk in here and end us before we knew he was among our number. The Queen is the only creature on all of Rythe who might help us. We face a foe powerful enough to turn this world to dark,’ he said, waving at the gloom beyond the castle. ‘And a monster who can wear us. Like a shirt, a cloak. Think on that,’ he said, and stared around the room at each and every one present.
   Perhaps the anger he felt was but sadness, veiled, but it was a harsh mask and many of the council paled before it.
   Roskel understood. He carried on as though Renir was a man, not a King close to breaking.
   ‘Wise men take counsel where they can, and discard that which they find of little import. Now...you ask where my Lady is. She is in that other land – Lianthre. She raised support and allies there. Two men with whom you are acquainted – Gurt and Perr – answer her call. The rahken move across plain and forest. Lianthre is not idle. Sturma does not stand alone.’
   ‘I am glad to hear Gurt lives,’ said Tirielle. ‘Thank you, Lord Farinder.’
   If any other men or women at the table felt unease at the pale vampire’s presence, they were wise enough not to say as much. These were the days when the dead rose. Sometimes they never laid down to begin with.
   ‘And those allies?’ asked Cenphalph.
   ‘My Queen Selana calls on the Naum,’ replied Roskel.
   ‘The Naum?’ said the man with the jowls. ‘A fable...a myth...’
   Roskel nodded. ‘As you say, my Lord. The Naum and the vampires and Sun Destroyers. All myths, of course. Myths are no more than old things, I agree. Forgotten things are sometimes true, nonetheless.’
   ‘The Naum are long lost, Lord Farinder,’ said Quintal. ‘Are they not?’
   ‘Not lost to her, Paladin of the Sard.’
   Frederik, Thane of Spar, one of the wiser of the men at the table flicked his head to Renir. ‘Are we to trust this Queen? Him?’
   Frederik did not seem to fear Roskel.
   He should, thought Renir, but he valued Frederik’s thoughts more than many at the table.
   ‘Forthright, aren’t you?’ said Roskel. ‘I knew a few of your predecessors, Spar-Thane. They were much the same as you, I think. They, too, were good men. I, on the other hand, am...not.’
   ‘The question is just. Can we trust your Queen? She is not my Queen.’
   ‘You can...and if you cannot? You must.’
   ‘Enough,’ said Renir. ‘Roskel, how go the preparations?’
   ‘Another month,’ said Roskel.
   Renir wasn’t deaf to the silence that fell over the room.
   A month?
   ‘We cannot hold a month,’ said Renir. ‘Roskel, we cannot.’
   Roskel nodded. ‘I know. The Feewar will sail with us. Their geas is lifted. I goad the shipwrights and they work well, but you must hold as long as you can. You cannot swim the Wide Seas, and you cannot sail without ships.’
   ‘How can we hold a month?’ said Renir, already feeling the weight of each man and woman’s lives pulling him down.
   ‘It does not matter,’ said Tirielle, and she stood so that the entire room could see her without staring through the flames in the centre of the room. ‘It matters not at all. We hold, or we fall...but the world’s fate doesn’t not rest on our shoulders alone. This world fights, and that is what we should do. This is my counsel, Renir.’
   Renir stood and laid his hand on Tirielle’s shoulder.
   ‘Lady A’m Dralorn is right,’ he said. ‘The weight of this world is not mine, or ours, to bear. It is far too heavy. We cannot fight alone. Are any in doubt of that one fact?’
   No one could contend that point.
   The King was done speaking, and the council disbanded.
   Tirielle waited for Renir at the door.
   Roskel Farinder, Queen’s Consort, bid the King goodbye before he stepped back into shadow, and from the dark the vampire watched as the Renir and Tirielle strode from the throne room together, a thoughtful look on his cold, thin face.


