FENJA’S STORY

I am known by many names across the breadth of The Island: Stormfang, the Harbinger, Grim Reaper’s Lady, Death’s Bride. My given name is Fenja – nothing more, since my family name is of no consequence after all these years. If I still had any family, my kin would not recognize me, since they would be the great-great-grandchildren of my cousins and brothers; I was born centuries ago, in a church-town on the cold southern plains.

In all that time, I have never kept a journal, nor written any letters, nor recorded any of my activities. At first it was because I was uneducated – I could neither read nor write when I left my town. The brothers and sisters of Ramonith then taught me, but I was soon caught up in a more exciting pursuit than letters: swordplay. And before I knew it, I was traveling across the length and breadth of our Island, first as a squire, then later as a Knight of the Four Winds, and then as I am now, one of the six Inheritors. During this time, I had little time or inclination to write; but now, as a new path has opened to me, I have a sudden desire to put pen to paper and record at least some of my tale, so that history (or at least someone who might read this) might understand my actions – and that they not be repeated.

If anyone of my religion were to read the things that I will reveal here, I would be branded as a blasphemer and heretic. But no matter – I think I have earned the right to blaspheme against the institution that I have served for so long.

I remember my childhood vividly, but in broad strokes like a painting, the details smeared out over the years and much of the emotion wiped away, so that it seems as if my own life were but a story I read in a book somewhere. As I said, I was born in one of the Gilgamesh church-towns on the southern plains, daughter to one of the poor farm families that eked out a living there, in the harsh winds and dry hot summers, under the shadow of the smooth white stone temple of Gilgamesh. My mother had died giving birth to me, leaving my father and uncles to raise me and my three brothers. Surrounded and raised by men, I learned manly tasks: riding, hunting, working in the stables, working in the fields. To its credit, the Gilgamesh religion doesn’t demand that women be some sort of house-servant, though when married they are expected to be the head of household tasks anyway, which I suppose befits their role as mother. I learned precious little of those tasks, though I shared in the cleaning and cooking with my father and brother; even so, I would have made a poor wife, since I didn’t know much of those things, nor of kindness or care-taking, except in the gruff manly way of my family.

As a young girl, just growing into womanhood, I began to wonder what life lay ahead of me. I was too young yet to think of marriage – unlike the barbarian tribes of the east, the folks of the southern plains at least allowed girls to have a couple of years of the menses, the monthly curse that all women must bear, before marrying them off – but even so, I felt woefully unprepared for life as a woman. The other girls of the town were busy preparing for the spring festival to celebrate the end of the long, bitter winter, with rings of white daisa blossoms in their hair and wearing clean new spring dresses, sewn by their mothers or aunts or elder sisters, though of course in the mornings and evenings they still wore their wool over-jackets to ward off the lingering chill. I, on the other hand, was still dressed in my clumsy wool winter-skirt and was helping my father with the usual spring chores, like repairing the roof or readying the draft mules for their spring duties. My father had half-heartedly asked me if I wanted to participate in the festival preparations, and I answered in the negative; in truth, I thought the whole thing rather silly, in light of all the work that had to be done. Still, a small part of me did regret that I had no mother or sisters to make me fine new clothing – for instead I would get new riding boots and summer linens and leather work gloves purchased from the tanner, which suited me fine, but I began to notice that none of the other girls my age wore such things, even when we weren’t preparing for festival.

Of course, when festival time did come, I was there, along with everyone else in town. I remember little about the festival itself – it was just like all the festivals since I was a small child, and for all I know it may be the same today, though I have never returned to find out. But there I met a boy, a boy named Chronocle, and my life was forever changed. As you can imagine, I was comfortable in the presence of men and boys, having nearly been raised as one myself, but when I met Chronocle at the festival that year, it was as if I had never seen or spoke to a male in my life, so tongue-tied I became in his presence. He was black-haired, like me, and tall, with fine features unusual in a plains-dweller, and I was smitten with him almost as soon as I saw him.

Once, I thought that things might’ve turned out differently, had my mother been alive to guide me through this time, to explain to me what it was to be a young woman. Now, I don’t think it would have mattered – whether by the will of the gods or by fate or by my own blind emotions, I was bound to my course, and I doubt any motherly talking-to would have dissuaded me.

That night, I found him across from me in the youth-dance, while the adults smiled and laughed and looked on, drinking their wine and ale. He took my hand and led me into the dance, smiling down at me while I blushed like the little girl I was. He was a year older than me, he said, and his family farmed the plot of land next to ours. I wondered aloud why I had never seen him, since I was always about our farm, and had a clear view of our neighbors. Full of pride, he replied that he spent little time at the farm; most of his time was spent at the temple of Gilgamesh, studying to become a crusading knight of that religion. I smiled back at him, thinking it somewhat adventurous but interesting only distantly, as idle chatter between the young often is.

After the festival, I began to invent more and more reasons to go into town; whenever there was an errand to be run, I volunteered cheerfully. My father took my enthusiasm for a mere girlish desire to avoid manly hard work, and he usually agreed, since my brothers were becoming quite capable farmers in their own right, and my help was needed less and less often. In reality, I was hoping to see Chronocle again, and after a few weeks I finally did. In the town square, the temple was holding a small parade, with the acolytes and knight-hopefuls from around the region leading the way, and the monks and priests behind, carrying their great white banners, the gold thread glittering in the afternoon sun. I saw Chronocle at the head of the column, his black hair shocking against his plain white robe, his blue eyes focused as if on some distant object, chest swelled with pride, wooden sword at his waist. He looked so beautiful, so untouchable, so pure, that I felt my eyes wetting at the sight.

After the column marched around square a few times, chanting some of their hymns, the parade stopped and dispersed and began to mingle with the small crowd that had gathered there. They handed out small sheets of paper that bore the red winged-cross of Gilgamesh and a short prayer (though few in the square could read it, myself included); I saw Chronocle near the center of the square, handing out the slips of paper. I swallowed hard, and ignoring the tingle in my stomach, approached him. He turned to me, smiling, and handed me one of the papers. He bade me good fortune, and my heart sank – did he not recognize me, even after our close dance? Then his smile broke, and his face took on a look of surprise. He indeed had recognized me, but had not expected me here for such a parade. Boldly, I told him that I had made excuses to come into town in order to see him, and he blushed at my audacity. Leaning towards me, he spoke in a conspiratorial whisper that if I wished to see him again, I should attend the mid-week service at the temple, for one of his duties as a knight-hopeful was as an aisle-boy during that service. I agreed and rushed away, flush with a girl’s excitement.

When I told my father that I wanted to begin attending mid-week church, he was, to say the least, surprised. Despite being a church-town, in those days attendance was not mandatory, and my father rarely received the purple weekflower from the priests at service. The weekflower gets its name because when cut, it keeps its bloom for seven days, but no longer. The flowers are handed out during services of the Gilgamesh church, and attendees wear the stem pinned to a blouse or tunic or hat, and serve to mark the faithful.

I was nervous the first time I stepped through the massive bronze doors of the temple, filing in with the worshipers for the mid-week service. I had been to the temple before, of course, but always with my family, and I went with a child’s inattention. It was my first time attending the church alone, and the structure towered over me, oppressive in its bulk, the tall pillars and sweeping arches stretching higher than anything I had ever seen. Inside, the place made me feel small, humble, and insignificant; despite the soaring vaults and many windows lining the walls and ceiling, I felt trapped and confined. That feeling is not by coincidence: the Gilgamesh religion teaches humility and subservience to their god above all else, and that man is puny and unworthy compared to his perfection. Everything in the practice of that religion, from their rituals to their architecture, is intended to reinforce this notion.

My dark mood lifted, however, when the service began and I saw Chronocle enter the temple with some of the other knight-hopefuls, each carrying a shallow silver bowl filled with the blessing-water that they would distribute during the service. This part of the ritual has an analog in the Ramonith sacrament: in both ceremonies, the blessing-water comes from rainfall (or snowmelt) upon the temple, which then is channeled through a series of purifying ducts (viadnor as we would call them) into a reservoir beneath the temple. The principal difference, however, is that in the Gilgamesh religion, the reservoir is sacred territory, accessible only to the clergy and the knights, whereas in Ramonith, it is a communal area, accessible to all.

I paid little attention to the service, focusing instead on Chronocle, admiring his steady, distant gaze, standing motionless during the long sermon. Then the time for the blessing came, and my excitement grew as the knights-hopeful walked down the aisle, stopping at each row to pass the silver water-bowls so that each of the faithful could dip their fingers and dab their foreheads and lips with the water. I sat in the seat nearest the aisle, hoping just to see him pass by, but instead he stopped at my aisle and smiled down at me, handing me the silver bowl. I took the bowl with shaking hands, staring back at him, and the woman next to me gave me a gentle nudge to remind me to take the water and pass it along. I did so, then sat with my hands in my lap, blushing fiercely. I felt foolish – what was I to do next? I could hardly talk to him, since the only sounds in the temple were the quiet chanting of the monks at the front of the temple and the shuffling of the faithful in their seats. I could feel him looking at me, but I couldn’t bear to return his gaze.

Eventually, the bowl returned down the row and into my hands. I handed it back to Chronocle and our hands touched, briefly, under the bowl. He gave a me a last smile and then turned away, stepping to the next row, and as he did, I felt something in my hand. He had deftly slipped a piece of paper into my hand, under the bowl, and my heart sank as I looked at it; I recognized the steady masculine script as probably being his own, but I couldn’t read it! I panicked – I had to know what was written on that paper, but who could tell me?

My anguish must have been quite obvious, for the old woman next to me leaned close to me and whispered, “What’s the matter, girl?” I turned to her, startled, and gestured wordlessly at the paper. She asked me if I could read it, and I shook my head. Reaching out her hand, she offered to read it to me. I was embarassed, but I handed it over anyway. She looked at it, squinting, then raised her eyebrows in a gesture of surprise. Handing it back, she leaned close to my ear. “What a sweet boy,” she whispered. “It says, ‘Meet me in the garden behind the temple, after the third bell.’”

And so I did, flitting nervously behind the temple as the third bell rang, my feet crunching on the gravel path that ran between the vibrant rows of weekflowers, daisas, and other plants, all waving in the spring breeze. The garden was an enclosed area between the back of the church and the monks’ outbuilding, and it was huge and lavish, unlike anything else in the town.

I didn’t have to wait long; Chronocle emerged from the rear door of the church and hurried to me, furtive in his movements. He greeted me with a smile and took my hand, bidding me to follow him. He led me to the far corner of the garden, which held a small glade of low crabapple trees. The glade didn’t provide much cover, but I supposed it was better than nothing – I didn’t know what the rules for knights-hopeful were, but I imagined that this sort of meeting would be frowned upon if discovered.

My heart was pounding as the trees surrounded us, and Chronocle stopped and turned to me. He told me that he too had been thinking of me, but that his duties at the temple had prevented him from leaving for the last few weeks. I found myself tongue-tied once again; I hadn’t planned on this encounter, despite my deliberate actions, and I was embarrassed by the hot flush of my cheeks. I did the only thing that came to mind: I stepped close to him, and, standing on the tips of my toes, I kissed him full on the lips. It was an awkward gesture, and as our lips met I lost my balance, falling into his embrace.