Chapter Two

Most men bearing the weight of steel encasing the warrior Perr would be unable to walk, let alone run. Perr wore his armour almost always. It was, to him, a second skin. A man wears armour every waking moment, it becomes natural. A man holds a weapon every moment, it becomes an extension of his arm.
   Perr bore his steel with no more difficulty than a man might wear a shirt or a cloak.
   ‘Perr...’ said Gurt. ‘Don’t.’
   Perr was accustomed to steel, not so used to speaking and did so rarely. Either way, Gurt saw the man fully intended to ignore his pleas.
   Perr leapt down from his horse, the horse seemingly becoming taller, and it probably did; a spring free of all the weight. Perr ran and the armoured knight’s blade flashed into his hand.
   Gurt was older, and not inclined to run at things if he didn’t really, really have to. He sighed and shook his head.
   ‘Perr! We need not...’
   Gurt, Perr’s travelling companion, crossed his hands (sore hands, he thought. Old man’s hands) on the pommel of his saddle. Perr was young enough to be bounding around swinging his sword at every man who threatened them. Gurt was old enough to keep his blade in its sheath, and also wise enough not to waste any more words on Perr. His words wouldn’t do any good when the knight’s blood was up.
   Perr thundered across the road. An arrow struck his pauldron and snapped, flittering through the air in splinters. One of the bandits who beset the two warriors was sensible enough and turned and ran from the charging maniac in steel. Another was too slow to run, and too stupid to stick to the woods at the side of the path while Gurt and Perr passed.
   Quick enough to fall, though, thought Gurt.
   Perr wiped his sword on the dead man’s cloak. Most everyone wore cloaks these days, and the roads were best travelled with those friends everyone named Sword and Bow.
   ‘You don’t have to kill every poor hungry bastard we see, Perr.’
   ‘Let them eat our horses? Fancy walking the rest of the way?’
   Gurt grunted. ‘I think I preferred it when you were more...taciturn.’
   Perr grunted in response, but somehow more expressive a grunt than Gurt’s.
   ‘Like that,’ said Gurt.
   ‘Come on,’ said Perr, mounting. His horse sagged down under the weight. Gurt thought he saw his own tired expression in the horse’s long face, but it was a game beast and they set off once more.
   The bandit with the bow must’ve kept right on running, because they did not see the man again. Perhaps he returned later, and took his companions weapons, or cloak. He would need both, for it was not an easy life.
   Easier pickings elsewhere, thought Gurt.
   But where? What was easy now? How could he blame anyone for trying to survive in anyway they could?
   Gurt pulled his own rough cloak tighter around his neck because the wind was bitter.
   Every part of Gurt’s body seemed sore these days, or ached, or cried out. Knees and hands, mostly, but the cold seemed to have frozen something in his neck, too.
   Always tired now, and I’ll be sore for however many days I have left in me.
   The road ahead was still long. He could just see the hint of white through the grey skies ahead that marked the end of their path. Mountains, perhaps another ten miles. Or might be five. It was hard to tell through the woods and the murky light that obscured each day since the Sun Destroyers came and began to burn the world.
   Gurt shivered, cold, sore, his neck aching.
   Burn the world? He snorted, and Perr glanced at him. Gurt paid Perr no mind. Hardly seems a large enough word for the power they wield. They burned a desert. They turned sand to glass. I still feel the blast in my knees and the burns on my skin.
   The two men rode on, both silent and lost in their own thoughts. Hoof-falls, the dull grating of Perr’s armour and bird song were the only sounds in the forest. The air was cold and damp. The longer they rode, the further away the mountains seemed.
   ‘Funny place to meet,’ said Gurt eventually. He pointed ahead, the mountain range still indistinct, but even shrouded in gloom their white caps were crisp enough to tell from the skies.
   ‘Allies are hard, these days,’ said Perr, shrugging.
   ‘Hard to come by?’
   ‘Just hard,’ said Perr. His voice was frosty as the day.
   ‘Still angry, my friend?’
   Perr fell silent for a moment, then nodded. He was angry about the fist-shaped dent in his steel breastplate.
   ‘Fair enough,’ said Gurt. ‘We’ll just ride, shall we?’
   Gurt wasn’t exactly happy about the way they’d been sent on this...errand...either. He still chaffed about the loss of his favourite sword to the man who had bent the trusted blade with his bare hands. Man, certainly...but not exactly. Man-shaped, and that was about all.
   Normal men can’t bend steel, he thought. Or dent it.
   Gurt sincerely doubted there were that many mere mortals who could have dented full-plate armour and knocked Perr on his arse, either.