That kiss, that embrace, would lead to the death of thousands and would mark the beginning of my brutal journey through the centuries, changing my life in ways that the flushed little girl could not possibly understand. For a girl in love is blind to much, even those things that are most ordinary; and my fate would prove to be anything but.

After that encounter, I would see Chronocle more often – we would meet in the town square after his sword-practice, or in the garden behind the temple (though never again would we be alone like we were that first time), or he would visit our farm, greeting my father and brothers warmly, forcing my father to concede that he was indeed a polite and gracious young man. By the time of the fall harvest, he even stayed for a few days to help us with the crops, for my eldest brother had fallen ill and was too sick to do his usual share of the work. My father wondered why he wasn’t at his own family’s farm to help with their harvest, but Chronocle assured him that his family had plenty of help, and that they were glad to help their neighbors in any case. It was one of the few times that Chronocle mentioned his family; ordinarily, he spoke little of them, and then only in generalities.

Our romance continued in this way for another year. There was no consummation to our relationship; Chronocle, as a knight-hopeful, was pledged to chastity until he became a full-fledged knight, at which time he would be allowed to take a wife if he so desired. Anyway, while I was deeply in love (as only a young girl can be), I still was bewildered and confused about these new feelings, even if I was well aware of the mechanics of the thing. Farm life does certainly have a way of revealing things to a girl that would otherwise not be the topic of polite conversation.

The next year, just before the harvest, Chronocle came to me in a state of great excitement. He bid me walk with him, and we strolled along the rolling road (a mere cart-path, really), hand in hand. He said he had something very important to tell me, something that could change both of our lives. My stomach fluttered – could he have been accepted as a knight so soon? Would he then make me his wife? I secretly desired it, though I told no one, not even him.

His next words stand out with razor clarity, even after all these hundreds of years.

“Fenja,” he said, his excitement straining in his words, “an army is forming to march north, towards the Ramonith fortress of Schwarzadlerberg. Our town is to provide soldiers, and I have been selected to march in the van! Knighthood cannot be far away for me after such a prestigious campaign!”

My blood ran cold at his words. I stared at him in open shock, unable to maintain even a pretense of appreciation for his enthusiasm.

“What is the matter? Are you not proud for me?”

I couldn’t look him in the eye. Staring at the brown grass and dirt underfoot, I asked him how long he would be gone.

“Not more than a few months,” he said, trying to console me. “The Black Eagle Mountain isn’t far from here – only perhaps a ten day march. The campaign will be longer, of course, but I am sure I would return in time for the spring festival.”

I knew he was trying to comfort me, to allay my fears about him going into battle. But it wasn’t battle that I feared – I had seen him practice, and I knew him to be the best among his peers in swordplay as well as riding. He was tall and strong, but graceful too; a natural athlete and a natural warrior. Looking back across the years, knowing now what I do about combat, I can see that his destiny was always to fight, for he had both the physique and the mindset even as a young man. His skills were largely inborn, and unlike me he did not arrive as a warrior only after years of bloody and humiliating trial. No, I didn’t fear for his safety – my fear was purely selfish. I feared losing him to the savage warrior-god Gilgamesh, and I could tell by the excited way that he spoke of the coming campaign that my fears were not misguided.

I asked him when he would be leaving. His reply should have been shocking, but somehow I knew his answer before he spoke it.

“We ride tomorrow.”

Hot tears welled in my eyes, but I choked them back. I looked up at him, staring into his blue eyes, accusing. He pulled me into a tight embrace, kissing my hair. “Wait for me, Fenja,” he said, but he used the old tongue from Gilgamesh’s holy book. The phrase carried imagery of Gilgamesh’s sons and daughters, waiting at the edge of the world, waiting through hail and lightning and snow, waiting until the very mountains turned to dust, until Gilgamesh returned from the west, triumphant in the final battle of heaven.

He could have hardly chosen a worse farewell. His words rang in my ears like the reading of a death sentence. Without another word, he pushed me away. His hands lingered in mine for a moment and then, with an awkward smile, he turned away, walking into the setting sun, his tall form a black silhouette against the canvas of infinite oranges in the west.

That was the last time I saw him, and I still have not seen him since, even after all these hundreds of years, though I know without a doubt that he too is still alive.

At first, I was inconsolable in my grief. I went about my harvest chores as usual, but only listlessly. I stopped making the errands into town, for without Chronocle’s presence, I had little motivation to do so. My father showed some concern towards my sour mood, but I think he mostly dismissed my behavior as the harmless pining of a lovestruck girl for her first crush. Besides, there was much work to be done, and my eldest brother had once again become ill, this time quite seriously, so most of our family’s attention was focused on his condition.

Through the long winter of the south plains, I brooded, waiting, my mind churning with dark thoughts. With little to do, my thoughts turned inwards, alternating between cherishing my time with Chronocle and resenting his absence. But as winter gave way to spring, and life began to return to the plains, my mood began to brighten with the lengthening days. I began to look forward to his return – he had said he would return by the time of the spring festival, and his word had always been good.

Sure enough, just before the festival, rumors of our soldiers’ return began to circulate among the townsfolk. Many families had sent a son or brother or father to the campaign, and so the excitement in the town was palpable. My thoughts had turned fully to Chronocle’s return; my resentment seemed to have melted away, replaced with a simple yearning for my first love’s embrace.

The appointed day arrived, and it seemed as though the entire town was waiting in the square, bouquets of flowers in hand. I was there, too, though I bore no flowers; my hands were shaking so severely that all I could do was wring them together nervously. My stomach was knotted and my mouth was dry, so much so that I feared that I had become ill with a late case of the winter-fever, but I knew truly that  it was just my anxiousness taking physical form. All I could do was wait, shifting nervously among the crowd.

After what seemed an interminable wait, a ripple of excitement washed through the crowd, starting as a murmur and building to a roar, a roar that followed the proud column of soldiers as they entered the square. I hadn’t witnessed the column’s departure, but it certainly looked like a small group. I wondered how many had died during the campaign, and noted abstractly that those killed might have family or friends, waiting in the crowd, waiting for someone who would never return. I had no such fear about Chronocle – I knew, truly, that he was strong and that he would return, victorious.

The column stopped in the center of the square, and the commander-of-arms dismissed the troops with a resounding command. Then all was bedlam – mothers and sisters and daughters screaming, the soldiers scattering into the crowd, families seeking each other, a mad crush of bodies all jostling, each person searching for his or her counterparts in the mass. For my part, I stood on one of the benches in the square, peering over the crowd, straining to find the tall black-haired man. I had not seen him when the column marched in, and I knew that he would be leading the way; where could he be? Surely not dead – I knew he still lived, somehow.

Not knowing what else to do, I plunged into the crowd, elbowing my way towards the spot where the formation had stood. On the way, I bounced off of one knight-hopeful, a young man that I recognized as one of Chronocle’s classmates. I hailed him and asked him if he had any news of Chronocle Asha. He recognized me, and his face took on a look of pure pity.

“The campaign continues even now, and the Crusade Army asked for volunteers to stay on and continue the fight. Chronocle was among those who volunteered. Last I saw him, he was marching north with the Army.”

I reeled as if he had struck me. He reached out to comfort me, but I recoiled, and pushed my way back through the crowd, just trying to get away. I returned to the bench I had been standing on, and I sank down on it, sobbing uncontrollably. I wasn’t the only one; above the general din, I could hear other women (and a few men) crying, undoubtedly because their loved one had been killed. Bitterly, I envied them; for them, there was no possibility of return, and the dead would live on in memory. For me, I knew Chronocle was still alive, and he had chosen battle as his mistress instead of me.

I sobbed for a while, until I was too tired to continue; I then sat, staring, my mind empty, until the sun was low in the sky and the crowd had dispersed. I was alone in the square; the only evidence of the gathering just a few hours before were the trampled flowers that had been left on the ground, discarded in excitement or celebration or grief.

I walked home in darkness, and my mind that had been empty in grief was now spinning madly. I racked my mind, straining for an explanation. Why had he not returned? Quickly, I began to blame myself. What had I done to drive him away? Was I too bold in my affections? Perhaps he found some older, more wordly girl to satisfy his desires? No, I thought, he would not jeopardize his goal of becoming a knight of Gilgamesh for some petty carnal satisfaction. My fears were multiplying rapidly in my anguished mind, but infidelity was one concern that I could safely dismiss.

Chronocle’s failure to return consumed my thoughts from that point forward, dominating my waking hours and many of my sleeping ones as well. Strangely, my obsession didn’t seem to affect my performance around the farm; indeed, I was quite successful in submerging my increasingly dark thoughts, conducting my chores with a mindless efficiency. I don’t think that my father ever realized how tormented I was becoming, since over time I became more and more adept at concealing my moods. I would go about my business as usual during the day, while my mind churned, and then retreat to my room or a secluded spot in one of the barns or out in the trees along the river in the afternoon, where I would either fly into a rage or simply brood silently.

This went on for another year and a half. On more than one occasion, I contemplated suicide, but I could not bring myself to do it; and besides, I told myself, what if Chronocle returns? I swung wildly between hating and loving him, and I began to hate myself in the process. I blamed anyone and anything for his continued absence, but ultimately settled on the Gilgamesh religion as the primary culprit, the focus of my spite. After all, I thought, had he not told me to wait for him? If it wasn’t for the damned warmongers of Gilgamesh, he would have returned, and we might be together, living happily.

Once I created that rationalization, all of my resentment and hatred crystallized around that idea, like scar tissue building up around a wound. Gilgamesh became the singular focus of my obsession, eclipsing even my thoughts about Chronocle. If I could tear the iron claw of Gilgamesh away from my beloved, I might be able to get him back. But there was precious little I could do, being a farm girl from a small town on the plains. What hope did I have of ever seeing Chronocle again, let alone opposing the great monolith of the Gilgamesh religion?

It was a cool autumn night when I made my decision. I would travel to Scharzadlerberg, the Black Eagle Mountain, and make my case there. I wasn’t sure what exactly I would do, but I felt it was the only course available to me. Ramonith was the only force that I knew that could oppose Gilgamesh; maybe they could help me rescue Chronocle from their clutches.

I went to the barn under the light of the full moon and saddled my horse. She was an old mare, but sturdy, and she would not be missed much on the farm. I wore my riding-clothes, and had a small pack with some food, and a few other essentials for the road. It was less than ten days’ ride to Schwarzadlerberg – well within my capabilities. I led the old mare out of the stable, quietly, but I felt like I had to do one more thing. Drawing my knife, I reached behind my neck, and with a smooth motion, sliced my long black braid from my head, letting it fall to the ground in front of the stable door. It was a symbolic gesture, and I hoped my father would understand it as a sign not to look for me.

I was eighteen years old, and had only one goal in mind. That night that I left, I left behind not just my home, but the whole of the human race, lying there in the dirt and straw, a shiny black rope of hair, glistening in the moonlight.

———————–

I am writing this after the battle at Tei Tenga – actually, the second battle there, the first being more than fifty years ago, in which I also participated – where our army was slaughtered almost to a man by the Gilgamesh Crusade Army. Of course, I survived, but I had to dig myself out of a mountain of Gilgamesh soldiers that had died around me, and I made the long journey to Byarlant alone.