Chapter Three

Cedar and pine jostled for space on the slopes to those mountains. In the distance the pine seemed like spear-heads of a vast armour held to the sky, waiting for battle. Closer, among the ranks of those trees, the smell was close and pungent, cloying and overwhelming most other odours.
   The Queen – the only Queen and the first of all Queens – strode toward Gurt and Perr from beneath the tall trees.
   She walked in daylight, but though her vampire skin was old, Selana was more than a simple blood-drinking, thin-skinned vampire. She was sister to the last great wizard of Rythe, Caeus. She and her brother were the only Elethyn to remain on Rythe after Caeus banished their kin.
   A human might only have smelled pine, and the moist needles mouldering on the damp dirt. Selana could smell the worms and the roots, the beetles and the bones of small creatures, the spore of deer and boar...
   But not enough. She frowned, and for just a second her step faltered. She should hear the beating of a thousand beast’s hearts, and hear the rustling of insects beneath the mulch, but they were quieter than was natural as though the things were afraid...or...
   No, she thought. Not afraid. Fearful hearts beat faster. Here, there are few hearts.
   Do the Naum grow bold enough to rise already? To hunt these forests in the dark?
   She shook her head. Even in the gloom they would not rise while the suns might see them. It would be their end. The ancient Naum were cursed by the light.
   Selana, Vampire, Queen of Thieves, Mother of Witches, had merely turned away from it.
   She could have ruled the world of Rythe. She could have raised an army, or the endless legions of the dead. She might have made all other thinking creatures serve her whim.
   What whim would they have served?
   Selana thought perhaps she and her brother had been of a mind in that, at least. When power becomes absolutely then there was no more pinnacle to challenge a god, no repast that would sate power’s call. When power became legendary, there was no need of a legion of followers or of hordes of the faithful.
   Such powers just are – perhaps a force, or simply an entity. Caeus had been such. Selana, too. She wondered if her brother had been stronger than her, or if they were just different halves of the same sphere. Had Caeus died for the very kindness he strove so hard to learn?
   Selana shook her head as she strode through the forest almost entirely lost to her thoughts. Her feet knew where to tread and she headed for the mountains through gloom and the heavy woods unerringly.
   It was not kindness which he strove for. Compassion, perhaps.
   Maybe Caeus had even felt empathy for the creatures that inherited Rythe after the banishment of the Elethyn. Empathy was a hard thing to understand for a creature born without such feelings. But he had learned, as had Selana.
   We grew, and changed, and they did not.
   She understood the Elethyn, even though she stood apart from her kin now, yet empathy for the Sun Destroyers did not equate to sympathy. If the Elethyn did not leave this world – her world – Rythe would fall to utter darkness. Life would remain for a time, of course. People would shiver, and the world would grow cold, and when the suns were bled and the Elethyn were gorged, they would move on and leave behind nothing but the corpse of a world.
   When Rythe dies, how many eons should I live? Alone, will I roam the world unhurt and undying, to pass only when the world itself falls into the dying stars? Then what? Would I simply float in the blackness that fills these skies and grows bolder each day?
   Enough.
   Am I become some maudlin fool to mourn so over the loss of a loved one?
   Selana walked on untouched by the suns’ light. She could bear their caress, but the suns could still be rough at their brightest. Here in the undergrowth and within the trees she was covered in shade. When she reached higher and passed the sheltering woods onto the sloping shoulders of the mountains where little grew, the suns would have slid away and she would be in night.
   She climbed the highest peak in a range of peaks which stretched over a hundred miles East to West, until they curved North and dwindled. These mountains were far from where people thought the Naum still lived. Urlain, their blasted city, was hundreds and hundreds of miles further south on the Lianthrian continent. These mountains were virgin – cold and lush, with ancient trees that had never known the harsh touch of axe or fire.
   Of course, Naum lived in Urlain. But Urlain was not what humanity thought. It was not where humanity thought.
   Still human kind keep their thoughts so small, she thought, as though they are shy of thinking, like they chain their own potential.
   Selana climbed higher and higher. Evening turned darker, and darker still, and even the moons’ light was a weak, pale thing that barely lit the rugged ascent. She did not need light, though, and Selana would never be short of breath.
   Strange, tough gorse and spiked brambles clung in between the rocks the higher she climbed. The temperature dropped and the rocks were sharp, but she wore little clothing because the dead do not need warmth. She wore no shoes, because her skin and her soul both were nearly petrified with age, although her beauty remained and always would.
   Mirs of strange hues, bright and lurid, fluttered their wings as she walked by. In the darkness their colours were most bold. Some seemed so bright as to glow, even with such weak light as the moons could give.
   Through the night, close to morningside, she walked tireless higher. The side of the mountain became steep, then sheer, and still she walked. She walked because she wanted to – climbing hand-over-hand was unnecessary. Walking up a sheer mountainside was one thing, but she imagined it would be impolitic to use her magic to materialise within Urlain after such a long time.
   She was an old, old friend.
   The oldest they have, she suspected. A friendship that might last another thousand years, because like Selana herself, the Naum were cursed for all eternity.