I traveled alone, but I was followed: a young man by the name of Siegfried, who came upon me at the field below Tei Tenga, insisted on following me, and he did so, all the way to Byarlant. At first I merely ignored his presence; I did not know him and he posed no threat, so I paid him no mind during the long days of walking.

After the first week, however, I noticed that he was falling behind. The weather was still harsh, even on the northern side of the White Mountains, and while the wind and walking was little strain on me, I could tell it was hard on the young green-haired man. There was precious little food to be found along the path, which again was little obstacle for me, since I only need to eat infrequently….
We arrived at the port city of Nes Skariyah earlier than I had planned, but thankfully it had been a short winter, and the ice was already clear from the strait. The city was bustling with spring activity, with ships already arriving from the ports along the northern coast of the island and more preparing to begin the trade along the south coast. It was, I had to admit, a beautiful spring day on the sea, with clear indigo skies and bright strokes of clouds floating high above; a cool breeze blew in from the strait, and from the bluffs east of the city I could see the dark line of the continent’s shoreline on the horizon.

That dark line was our immediate goal, but not our final destination – I intended to take my unlikely crew into the heart of the Continent, to Simian River, a place that had passed into legend, so long had it been since humans set foot there. As far as I (or anyone else) knew, the last expedition to Simian River had been during the last decades of the Empire, over a thousand years ago. Not long after that excursion, the Empire was torn apart by the Theology Wars, plunging the Island into a dark age of lawlessness and terror. Out of the ruins were born two new religions: Gilgamesh and Ramonith, bitter enemies ever since.

As we stood on the bluffs overlooking the city, I thought of the histories and of Angela, a Knight of the Empire who traveled on that expedition and was later a great hero of the Theology Wars. I wondered if she too had stood here on these very hills, staring across the strait and feeling the strange apprehension that I now felt. I felt an irrational fear, an animal-like tingling of danger, an instinctual warning-sense – feelings that I had never experienced, and they all seemed to be caused by that  distant shore. The others didn’t seem to be sharing my feelings, however; Brown and Thancrus were calm and relaxed, and Brown even seemed to be enjoying the scenery. The little rajarti, Divoras, was thrilled with the sights and sounds (and smells, I suppose) of the sea, and her excitement had infected Siegfried, who likewise had never seen the edges of our little land-cage.

And a cage of sorts it is indeed, for our Island is smaller than most know, barely thirty days’ ride from coast to coast. For thousands of years we have lived on this island; most are born, live, and die within an area no more than a day’s ride across. Almost every acre of habitable land has been covered with blood in the centuries of conflict since the dawn of human history – and to what end? We barely know what lies beyond the horizon past our shores, and have remained in such ignorance since the beginning. The Continent is so close, and is large – how large, no one knows, but certainly much larger than our own island – and yet it remains virtually unexplored, except for a few pitiful miles of the closest coastline, mapped out by cringing mariners too afraid to wander outside the sight of the Island.

I didn’t want to tarry long in Nes Skariyah, since it wasn’t far from the Gilgamesh stronghold of Eltreum City, and I knew it would be crawling with their agents. However, it was already midday when we arrived, and the only boats to the far shore only departed in the morning (so they could return before sundown, since the continent was reputed to be filled with beasts who roamed the night). We needed to acquire supplies anyway, so I dispatched Brown and Siegfried to make the arrangements. The remaining three of us – the freaks who would stand out, even in a trade town like this one – spent the day on the bluffs above the city.

My reasons for avoiding people were obvious, as I explained above. As for the other two: neither elfen nor rajarti are often seen in the coastal regions, and neither are particularly welcomed, either. Thancrus behaved as if this was not the first time he had been to Nes Skariyah, but he clearly did not want to enter the town on this occasion, and I did not press the matter. Divoras, on the other hand, would have eagerly gone into town, ignorant as she was of the larger world, but I kept her from going, despite her protests. She was eager to see new things, but I could not tolerate her feline curiosity getting her into trouble and interfering with our mission.

I spent the first part of the day preparing what little equipment I had for the journey. My sword, of course, needed no maintenance – it is forever sharp, and never rusts or chips. My breastplate likewise required almost no upkeep, since it forms itself to me as I wear it, staying supple as fine leather until struck; whereupon it becomes hard as titan-alloy just long enough to repel the blow. I have a small dagger, more of a tool than a weapon; I sharpened and oiled it nonetheless. I stored a few other miscellaneous items (this journal included) in a small satchel, and thus completed my preparations.

For her part, Divoras spent the day alternating between napping and hunting for small animals. She seemed nothing more than a distracted, lazy cat, and as I watched her an odd feeling crept over me, until just watching her grated on my nerves. I dismissed it as mere irritation; I thought of all the difficulty her catlike habits could cause for us in the wilds of the Continent, and hoped that her wilderness skills would be enough to offset that hazard. At one point, she chased a rabbit through our erstwhile camp, almost tripping over me in the process. I jumped to my feet, dagger in hand, and exclaimed: “Can’t you sit still for one minute, you annoying little rajarta?” Her response was a sort of hiss in my direction, before stalking off into the trees behind the bluff. I didn’t see her for a few hours after that. I sat back down, brooding, wondering why I was so irritated by the girl. A feeling lurked at the edges of my mind, but I couldn’t place it – it was unfamiliar, an echo of feelings long forgotten.

Thancrus, too, seemed agitated and was barely able to sit still. Thus far, he had shown typical elfen poise, speaking little and remaining aloof, even by my standards. Passing the day on the bluff, however, made him like a man imprisoned; he paced and muttered, fiddling with his colorfully-decorated staff, sometimes scribbling in the dirt in the elfen glyph-letters. I did not bother him, nor did he speak to me, even after my outburst towards Divoras.

We stayed there until nightfall

***

I awoke to a ringing in my ears and the harsh white glare of sunlight on my face. I felt a cold slab beneath me, but the air was still and warm; through the ringing I heard muffled voices, in a language I could not understand. Have I died, then?, I wondered, my eyes wandering, seeking focus but finding none. The last I remembered,

SIEGFRIED’S STORY

“This is an exceptionally bad idea, Fenja.”

I couldn’t help but voice my opinion as we walked up the shattered stone steps toward the ruined castle. Rain was falling from the grey sky; it wasn’t especially heavy, just enough to be a nuisance. I wiped my bangs out of my face and looked up the steps toward Fenja, who was charging like a madwoman up the slope. She’s crazy, I thought, glancing around nervously. Everyone knew this place was cursed.

Down to my left, the hill-or rather, I should say, cliff-dropped sharply away for hundreds of feet. Fortunately, you wouldn’t fall all the way down; your fall would be broken by the dense stands of pines that clung to the rocky face, so that instead of being dashed on the rocks in the ravine far below, you’re only have your spine broken as you fell onto one of the big trees.

However, that really seemed like a better way to go at the time, given our choice of destination. The Schwarzadlerberg-Black Eagle Mountain-could only be described as a really bad place. It had been destroyed in some long-ago war, and was now rumored to be home to all manner of vile things, including spirits of the dead, which had been caught in limbo between this world and the next. Of all the places we’d been together through the last six years, this was by far the creepiest.

My enthusiasm wasn’t just dampened by fear, but also by foreboding; our journey together had been strange and often terrifying, but I knew that whatever happened on the crest of this damned mountain, it would represent the end of our time together. Who would’ve thought? I was feeling a twinge of regret at the end of a six-year partnership with the modern world’s greatest killer.

I voiced my objections to Fenja (rather, I yelled them at her, since she had gained quite a bit of ground on me), and she stopped. She turned around, a scowl on her pale face, her dark eyes like daggers.

“What do I have to be afraid of, Siegfried?” She placed a hand on the hilt of her sword, as if to illustrate her point. “Nothing. And neither should you.” Her beautiful white face broke into an almost-smile at the comment, before whirling and resuming her climb.

I wiped my hair out of my eyes again, smirking. She was right, of course. There was nothing to be afraid of. Both Fenja and I were more than capable of defending ourselves. I patted the sword strapped to my back for reassurance. Nothing to be afraid of. Right.

After what seemed an eternity, we reached the top of the steps and entered the courtyard, striding over the lichen-encrusted ruins of what used to be the castle’s rear gate. The wind howled across the exposed mountaintop, driving the light rain into the side of my face like dull needles. Fenja stopped, scanning the ruins, which left the pit-pat-pat of the rain the only sound. I stopped a few feet behind her, looking around uneasily. The castle was almost totally destroyed; all that was left was a cluttered warren of stone walls, their original beige stained black by mold and the weathering of countless years. But the grounds were huge-the ruins covered most of the mountaintop, which meant plenty of space for ambushers to hide.

After a moment with her head cocked, as if listening, she nodded sagely to herself. She muttered something I couldn’t hear, then: “Come on.” I followed her through the husk of a doorway and nearly fell to my death as I realized we were crossing a small chasm on two rotten planks where the cliff had eroded away. Springing to the other side, I thought the electric crawling sensation up the back of my head was a result of my death-defying leap, but Fenja’s slitted eyes told me otherwise.

“I’ll bet even a Zygote like you can feel this,” she purred, flexing her fingers one after another. “The spirits of the dead rule this castle! They swarm like ants to whiff our mortal scents, even though they are forbidden to touch us!” Her manner had turned cold and alien, the warm candor of the previous day seeming like nothing so much as a half-remembered dream.

I brushed the insult aside and kept scanning the ruins for physical enemies, since I’d be totally blind to any spiritual ones. “Enough with the voodoo crap, woman…let’s just get your thing done and get out of-”

As my mouth formed the word ‘here,’ the low wall ahead of Fenja exploded and a dark shape arrowed out. Fenja darted out of the way, letting the huge form slam into me while my jaw was still flapping from my previous attempt to speak. My back met stone but I was still upright, and I found myself staring at a seven-foot tall jet-black gorilla; there were skid marks torn in the wet ground from its feet digging in to stop its mad charge.

There was a whisper of a sword stroke and the gorilla’s arm separated from its body, sliced from behind by Fenja’s black sword. Enraged, the beast roared forward, remaining arm outstretched in a grasping/punching gesture. My own sword sang out of the sheath (luckily it wasn’t jammed by the impact) and hewed the thing’s hand off, but it was still barreling forward. I kicked off the wall and lunged just to the right of its charge, raking my sword across its gut as I did so. The mostly-limbless beast crashed through the doorway we had just crossed, tumbling with a howl into the rocky chasm.

Whinier than intended, I rebuked Fenja: “I thought you said nothing lived up here, Fenja!”

She didn’t respond, because as my jaw flapped uselessly yet again, four more giant apes clambered over low walls nearby. One of them was crouched on all fours, and on its back was a man, standing up in the saddle, as it were. His white cape whipped in the rain-streaked wind, contrasting with his black hair. What the hell?, I thought. Am I literally seeing a guy riding a giant ape? I glanced at Fenja, and for the first time saw the signs of fear: her eyes were wide, pale face even paler, swallowing hard behind gritted teeth.

A knot tingled in my agitated stomach. Was this the man…

Her expression stabilized and she whispered a name: “Chronocle…”

Grandiosely, still standing on the back of the ape in some kind of saddle, the man spread his arms, revealing a breastplate that glittered even under the dull sky. “Fenja…how I’ve missed you!”

2

I rolled out of bed, screaming from a terrible nightmare. I couldn’t remember specifics, but it was something about thousands of black horses, snarling and snorting, running me down, pounding my body into the dirt, screaming wildly as they ripped into my flesh with razor teeth.

Shivering, I staggered to the window, my feet instantly regretting not having socks as they met the cold wood floor. “Shit,” I mumbled crankily, “could it get any colder in here?” The fire in the hearth was out again-no wood left-and the house was empty. Father probably went to scavenge some wood, and Mother likely went into the village to try to get whatever small rations were being handed out by the provincial government.

It was the winter of 12831, more than twenty years ago, just before the huge battle at Tei Tenga2 that was not only a decisive victory for the Gilgamesh forces, but also a veritable cataclysm for the West Sesar province. Before the battle, believe it or not, West Sesar had some semblance of government and infrastructure-nothing like the anarchic wasteland it is now.

Wait…I thought, if the fire’s out, how come it smells like a fire in here? I peered out the frost-crusted window, but couldn’t see much. I shrugged on my long coat and slipped on some boots and stepped outside. Sure enough, someone around had a big fire going-the scent of burning wood was strong on the west wind. We also called it the White Wind, since it came off the White Mountains to the west, as opposed to a Butlerian Wind, coming off the Butler Mountains to the east.

Our village lay on a flat plain between the spiky tentacles of the Butler and White Mountains-basically, it was a gigantic valley between the two ranges.3 The flatness of our area was excellent for farming and for visibility, but with little to impede it, the wind was ferocious. The cold slashed through my longcoat and I squinted into the wind to see if I could spot any smoke. I strained my eyes past our little snow-covered barn and saw a plume of black smoke, flattened by the wind, along with a lone rider on horseback, approaching fast.

Torn between curiosity and the biting cold, I huddled back against the house and watched the rider draw near. What’s with this guy? He’s riding a draft horse… Before long, I recognized him: it was the son of old man Clay, from the next farm to the west from our own. He thundered up, the big beige horse kicking up clods of snow and dirt as he stopped. The beast was panting, obviously not used to running after pulling plows all its life.

“Baggage Clay!,” I called, waving. “What brings you over here?”

His look killed my friendly greeting-his pudgy face was twisted with fear. “Sig, some army done marched outta the southwest and mowed down all the farms! They’re comin’ this way, stealing and burnin’ everything…”

“Sweet Mother, Baggage…are you serious?”

“Hell yes I’m serious! Hammond’s, Fleischer’s and Bauer’s farms already got run over…they’ve been killin’ too! My pappy sent me down here to warn you guys so you could get out. Where’re your folks?”

I shook my head. “Don’t know. They were gone when I got up this morning. How much time do we have?”

Baggage’s eyes bulged. “Damn Sig, we got no time! You gotta get out!

My heart was pounding. Already, I was mentally inventorying what I’d need to take. “Ok…where are you headed? Hargon’s Grove?” Hargon’s Grove was the source of a spring-fed stream ringed by trees and loose rocks about ten miles north of our farm. It was the obvious choice for a hiding spot, since it offered concealment, shelter, and water.

“Yup. I’m going whenever you are.”

“Ok.” I dashed inside the house to collect my gear. Extra shirt, blanket, flint, knife, socks, gloves. Luckily my father had left the bow that we occasionally used for hunting, so I grabbed that along with the quiver of arrows. I checked the pantry; one loaf of bread left. I considered leaving it for my parents, but then: the house might not be standing when I get back. I wrapped it up and tossed it in my bag. One last glance around the house-the axe was in the barn, so that was it.

Baggage’s big horse was prancing anxiously when I came back outside. “Them sons-of-bitches are comin’ this way already!” Sure enough, I could barely make out a small group-four?-of riders on the horizon.

“Shit. Let’s get to the barn and get outta here!” I ran to the barn, swept up the axe next to the door, and untied my horse. I almost rode right out, but then glanced at the other two horses. “No way I’m letting those fuckers make dinner out of you guys,” I muttered, hopping down from my mount and untying the other two. “Ok boys, time to go. Hah!” I slapped each one on the ass and they bolted out into the snow.

I met Baggage outside and we rode north. I didn’t look back to see what happened to the farm; we just put our heads down and rode until the sun was low and the line of pines leading to Hargon’s Grove sprung out of the plain. Before the sun went down completely, we led our horses into the concealing darkness of the grove, tied them, and hunkered down exhausted, while the horses lapped at the spring.

We agreed that a fire would be too risky, so we just spread out our blankets and rested, though sleep wouldn’t come, for obvious reasons. Baggage had some salted meat and I had my hunk of bread, so we had a halfway decent meal, though I choked my food down with more rote muscle memory than any real hunger. We didn’t speak for hours; I was lost in thought about my parents and the village and who this army was, and I’m sure Baggage was the same. Besides, there wasn’t much to say.

Leaning my back against a rock, the blanket and pine needles strangely comfortable under me, I started to doze off. As soon as my consciousness started to slip, I was again assaulted by the horrifying images of the previous night’s dream: horses, teeth, hooves, blood, pain.

But before I could delve very far into the experience, the sound of a voice jolted me to alertness.

I thought for a moment that the voice’s gibberish words were an extension of my nightmare, but I then realized that it was just speaking another language. A stab of fear hit my gut, as I got to my knees as carefully as possible, simultaneously grabbing the bow next to me. I peered over the rock and saw a group of men, illuminated by torchlight, carrying spears and bows

Despite the nightmares, I dozed for most of the night, awakening only at the rustle of branches or the muttering of the wind or the snores of Baggage next to me, sawing away mindlessly as if he were laid out in his own bed.

Dawn came clear and jaggedly cold, the pink rays of sun glittering the fields with diamonds of snow while the wind stabbed through my jacket. I looked south, crouching low in case any soldiers were nearby, and could see smudges of smoke, probably following the line of the army’s advance. Probably the whole village and all the farms have been destroyed. Strangely, I didn’t feel much, other than a dull sense of reality and a factual realization that my home of sixteen years had been razed by a marching army.

Baggage stirred from his amazing slumber and I turned to talk to him. “What do you think, Bag? Should we head back?”

He staggered to his feet, yawning, and stared south. “Shit, Sig, it prolly doesn’t matter…those sonsabitches were on the move, so they’re likely gone by now…”

I just nodded slowly and we mounted up, trotting back towards the farm.

3

I stared out over the star-speckled horizon, watching the moon rise over Arbor Plain. My left arm was still sore from where Divoras had nearly broken it and the splinters of my sword were laid out next to me.

The night was cool and Fenja was gone; probably off on some mission for her gods. My head was virtually spinning after the events of the last few days-my capture by the Rajarti, experiencing their bizarre lifestyle, then Fenja’s spectacular reappearance and her rather swashbuckling rescue. As if that wasn’t enough to ponder, there was our discussion and subsequent…understanding earlier the same night.

What the hell just happened?

In any case, I was alone, basically unarmed, and many miles from any civilization. Even if I was tired, though, there was too much flying through my head to permit sleep.

Fenja…meeting her had been happenstance and traveling with her had started as a mercenary job, but now…I didn’t know what to think. She earnestly wanted some sort of repentance, some kind of closure to her basically endless existence, but how? I wasn’t privy to her plan-if indeed she had any, which I often doubted-but I was staying with her anyway. I wanted to see what would happen.

I woke with the stinging scent of woodsmoke in my nostrils and a pulsating pain in my head.

Groggily, I sat up; a bonfire crackled nearby in an otherwise dark night. Human shapes roved about, silhouetted by the flickering blaze, but other than that, there was no clue as to my whereabouts.

“You’re finally awake,” a smooth voice purred.

I craned my neck to look behind me and saw a long-legged woman, arms akimbo, looking down at me. At least, I thought she was a woman-but the firelight dancing in her eyes revealed vertical slit-pupils like a cat.

“What the…” I had no recollection of meeting any cat-people.

“You’re lucky to have survived that wound, hu-man.” Her Common was thickly accented but fluent.

Wound?

I looked down and saw a thin red scar running diagonally from my right hip to just below the left side of my ribcage. It looked fresh and bright red, but I felt no pain.

“It could have been worse-you must be quick to have avoided the strike of a Gilgamesh knight.”

I noticed her skin wasn’t smooth but rather was covered by a fine layer of fur, glistening faintly in the orange light.

Quick? Me? Gilgamesh knight? The more she talked, the more confused I became.

“Where-”

She cut me off with a slashing motion across her throat. “Nai. You rest now while we decide what to do with you. Here.” She produced a waterskin that I hadn’t noticed and tossed it next to me. “Stay.” With that she whirled and stalked silently back into the shadows.

I picked up the waterskin and drank while trying to figure out my situation. Looking around some more, I saw my breastplate-nearly split in two. Next to it was the rest of my gear, sword included.

“Guess they’re not too worried about me causing trouble,” I mumbled, laying back down. Before long I drifted back to a dreamless sleep.

The next morning I was roused by a kick to the ribs from the previous night’s cat-woman. “Get up, man.” I was surrounded by cat-women, all of whom were striking the camp from the night before. Except for my clothes, my gear was gone. I opened my mouth to say something but the tall one cut me off again. “We’re moving. Get dressed. Divoras!” A short cat-woman – probably no more than five feet tall – jogged over, toting a spear and a rucksack that looked like it weighed as much as she did. They chatted in their language, then the tall one left.

Divoras – I assumed that was her name – eyed me suspiciously. I just stared back. She had a super-fine coat of tan fur all over, except her bare feet, which were black, and the tips of her little cat ears (cat ears? Is this for real? I thought), also black. Strangely, she also had a mop of blonde hair that dangled in her face a little bit, through which she peered at me with big green eyes.

“What?,” I asked, finally.

Her Common wasn’t as good as the other one. “I carry your things now with my own.” She frowned. I guess she already had a lot of gear to carry.

I threw my shirt on, feeling naked without the sword and breastplate. The rest of the group – maybe thirty in all – was moving out into the forest. Divoras motioned for me to follow and we joined them, and there was little sound. My footfalls sounded clumsy by comparison and I had spent my share of time stalking in the woods.

We walked for some hours, the sun rising as we did so, burning the mist from the forest. I noticed that Divoras seemed to be just about the only one carrying much gear, despite being one of the smallest. Even so, she trudged along silently, moving just as quickly as everyone else – and more easily than me, since I was having a hard time keeping up. The wound in my side was starting to ache and it distracted me just enough that I occasionally stumbled on a stray rock or jutting root.

At what must’ve been midday we stopped. I was exhausted and plopped down on a bed of pine needles. Divoras dropped her pack and sat down nearby; a couple of the others took up what appeared to be guard positions, facing outwards, while the rest clambered up into the trees and seemed to disappear.

Divoras reached into her pack and produced a waterskin. “Drink,” she ordered. I took it gratefully and drank as directed, still watching her. She ate a few pieces of dried meat, then licked her mouth – yes, just like a cat would. It was adorable and yet totally bizarre at the same time.

“Where are we going?,” I asked.

“Home.” Duh.

“Where’s home?”

“In the forest.” Oh come on.

“I know that. How much farther is it?”

“We will be there by night.”

“What will you do with me then?”