*

At the foot of the giant mountain, thousands of feet below the Queen who walked so easily over ice and rock and sheer drop, the warriors Gurt and Perr sat at a mean campfire. Iron and steel swallowed the cold and feed it to the knight within. Even so, Perr did not remove his armour. Gurt laid his to one side, more concerned about his aching bones and joints than being stabbed in his sleep. Gurt’s armour was a simple hammered iron breastplate and gauntlets and heavy boots. He had a helm, on his horse’s back, and his blade was steel, but steel armour seemed...
   Fancy.
   Gurt smiled, the dim glow of the campfire playing across a face crossed by wrinkles and scars. His eyes were still bright enough, though.
   Perr stared into the distance ahead, his attention entirely focused on the mountain, even though it was shrouded in night.
   ‘What are you looking for, Perr? You can’t see a damn thing.’
   ‘Ah,’ said Perr.
   ‘Don’t be mysterious. Do tell.’
   Perr shrugged. ‘Quiet. Can’t hear anything.’
   Fair enough, thought Gurt with a sniff. I’ll be quiet.
   Gurt rolled up a second blanket and put it beneath his head so he could lay and stare at the stars.
   ‘Wonder if we’ll end there,’ he said. ‘In the Field of Castles, perhaps. A fitting rest for warriors, isn’t it?’
   ‘No rest for warriors,’ said Perr.
   Man’s a philosopher, for sure. Gurt closed his eyes and left the steel-knight to his musing.
   Morning would come, and if this Queen did not, they would wait anyway. The man they met had been most insistent, and Perr’s armour with a fist-sized dent was perfect evidence of the man’s resolve.
   His bare fist, too, mind.
   If the man wanted them to wait, he’d wait a while longer.
   Here we are. The fabled Gurt and Perr, the mortals who faced the entire might of the Protectorate, ready to die for the honour of a world.
   Gurt snorted. Eyes closed, he still heard Perr’s head turn, because steel grinds. He did not open his eyes, but smiled and sighed, unexpectedly happy to be in the woods by a campfire yet again.
   Turns out I’m not quite as ready to give it all up as I thought.

*

Perr sat up after Gurt slept. Perr slept less, and more lightly, and his hearing was far better than Gurt’s. Gurt’s ears were old, full of grey hairs and thoughts.
   Perr listened.
   Quiet, he’d said, but Gurt hadn’t listened to the intent behind Perr’s words. He liked the old man talking, because it meant he didn’t have to.
   Quiet.
   Not Gurt.
   The woods. The forests.
   In daylight, little but a bird, or the lazy buzz of insects made sluggish by the endless cold. In the night, helting mirs, or the occasional snuffling of some furred creature searching rotten trees for something to eat.
   But occasional noises...rare.
   The forest was too quiet. It should be full of birdsong in the day, and the screeches of the dying in the night – the hunters were gone. The wolf, the owl, the bharla’g, the fox and the reap-wings. Bats, badgers...hardly any sounds at all.
   Perr closed his eyes and rested, listen all the time but not sleeping because in these woods there was something very hungry.
   The kind of thing, he thought, that doesn’t care how much armour a man wears.