She shook her head. “Not for me to decide.”

I sighed. I didn’t feel much in the way of malicious intent from these cat-women, so I didn’t feel an urgent need to try to escape. Besides, I didn’t have much chance at the moment anyway. Additionally, I didn’t have any idea where I was or where I would go if I did escape. Last thing I remembered was getting lost in the Veros Woods with Fenja…then she was gone…then I woke up with these people.

I handed back the waterskin. “Thank you. My name is Siegfried. What’s yours?” I pretty much already knew but I had to break the ice somehow.

“Divoras.”

For no real reason, I smiled. “So, Divoras…tell me about your people…”

***

Divoras purred quietly, green eyes half closed. I lazily stroked her thigh, following the sleek contours of her muscles, while my head rested on the white diamond of fur on her belly. The sun was warm and sleepy and the breeze rustled my hair pleasantly.

The scene was so relaxing that I basically forgot that I just had sex with a cat-woman.

What?

I’d spent a week with the Rajarti – as they called themselves – and found their tree-dwelling lifestyle to be bizarre and pleasant at the same time. I hadn’t seen any males; Divoras said that the males stayed at the main…encampment? city? dwelling? while the females journeyed out to do the work of the tribe.

Divoras stirred, smiling down at me. I smiled back. We didn’t have much language in common, so complex communication was out of the question, but we managed somehow. It was the first time I had ever met anyone who didn’t speak my language, and while it was initially disconcerting, over time we both adapted to get our respective points across – obviously, since now I was laying on her naked belly on the shore of Veros Lake.

OUTLINE of the rest of this part

10.Siegfried strikes up semi-friendship with Divoras

11.Goes back to main Rajarti area

12.Lives with them for a while (few days? A week?) – summarize that time period

13.Fenja discovers his location and plots a rescue mission

14.Fenja comes running in – through the trees? – and is about to wipe out the area

15.Siegfried stops her from killing too many (does he stop her from killing anyone?)

16.Siegfried makes a move to stop Fenja, Divoras thinks he’s doing something crazy so nearly breaks his arm – oops

17.Fenja closes in to defend him, Divoras grabs closest weapon – Siegfried’s sword – and tries to fight Fenja

18.Sword broken, Divoras wounded (only lightly)

19.Fenja grabs Siegfried and leaps off into the canopy, leaving a sad cat-girl behind

4

Fenja wiped the hair out of her eyes and fingered the black scabbard of her death-sword, her lips turning a sad smile. “So, I left my town and became a Knight.”

After that, silence. I didn’t know what to say. Possibly the most deadly killer in human history-certainly the most deadly alive-had just given me her life story by firelight. It boiled down to a tale of ridiculous jealousy, loss, rage, and separation, a love gone so wrong that tens of thousands had died for it and many more would die yet before the end.

More than once, I tried to talk, my mouth starting to form words but my brain unable to summon anything meaningful. The fire guttered low, casting low orange light to balance the blue-white of the half moon overhead. In the dim light I could see how beautiful she was: black hair glistening, slender hands pale and uncalloused despite her years gripping a sword, red eyes turned soulful bloody-dark in the firelight.

Finally, a coherent sentence: “…Why are you telling me all this?”

She shrugged, her eyes still downcast. “You aren’t trying to kill me, and you’re not trying to lick my boots. I guess. Why are you listening to all this?”

“I’m a captive audience, I suppose.” A lame attempt at humor. She frowned and looked away.

“I figured as much. Just listening to the Grim Reaper’s Lady tell stories, like everyone else.”

“That’s…not what I meant.” She suddenly seemed so vulnerable; almost as if she couldn’t cut my head off with a flick of her wrist. “You’re…”

“I’m what?” So quick.

“…beautiful.” It came out as an involuntary action. I fully expected a sweep of a blade or hand within the next heartbeat.

Instead she grinned. “That’s what they say. That I’m the most beautiful killer to walk the earth.” She stood, turning her back to me. “How old do you think I am?”

What kind of question is that? If I guess wrong, is she gonna decapitate me? “Uh…thirty?” Shit…too old.

A laugh. “Have I aged that much? I was born in 1205.”

1205…that makes her…eighty-five!

Turning, she read my incredulous expression. “Unnatural long life…one of the many gifts that The Four have given me for my service.” She held up her free hand, shapely and seemingly more suited to strumming a harp or sewing the adornments on a daughter’s robe than fatal sword-work. “Not a single scar or blister after over sixty years of battle.” The words were a tired exhalation. “In fact, it seems that with every passing year I grow stronger, not weaker, while I lead the grandsons of my peers into countless battles.”

Her shoulders slumped. I wanted to reach out to her, somehow, seeing this new human side of her. I almost did, but she spoke again.

“And yet…,” her voice a crescendo, “yet with all this strength…!” She whirled, black blade snapping free of scabbard, whistling to a stop mere inches from my neck and her face not far behind, her hot breath condensing fast on the cold alloy. I almost collapsed in a pulse of terror but I held fast somehow, mesmerized by her cold alien stare and hissing voice.

“All this strength and I cannot take back what I want most! I seek vengeance, yet remain unfulfilled. I seek death on the battlefield and receive eternal life! I seek battle with one man, yet all who meet me are insects, bootlickers, worshippers, vermin, subhumans.”

Fenja’s sword clicked back into the sheath and she turned away slowly. The firelight played in her hair and I stared at her back, uncomprehending. She seemed less a century-old murderess and more a tired young woman, weary and alone. As if to emphasize her weariness, she sat down on a stump by the fire and casually tossed her sword to the ground. Tuning me out like I had just disappeared, she stared off into the dark woods, silent.

I couldn’t help myself-I wanted to hold her, to shield her, to protect her from the terror the world had become to her. But what could I do? The enemies she faced were the stuff nightmares were made of; she had faced battle since long before I was born; and her strength was unmatched by any save one. A pang of helplessness struck me.

I stepped closer, fumbling with words. “Fenja-” No response. I swallowed, shaking with fear. “I-” Still nothing coherent. Convinced my life was forfeit, I placed a quaking hand on her shoulder.

“Siegfried,” she said, barely audible. “I don’t need your pity.”

“It’s not pity.” I knelt down next to her; she smelled of white plums, like any other woman might. Funny-I thought she’d smell like blood or sword-oil or leather or something else. “Just let me treat you like a normal human for once.” Brave words for someone whose head would probably be airborne in the next second.

Instead, Fenja clasped my hand in hers. Her hand was warm and smooth. Still looking away, she spoke quietly: “Aren’t you afraid?”

I shivered. “Shouldn’t I be?” I knew there was no escape if she wanted to kill me; at this distance, the difference in our reflexes meant that I’d be dead before I even knew what was happening.

“Of course you should.” Her voice was leaden; she dropped my hand and moved to get up.

“Wait-” She stopped. “What can I do?,” I asked, almost pleading.

She leaned over, resting her head in her hands. Emboldened by her vulnerability-and the fact that she hadn’t decapitated me yet-I came up behind her and wrapped my arms around her in a gentle embrace. She straightened, obviously surprised, and half-turned towards me.

“Siegfried…what are you doing?” Her voice had lost the killing edge it had a few minutes earlier.

“…I don’t know.”

Fenja reached up, pulled me closer until our lips met in a soft kiss. I had expected coldness, but she was warm, vital, needy-kissing me like her life depended on it.

When we separated, I just stared; my heart was pounding and my head was spinning. She turned to face me fully, her red eyes boring into me, intense but with a different look than before. I could feel her own pulse thundering in her chest, and it reminded me of her humanity.

We sat there for long minutes, holding each other in silence. Then, she looked into my eyes: “I’m still a woman, you know.”

Without another word we laid down by the fire and played until the fire guttered out, reveling in our aliveness and warmth, forgetting for a time about swords and gods and life and death.

5

A flash of light hammered me back through a wall, hurling me to the ground behind in a dazed heap.

“Stay back, whelp! This is a battle beyond your ken.” Chronocle’s voice resonated freakishly as he turned back to Fenja. For her part, Fenja’s gaze stayed locked on the black-haired man, her black sword low. She was probably in her battle-trance now and I could imagine her red eyes turned to cat-like slits in her fury.

My breastplate was a smoking mess but luckily had ablated under Chronocle’s attack, sparing me from major harm. The impact with the wall knocked the wind out of me, though, so I sat up on one arm and tried to suck in a few breaths while Fenja and Chronocle started circling. The gray clouds were starting to part, lifting the freezing rain and revealing the setting sun.

“At last, my love…we’ve met again after all this time. When did I see you last? Was it in our little village back home? You’ve changed since then.” Chronocle’s voice was weird but he seemed strangely earnest. Is he insane? He’s talking to her like they just went away for a damn vacation!

Fenja howled, a brief sound of animal grief, pointing her sword at Chronocle’s jabbering face. As they circled, I could see her face. Her eyes were cold and her jaw was set, but even from my position I could see she wasn’t in her trance yet. “Shut up, Chronocle! Everything ends tonight.” She choked on the words as she uttered them. Then, without looking at me, “Siegfried, you know what to do.”

In a blur she disappeared, dashing forward to start the fight that would end her sad tale.

I tried to stand but I was still weakened by my fall. Groaning I managed to get to my knees, wincing as I realized I probably had a couple of broken ribs. I had to smash the obelisk Fenja told me about before the fight dragged on too long or else the entire mountain-including myself-would be totally destroyed.

They were in only the opening moves of their duel but already their shapes were blurred while their blades screamed together, showering hot sparks from each strike. There was no way to tell who was winning because it seemed like a fight between lunatics hell-bent on destruction.

Rays of orange light poked through the clouds, casting the whole scene with a golden glow. Puddles of icy water twinkled in the dusk and diamonds of rain flew from their swords as they ripped through the air.

I finally gained my footing and staggered towards the ruined building that was supposed to hold the icon. As I did, I peeled off my destroyed breastplate, letting it clatter to the ground. I tried to stay as low as possible behind the rubble, though I doubted that either of the duelists would be paying any attention to me at this point.

A crash of thunder exploded over the mountaintop and I couldn’t help but look up to see what happened. Fenja and Chronocle were wrapped in a cloud of smoke thrown up by their clash; I could see Fenja standing off to my left, the sweat on her brow glistening in the sunlight. Her eyes-she was still normal! Still no battle-trance, and she was still in the fight. But why?

They exchanged words but I couldn’t hear since my ears were still ringing from the explosion. The air was electric with magical power; the hairs on my neck and arms were literally standing on end and I could feel the energy rising like a fast tide. The amount of energy flowing must have been ridiculous for me to feel it, mystically insensitive as I was.

Another peal of thunder sounded and I saw Chronocle hurl a bolt of white lighting into Fenja. Or so I thought-the bolt exploded where she was standing and while the afterimage swam in my retina, I saw her flipping through the air, firing black bolts of her own, raking the rubble with more explosions only to have Chronocle leap away as well. I had never seen Fenja fight at full potential, and it was terrifying. What power! And all because of a love lost…

Refocusing on my goal, I shambled onwards in a low crouch. I rounded the corner-and there it was! A nondescript gray stone obelisk, maybe 3 feet in height, perched on a pedestal and carved with the curling letters of some old language. This is it-all I have to do is smash this. Then… I didn’t know what was going to happen, but Fenja was insistent on the destruction of this obelisk. I swore to do this task for her, whatever I could do to help, so there I was…I drew my sword, rearing back for a full swing. She said this blade could cut stone, so let’s find out…

I swung with all my might. In a flash the blade sang in an arc, driving to the obelisk.

Half of the sword cartwheeled through the air, sparkling with evening sunlight, snapped clean from the rest of the blade.

Chronocle’s black eyes bored into me and he held the silver curve of his sword where it had blocked my swing. His mouth was twisted in a small grin; I was staring at the face of death.

Impossible! Such speed! He was more than fifty feet away…

He kicked into a dash faster than my eyes could follow and I knew I was going to die.

The death strike never fell, though – there was a rush of air and then I heard the scream of clashing steel, accompanied by a shower of sparks that cascaded over my head. There stood Fenja, impossibly, blocking Chronocle’s swing with her own blade. I sucked in a breath and I could smell her sweat, the leather of her armor, the strange flowery scent of her hair. It was a moment in time – she was so close I could have embraced her, but for the vorpal sword in her hand and the equally dangerous man who had nearly cut me in half.

The moment was over and Fenja pushed back, swinging and forcing Chronocle to leap sideways, away from the obelisk. She crouched to strike again but Chronocle drew himself up to his full height – a good six inches taller than either of us – and spoke again.

“What are you playing at, dear Fenja? I know we’ve never fought, but I can tell from your swordplay that you’re not fighting to win. What are you doing and why is this lapdog” – dismissively nodding in my direction – “so important to you? Some lover, perhaps?” The last words came out forcefully, like he was spitting.

Fenja shook her head, still crouching, coiling like a panther. “I am fighting to win,” she breathed. “Just not in the way that you expect.”

Chronocle laughed. “It doesn’t matter anyway, my love – we can’t be killed! You have lived nearly as long as I have, so you know the ugly truth of our existence! What difference would another sword through this chest make?”

I was paralyzed – I didn’t know what to do. My sword was broken and I was totally out of my element with those two. I probably had a broken rib or two, my clothes were in tatters, and all I had were my impotent fists with which to complete Fenja’s task. I still didn’t understand what was going on, but there was this one thing I could do for her, the one thing that might make a difference in her cursed life.

This sword can cut stone… Fenja’s words came back to me and I looked at the broken sword still in my hand. I still had half the blade, and what I had still looked good – Chronocle’s sword must’ve been so strong and sharp that it just sliced mine off like a twig. Half a sword was better than no sword, I thought, half-limping and half-bounding towards the gray pillar of stone.

As I did so, Fenja said something else that I couldn’t hear, then tensed and shot forward, black sword leading the way. Chronocle just stood, his sword at his side, smiling slightly.

Burning agony radiated from my ribs as I twisted and slammed my broken sword into the stone column. To my amazement, the blade struck deep in the stone – and stuck. I cursed and, not knowing what else to do, pushed harder. The sword vibrated faintly in my hands and plunged deeper into the pillar, slinging sparks and rock dust as it did so. I was so elated by the sight that I cackled maniacally, bearing down on the hilt even as the pain from my chest turned to a wave of nausea.

As I pushed, I saw Fenja strike, her black sword slamming squarely through Chronocle’s chest with a sound like the closing of a heavy wooden door. Chronocle winced and took half a step back to absorb the blow, but seemed otherwise unfazed.

I kept pushing; the blade was most of the way through now, and my hands had gone numb from the vibration. My face was slick with cold sweat and my vision was dimming, closing in at the edges as the pain overwhelmed me. Just a little more, I thought, just a little more and you’ll help Fenja – the only thing I’d ever done for her besides get in her way.

The blade broke free and flew out of my cramped hands, while the top of the obelisk tumbled to the ground. I turned, an exclamation ready in my throat. The exclamation died where it lay, though, as I watched Chronocle reverse his blade and plunge it down through Fenja’s back, driving her to her knees.

I went to scream but nothing came out – I fell to the ground, my head spinning, saliva rushing to my mouth as the prelude to vomiting. I struggled to look at the two, and I saw a look of desperate surprise cross Chronocle’s face, just before he coughed a sheet of blood and crumpled to the grass alongside Fenja.

What happened? I panted, holding back the rising bile, and managed to get to one knee. The wind had shifted and a chill swept over me. The sun had almost disappeared behind the clouded horizon, but it seemed there was a strange glow in the clouds directly overhead.

“Fenja?,” I croaked, straining to see over a clump of rubble that lay between us. I struggled to stand – swaying as I did so, pushing down the urge to pass out. I had to see Fenja!

And there she was – sitting on the grass and rocks, in what looked like an embrace with Chronocle – except that they each had swords jutting from their backs. I couldn’t move, or speak, or do anything but stare.

Slowly, Fenja turned her head to me. Tears welled in her red eyes, shining in the twilight. “Thank you, Siegfried,” she said, barely above a whisper.

“For what, Fenja? Gods, for what? I-”

She shook her head gently. “This is what I wanted. And…only you could do it.”

“But -”

“Say no more, Siegfried. You have to go now. Go, and tell our daughter that I was a good woman in the end.” Tears spilled down her pale cheeks and she turned away, pressing her face against Chronocle’s.

I howled some sound of grief and stared at the two of them. How dare she! I loved her! Put the sword in my breast, not his! Gods…but she was right. The glow in the sky overhead was growing and I felt some great pressure bearing down on me. Wiping my face with my grimy sleeve, I turned and ran (or stumbled) for the path that led down the cursed mountain.

I made it onto the path none too soon, as the clouds opened and a ray like the brilliant sun split the sky and the top of Schwarzadlerberg disappeared in a tremendous explosion, blinding and deafening me and sending me tumbling down the path.

By the time I regained my senses, it was over. The stars glittered overhead, seemingly brighter than ever, with one looming large and blue over the hole in the sky, a star I had never seen before. Dead silence hung over what was left of the forested mountain, and I was alone. I had never felt so abandoned, so bereft. I propped myself against a tree alongside the path and sobbed for a long time, each heaving breath sending a shot of hot pain through my injured chest. I sat there for who knows how long, until I heard a familiar accented voice probe from the darkness.

“Siegfried? It’s you…what happened?”

Relief swept through me. It was Divoras. I let her lift me from my seat – my legs had gone to mush – and with her strong arm around me, we limped down the path, away from the destroyed mountain.

6

The snow underfoot had been mashed down by countless passing feet, making it easy going for me. I was climbing the last rise of the Kamini Pass – after this, it dropped away from the Butler Mountains towards East Sesar and Tei Tenga, where I knew the Gilgamesh Fifth Crusade Army would be. I’d been following the Army for two months, ever since they destroyed my farm and my village; I didn’t know what I’d do when I encountered them, but I was determined to at least see the faces of the bastards that had swept across the plains like a whirlwind.

Baggage Clay had followed me for a while, roused to action temporarily by the tragedy that had befallen our home. Soon his concern for his family overtook him, though, and I left him only about a day outside of our village with a message to my parents telling them I was still okay. From there I was on my own, tailing the Crusade Army at a safe distance – a distance I had discovered after a dust-up with a few soldiers from the Army’s trail party that didn’t take kindly to my close pursuit.

On my way, I had learned who the army was, and their objective – the ancient tower at Tei Tenga, supposedly some kind of sacred religious site for both them and their rival religion, Ramonith. Their meeting was sure to result in a battle, but I had no idea what kind of a disaster I was walking in to.

The wind was hard at my back as I neared the top of the rise. Almost there, I thought, a little thrill tingling in my stomach.

As I crested the rise, I looked down the gentle slope toward East Sesar and blinked, unbelieving. I couldn’t reconcile what I was seeing with anything in my experience. As far as I could see – until the limit imposed by the haze hanging over the plain – the snow was blotchy, a little white showing around vast patches of rust-red blood, interrupted by the dark shapes of broken bodies. Through the haze, perhaps ten miles distant, the glassy spike of Tei Tenga glittered faintly, reflecting the thin heatless rays of the sun like a giant icicle.

A knot in my throat, I slowly started down the path towards the plain. Nearer the mountains it was more blood and fewer bodies; as I descended, the bodies became more numerous. The wind was calm and the air silent; there was no stench of death in the air, the bodies having frozen before decomposition set in. Only a faint odor of smoke lingered in the still air, probably the source of the haze that floated over the plain.

I was unable to comprehend the scene. I plodded along for what seemed like hours, marching in the direction of Tei Tenga. I was the only living thing as far as I could see – not even the carrion crows visited the frozen graveyard, the dead flesh being too frozen for scavenging. As I walked I cinched my cloak more tightly around me, my eyes darted nervously left and right, a sweat broke out on my forehead despite the bitter cold. I felt like I had crossed into the realm of the dead and at any moment their restless souls would rise up to claim me. The high, white sun did little to ease my fear – it just cast harsh shadows in the ice-crusted eye sockets of the dead faces, and picked out the mutilated bodies and severed limbs in hyperreal detail.

Above the distant black-green of pine trees Tei Tenga still glittered, probably still five miles away. I realized that the dead were getting newer as I neared the tower, and fewer of them were wearing the white, black and gold colors of Gilgamesh – more and more wore the red, white and black of what I presumed to be the Ramonith army. The course of the battle suddenly unfolded itself in my mind: the Gilgamesh Crusade Army pouring out of the Kamini Pass, charging down into the Ramonith army, initially suffering heavy losses but gradually pushing them back into the plain, plowing them in a bloody mass towards Tei Tenga.

Snapping out of my reverie, I noticed a trail of dead bodies, clustered together and leading to a larger pile – almost a mound – some hundred yards from me. Compelled by morbid curiosity, I turned and followed the trail of death. These bodies were particularly devastated: some were completely sliced in half, others cleanly decapitated, and still others were limbless or simply stabbed through the chest. A couple of clusters of bodies looked like they had been burned to death, and the snow around them was melted away, showing scorched earth underneath. A few even looked as if they had been torn apart by some massive force, their limbs and bodies shredded with astonishing brutality. All of the dead, I noted, wore the white, black and gold of Gilgamesh.

By this time I was numb to the devastation; I approached the pile of corpses, maybe a dozen or so, stacked like a macabre hog-pile, and studied it with a detached interest. What the hell happened here?

Sighing, I slumped down in a blood-free patch of snow, feeling suddenly weary. What now? I had followed the Gilgamesh Crusade Army for weeks, but now it seemed pointless. I sat in silence for a few minutes – then my trance-like state was broken by a sudden sound, like a loud punch.

Startled, I turned toward the pile of bodies; I could swear I saw the pile twitching, as if something was inside of it. I jumped to my feet, swaying dizzily in a sudden blast of fear, just as the dull whump of an explosion split the air. A cloud of vaporized snow and dead body parts took to the air, obscuring the mound of corpses only some fifty feet away.

I was paralyzed, unable to even reach for my axe – though it probably would have been useless in any case. I stared, open-mouthed, as the haze cleared, expecting some kind of slavering six-eyed lizardoid beast or furry fanged devil to emerge, hungry for human flesh.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I saw the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen, staring at me with eyes more frightening and wicked than any monster I could imagine.

She was covered head to toe in gore; her cloak hung in tattered strips over her slim shoulders, shoulders that seemed incongruous with her malevolent aspect; her hair and her sword were both shiny black, glistening in the winter sun as her head turned to slowly scan the scene. She seemed to ignore me as she looked around and I stared at her; finally her gaze returned to me, and something had changed, something in her red eyes. She was still fearsome, but her aspect had become somehow more human.

A period of silence. Then: “What do you want?” Her voice wasn’t like the tinkling of silver bells or any other absurd cliché of womanly vocal beauty; rather, her voice was dry and scratchy like her throat was raw from screaming. I couldn’t speak; I just shrugged lamely. She paused again, then her eyes widened in some kind of shock, a flash of weariness in her perfect white face.

The moment was gone, and she whirled, snapping her sword back into the sheath at her belt, striding away from the scene without another word.

As she walked away, I regained my composure. I didn’t know who she was; a backwater boy like me hadn’t heard the legends of the Grim Reaper’s Lady who killed heartlessly wherever she went. All that filled my head was a singular thought: I had to know this beautiful, strange, dangerous woman.

I set off following her, my stride lighter with purpose, leaving the dead behind.

***

I followed the mysterious woman for several days, after scavenging some supplies from the ruined battlefield. There was plenty for the taking; the two armies combined must have numbered one hundred thousand soldiers or more. I didn’t have much trouble keeping her in sight, since she didn’t seem to be in much of a hurry and her black-clad form was clearly visible across the snow-encrusted rolling plains.

I was glad to have left the battle site behind, but my mind still reeled at the scale of the carnage. And for what purpose? I had hoped that by following the Gilgamesh army I could at least find a reason for what happened to my own home, but what purpose could I assign to a group of men who killed and died on a frozen plain for the ownership of a glass tower? The strange elation that I felt when I first laid eyes on the black-haired Fenja had faded and I lapsed into a depression, feeling like I was the last man in the world and that my existence was a pointless leftover. My dreams of terror returned, but instead of horses I was trampled every night by legions of slowly marching soldiers, all with empty eye sockets, marching inexorably over me, crushing me in an armored black wave.

Still, I walked doggedly on, having no other purpose. On the morning of the seventh day I awoke and saw a group of riders gathered around the mystery woman. In the clear slanting light of the morning sun I could just make out the puffs of breath from the horses. It looked like the riders were friendly to the woman – they had no weapons drawn, and anyway I had a feeling that they would’ve all been dead by now had the woman sensed any hostility.

I was on a hillock, under a small prairie tree, so I had a good view, but it also meant that the group had probably already spotted me. I gathered up my axe and pack, feeling sore from days of walking and sleeping on the cold ground. It was noticeably warmer this morning than it had been for weeks, but that didn’t ease my growing sense of self-pity. As I started to work up a good lather of discontent, a pair of the riders started off in my direction. Great, I thought, here we go. I made sure the lash my axe securely to my pack before hefting it onto my shoulders. I didn’t plan to present any kind of aggressive posture to those guys – I was still depressed and aimless, but I wasn’t suicidal. I started walking towards them, hands at my sides, trying to look as unthreatening as possible. I’m sure I did a great job of that, considering my appearance, which must’ve been pretty ragged at that point.

The two riders were approaching at a full gallop, their dappled mounts kicking up clods of wet snow. I stopped, sighing. I felt more frustration than anything else; I really didn’t feel like getting bullied around by some angry horsemen. They came to a halt in front of me, the horses snorting and steaming, while one of them swiftly dismounted, approaching me with a short sword drawn. I held up my hands, looking at him blankly. The other steered his horse to my right side, his mount stomping uncomfortably close (intentionally, no doubt), and addressed me in haughty tones:

“What is your name?”

I turned my head to look up at the rider, and found myself looking into a pair of eyes almost as red as Fenja’s. The man’s face was delicate, almost effeminate, but his eyes were piercing, predator-like. His hair was stark white, like the winter plumage of a plains hawk.

While taking this in, I forgot about his question. “Well?,” he said, impatiently.

I hadn’t spoken a word for many days, maybe more than a week. My first attempt came out as a weird croak. Clearing my throat, I tried again. “Siegfried,” I managed.

“Very well, Siegfried. Surrender your pack and any arms you have. You are coming with us.”

I shrugged, slinging my pack to the ground. The dismounted soldier took it, tossing it across the back of his horse. He then gestured for me to approach, and after a quick pat-down, we both mounted the cloud-gray animal. I looked over at the white-haired man again, wondering if he was like my black-haired object of pursuit. Against my better judgment, I called out to him.

“What’s your name, white-locks?” I grinned at my own cleverness.

“That’s right, Siegfried,” he replied, without looking at me. “Whitelock is my name.” He paused as if to say more, but he didn’t say anything else before spurring his horse back towards the rest of the group. My rider did the same, and after picking up the woman that the soldiers called Knight-Lady Fenja, we rode and rode and rode.

7

My brain screamed fatigue at my beleaguered body as I staggered under the broad eaves of the tavern, struggling to catch up with Fenja. It was the middle of the night and I was soaking wet from the night’s thunderstorm; Fenja, of course, was unflappable as ever.

I caught up with her by the door, and she gestured to it. “Go in,” she commanded. Too tired to even raise a complaint, I pushed the door in and immediately dodged to the side in a strangely alert move as a tankard hurled across my face and slammed into the wall. The scene was rowdy, despite the late hour: a group of men had cleared away the tables in the middle of the room and were grappling across the floor, while a few others were paired off, punching and hurling any objects at hand. The place was yellow-orange in the guttering light of oil lamps scattered around the room, and I had visions of the entire building going up in a blaze.

I realized I had stopped in the doorway when Fenja pushed me out of the way, nearly knocking me over on her way into the room. I managed to throw her a puppy-dog look but she was ignoring me, intent on scanning the small crowd. The men continued fighting, oblivious to our entry.

A voice rang out above the general din: “What the hell do you think you’re doing, you stinky rat bastards?” The voice seemed to come from the dim area at the opposite end of the room from the front door; I could barely make out a man coming down a set of stairs, dressed in…pajamas? I watched the figure pick up speed and dive into the crowd, swinging a staff about three feet long; he disappeared behind the group but I could hear yelps and shouts in between the thwacks of the staff hitting bodies. I glanced over at Fenja and she had a grin on her face – apparently she was enjoying the show.

The crowd – probably twenty or thirty men – started to disperse in the face of the beatings; some started to turn our way, towards the exit. As they did, they froze in their tracks, looks of terror on their faces that were suddenly drained white. I had seen the look in men’s faces before: it was the stark terror of recognition. I didn’t need to look at Fenja to know that she had her “war face” on – her jaw set, red eyes glistening like pools of fresh blood, standing casually yet defiant, her hands loose at her sides.

The beatings seemed to have stopped; men were picking themselves up off the ground, wiping blood and ale and whatever else from their faces and turning to leave the place. Looking up, they too froze, pinned by Fenja’s terrible visage. The man in cream-colored pajamas and stick in hand bellowed to the motley gang, “What the fuck is your problem? Get the hell out of my goddamn bar before I break your fucking kneecaps!” Some of the men turned back, gaping, then looked back at Fenja. “But…but…,” one of them protested. “The Black Lady…!” I could almost see the pajama man roll his eyes.

One guy, obviously drunk and angry for missing out on the earlier fighting, swung around to face us, knife in hand. He was standing about twenty feet away, swaying on his feet, flecks of food and spittle dangling in his ratty beard. “Shit, she don’t look sho tough,” he slurred, waving the knife menacingly. I realized he was brandishing a table knife, and shook my head. “She’s just a little girl!” Fenja’s eyes blazed at the comment, but she didn’t otherwise move. I, on the other hand, seeing the inevitable outcome, moved well out of the way, backing towards the corner to the right of the entrance.

The man dashed forward, leading with the knife like it was the finest titan-alloy blade in the world. Fenja still didn’t move; it almost looked like she was just going to let the guy slam into her. Just before he did, though, she slipped to the side, almost too fast to follow, leaving the poor bastard on a collision course with the wall. Before he could plant his face into the wood, though, Fenja pivoted, her sword streaking out in a blur. She plunged the blade through the man’s back and it came out the other side of his body, skewering him to the wall with a loud thwock sound. The man writhed briefly, his face twisted in an agonized, silent scream, then slumped dead.

Leaving the sword sticking in the guy and the wall, Fenja turned, scanning the crowd. Without another word, the group scrambled for the door, falling over each other to get out of the room.

The man in the pajamas tossed his staff aside and approached us. He was tall and lean, with shaggy brown hair hanging down past his ears. As he turned to look around his damaged bar, I noticed something missing: he only had one arm.

“What the fuck you looking at, kid?,” he barked, noticing my stare. “The name’s Brown.”

Capability Brown,” Fenja added, with the slightest hint of a grin.

Brown glared at her. “Okay, woman. Do you have to kill someone every damn time you come in here? And who the hell is this kid?”

I was thoroughly confused. Really, I just wanted to go to bed. It was too late for all this craziness.

The next day I woke up around noon. I crawled out of the comfortable bed and tried to sort myself out. After the brouhaha of last night, Fenja and Capability Brown had started talking in earnest; I fell into bed before they much got past pleasantries but I did catch that we’d be staying for a day or two. I didn’t know where Fenja was, but I smelled something delicious wafting up from the kitchen below (potatoes?), so I tossed on my clothes and headed downstairs.

Capability Brown’s was a much cheerier place in the daytime than at night. Four windows along the front wall showed the street outside (they must’ve been shuttered last night), and a pair of pyramidal skylights overhead let the sun beam on to the patrons. I hadn’t explored the building at all, but I supposed that meant that the second floor was only above the back half of the building.

The main room was filled with people, talking and eating in a din of merriment; I had to navigate a twisting path through chairs and bodies to reach the bar. Brown was nowhere to found, but I didn’t mind: the girl behind the bar was much cuter and probably much more friendly. She looked like she was eighteen or nineteen years old, with big hazel-brown eyes and shiny auburn hair to match. She had a cute little button nose, slightly upturned, but I hardly noticed as my eyes were drawn to her ample cleavage exposed by her ruffled white shirt.

I looked back up, smiling. She smiled back, her eyes glittering, though there was a hint of amusement in her look. I imagine I didn’t look like much: I was wearing a linen shirt stained with sweat and black streaks from my breastplate, and my green hair was a shaggy mess. Plus, I probably smelled funny – I should’ve taken a bath but my stomach took control.

“Hey, you came in last night, right?,” she said. Oh great, I thought – I had visions of Capability Brown greeting this barmaid in the morning and saying, “This green-haired jackass came in last night with the Black Lady so be sure to give him a lot of shit.”

“Yeah,” I responded, trying to sound casual about it. “What smells so good in here?,” I continued, changing the subject. “The food smells great.” She gestured back to the kitchen. “That would be CB whipping up his signature potatoes and [insert slightly exotic item here]. You want some?”

“Sure, that’d be great.” She flashed a little smile before whirling away to the kitchen to place my order. I suddenly felt very self-conscious. Fenja was beautiful but she was also weird and dangerous. This bargirl was vastly more…human and I looked like a bum.

A few minutes passed while I tried to come up with something witty to say to the girl; having finally figured something out, I was disappointed to see Capability Brown emerge from the spring-hinged doors to the kitchen, balancing a tray in his one hand. Walking past me, he gestured with his head towards a table in the back. “Sit over there,” he ordered, walking away. Shrugging, I got up and made for the table he indicated, while he delivered a couple of plates of food to patrons around the room.

His deliveries complete, he brought the tray over and sat down. On it was my breakfast/lunch: a plate of steaming golden potatoes, mixed with strips of some green and red vegetables and pieces of what I assumed to be sausage. I salivated at the smell and dug in without a word. I ate and Brown just stared at me; after a few minutes, it started to bother me.

“What?,” I asked, between mouthfuls of potatoes.

His eyes narrowed. “How did you get mixed up with ol’ Red-Eyes?”

“You mean Fenja?”

“No shit. You don’t look like one of her usual lackeys. They’re usually a lot dumber or a lot tougher-looking. So, what, did she kill your parents or kidnap your girlfriend or just straight up threaten to kill you?”

“Well, actually…” I briefly told him about how I met Fenja for the first time on the death-field near Tei Tenga and how I willingly followed her.

Capability paused, his mouth hanging open. “You know, she kills indiscriminately. She doesn’t play games. She’s not exactly a role model. Many consider her to be as close to pure evil as anything anyone has seen.”

I shrugged. How to explain it? “Sure, but what can you do about it? Are you trying to say that I’m somehow enabling evil by being around her? It’s not as if I could do anything to change her or prevent her from doing what she does. Besides, you seem to be pretty friendly with her yourself.”

“Shut the fuck up, boy,” he hissed. Then he cracked a smile, then started to laugh, almost a guffaw. “Well said.” His face grew more serious. “So, do you have any idea why Fenja came here or what she’s planning to do?” I shook my head. “Figures. Just dragging you along for the ride, I suppose. Well, she came to me because she’s trying to get to the [main continent].” I stopped eating. “She wants to go to Simian River.”

I had heard of the place, in the dog-eared history text my mother somehow possessed and in various lectures during the few times I went to the village schoolhouse as a boy. I knew it was some far-flung near-mythical location, a place dubbed the “birthplace of mankind” or some such; my knowledge, however, was limited and sketchy at best. “What for?,” I asked.

“Damned if I know.” Capability scratched his chin with his one hand. “At any rate, she wants me to find her someone with information about the place and how to find it. It might take me a while, though, so looks like you’ll be cooling your heels around here for a bit.” He stood, grabbing the empty tray. “How’s the grub?”

I paused, confused by his change of subject. “Oh, ah, actually it’s great.” He just nodded, as if I wouldn’t say anything else. He turned to walk away.

“Do try to stay out of trouble while you’re here, okay kid?”

8

The night was cold, calm, and quiet. Unseasonably-late snow drifted down in wet flakes, covering the ground in a white-gray slush that squished under our boots. Fenja and I were just outside the city, walking along the path on the far side of the city’s broad moat. We made our way through a cluster of dilapidated houses – some still-proud shells of homes once in good repair, while others were little more than wooden shacks. It was dark; presumably Fenja could see well in the dark, since I was mostly following her by sound and she didn’t stumble or slow.

We were on our way to meet a contact arranged by Capability Brown; it had taken him a week but he had discovered someone who supposedly had information about this Simian River place and how to get there. Brown only told us where to meet him and that he would answer to the name “Thancrus.” I didn’t find Capability to be especially personable – he gave me a lot of shit – but I didn’t think he’d set us up for an ambush. Still, there was no telling what this Thancrus guy was up to, so I was extra wary as we approached the stone house where we were supposed to meet.

It was a small rectangular building, made from some kind of rough-hewn stone and topped with a rotting wooden tile roof. There was one window and it was, of course, smashed in; the door was in little better shape, hanging loosely from the hinges in a doorframe made uneven by decay. We approached, and Fenja moved to push in the door and walk inside without so much as a word.

“Wait,” I hissed. Annoyed, she turned, eyes glinting in the dim light.

“What?”

I paused. Yeah, what? “Well, uh…shouldn’t we come up with a plan or something? What if this is some kind of set-up?” I just felt like there had to be a more tactical way to do this than just walking through the door like we owned the place.

Fenja looked confused. “If it’s a set-up, I guess I’ll just kill him.” She shrugged. “Besides, I highly doubt Brown would give me illegitimate information. He knows the consequences of such an act.”

I sighed, resigned. It just seemed shady: a late night meeting, in a shanty outside the city walls, with an anonymous source who claims to possess rare and ancient knowledge…

Fenja pushed the creaky door aside and stepped into the utter blackness of the house.

I followed, hand on the knife strapped to my chest; I was forgoing the sword since the house seemed too small for the long blade. My hand was sweaty on the grip and I could feel my heart speed up – not a runaway gallop of terror but just a slight thrill of tension.

As I crossed the threshold, a globe of red light burst into dim incandescence in the rafters, sudden and bright enough to make me squint but not to blind; my muscles tensed and my eyes swept the small room – Fenja didn’t seem to react, my knife was already out of its sheath, and ten paces away was standing the tallest man I had ever seen.

Or I thought it was a man at first glance – maybe seven feet tall and a lean build – but something wasn’t right – I was already crouching, coiling to strike with my knife – damn it I knew this was a trap – Fenja put her hand out to stop me, her mouth moving but the sound not reaching my ears for some reason. I paused, considering: the “man” had a cascade of long hair down to nearly his waist, of some light color indistinguishable in the red light; but it was his ears that gave him away, long and pointed, sticking away from his head several inches, almost comically. The man was an elf.

I stopped, straightening my stance, knife still in hand. The weird red light was an orb floating in the rafters, and was apparently magical in nature, just floating there radiating silently and heatlessly. The elf was dressed in a loose-fitting overgarment, somewhat like a robe, that extended about to his knees; below, his legs were clad in pants and shin-high boots. He regarded Fenja with an amused, almost arrogant half-smile on his face.

“So you’re the Battle Maiden, Fenja?” he inquired, folding his arms across his chest. I didn’t know exactly what to expect from an elf, but his speech was without any trace of accent and his diction was perfect.

“And you must be Thancrus.” Fenja seemed completely at ease. “Let’s not waste any time, raizartja. I was told that you have information that can assist in locating Simian River.”

A look of surprise crossed Thancrus’ face. “You use the old honorific, Battle Maiden. You are too kind – I am a mere seeker of knowledge, not an honored elder. But you are correct: in my studies I have learned things about the place you call Simian River.” If [common] wasn’t his native language, he was completely fluent; his voice had a slick, smooth cadence, almost hypnotic in its evenness. “But…as I am sure you might have guessed, I do not provide information as charity – particularly when someone so renowned as yourself makes a request.” At this he grinned, tilting his head forward, shadowing his eyes under the red light.

Fenja was nonplussed. “You will be compensated in proportion with the information that you provide, elf.”

Thancrus laughed. “Just as blunt as the tales say! Please, take no disrespect at my statement – I would never presume to say that Battle Maiden Fenja could not provide payment. Besides,” and at that point he turned, starting to pace the small room, “I am sure you are more than capable of taking me by force.”

9

The reddish sun had just dipped below the black trees, painting the scene in the blue of twilight. The only sound was the gentle lapping of the waves against the rocky shore; none of us talked for a few long minutes, and neither were there any animal sounds. Even our two pack horses were silent, glancing around uneasily. I looked back; the boatman that had brought us here was already a black speck on the gold-tinged water, hastily making his way back to our familiar land.

I shivered, even though I wasn’t cold. There was something alien, something wrong about being here, I thought, some ancient and primal feeling of dread that I couldn’t explain. This place, this continent, was so foreign that we didn’t have a name for it – it was simply known as “The Continent,” as if even naming it would be somehow improper.

Fenja was the first to break the silence. “Let’s make camp here for the night. We can strike inland at daybreak.” Slowly, almost groggily, we started to unload our gear from the horses. We didn’t bother with a fire, since we were tired from the boat trip and we didn’t know who, if anyone (or any thing) was watching. For my part, I tied the horses’ leads around a couple of rocks, then arranged myself as best I could on a flat rock where I might be able to get a little sleep. Divoras curled up near me, in sort of a fetal position, her spear close at hand. Thancrus sat with his back to a boulder, eyes closed, looking as composed as ever.

Capability Brown spoke up. “Hey, shitheads – what about posting a watch here? Not the best place to make ourselves comfortable, really.” Fenja, still standing, her sheathed sword in her hand, replied, “I’ll take the watch. I don’t need to sleep.” Of course she didn’t. Brown shrugged – an odd gesture for a man with one arm – and said nothing further. He too found himself a seat by a rock. Fenja, turned away to face the black wall of trees and sat down, drawing her knees up against her chest. I watched her until the twilight faded to dark night, and her black silhouette was indistinguishable from the trees beyond.

That night I slept heavily, and dreamt of weird luminous flying creatures, with great gossamer wings the color of moonlight, keening and pirouetting against a flame-orange sky; vast plains of shiny glass as far as the eye could see, reflecting a dead gray sky above; and a giant crystal ballroom, filled with beautiful elf couples, all dancing, all flawless, except that every elf woman had a gaping hole in her belly where her womb should have been.

I awoke feeling profoundly sad and quite disturbed. The sun was just coming up, and Fenja was still sitting in the same spot, facing the trees.

We began to strike camp, while Thancrus and Fenja stood off to the side, discussing which direction to go. From here we could do little but move inland, but it seemed as if there was some dispute between the two of them about our subsequent direction. It didn’t take long, though, to sort things out, and before long we were moving into the trees. Somewhere beyond, supposedly, was Simian River – the place where life began, if the legends were true.

The forest actually didn’t seem as menacing in the daylight as it had the night before. The trees were dark and tall and powerful, to be sure, but the forest – aside from the lack of animal signs – seemed vibrant and full of life. Divoras was scanning the trees, her little nose twitching, sampling the air. I asked her what she smelled. “No animals,” she replied. “None for a long time.”

The first day passed uneventfully, a long trudge through the rocky woodland. I was sweaty and tired by the end of the day; the first half was spent climbing away from the shore, and the ground was rocky and uneven throughout. As the sun grew low in the west, the trees started to thin out. In what seemed like a sudden stop, we reached a rocky ridgeline. I looked out across a vast forested valley, green almost as far as the eye could see; in the distance, I could just make out a twisting ribbon of silver, winding through the trees. I wasn’t a particularly religious man, but I was once again moved by something primal. “Is that…?”

“Simian River,” Thancrus intoned, his measured syllables almost a chant. Fenja’s eyes were bright, an almost animal-like look of eagerness on her pale face.

The cool wind through the forest gave way to a warmer one coming up from the valley; it felt good on my skin, but Divoras tensed at the sensation. “What is it?” I asked, noticing her discomfort. “Animal smells. Very strong.” The hair on the back of her neck was standing straight up.

Capability Brown grinned. “Maybe we can get some fresh meat out here after all!”

Thancrus, on the other hand, looked serious. “What does it smell like, little cat?”

“New smell. Sort of like…lizard.”

Lizard? I had visions of some monstrous man-eating lizard-beast crashing through the brush.

The ridge was steep and rocky; there was no way to traverse it safely, even without the pack horses.