Every ending has its roots in a beginning. Looking back I see ours. He was logic distilled, and I was nature herself. Opposites we were. I felt too much, and he felt too little.
— MATANGI, SHE-WHO-IS-CHAINED
All of existence had become a tremulous and excruciating bottomless wellspring of hurt, and then between one breath and the next, the agony was gone. There was no gradual decline. One moment a storm of needle points pummeled Erik’s flesh; the next, utter calm. The echoes of his frantically pumping heart were the only sound.
He awoke laying on top of a not-very-wide bed, his previous torment seemingly nothing but smoke. He examined himself. His naked body was unpunctured and whole, his large intestine lay safely encased within his stomach. Only the memory of the pain made him believe he had not dreamt it. A memory that somehow managed to recede both in his body and mind.
Slowly, Erik sat up and a prickling in the hair on the back of his arms made him look away from his chest. Suddenly his breath caught in his throat. A long cream colored leg rested on the edge of the bed as a pair of pink hands rolled a white stocking up the exposed flesh. The woman the leg and the hands belonged to was completely naked except for the stockings. Bars of sunlight cast through the gaps in between the brocaded curtains that covered the windows made her golden locks glitter where they hung from her head.
Erik’s eyes widened, and fresh beads of sweat sprouted all over his back like new shoots of grass. “Hanna,” he gasped. His fingers trembled before he closed them into fists.
Guardedly she peeked over at him. The smile forming on her face died in its infancy, replaced by a look of concern. “Erik, what’s wrong?” Her voice rose at the end.
“You’re dead,” he replied as his body shook with tremors. “I watched you die. How’s this even possible?” His eyes watered as he gazed at her, desperate for an answer that made sense.
Hanna hurried over and pulled Erik into her arms, cradling his head to her bosom. “Hush now,” she whispered while rubbing his back soothingly. “I’m right here. How can I be dead?”
“You have to believe me.” Erik wrapped his arms around her middle and squeezed. “I watched you die.” He choked back a sob. “Wolfville was on fire and—”
“Whatever you saw wasn’t real. It was just a dream, a nightmare.”
Erik wanted to believe and let everything he had experienced fade away like the morning dew. However, he was dimly aware of some shadowy remnants of pain locked away in his flesh. He understood dying had tainted him in a way he could not fathom. He shivered with the knowledge of that taint and knew it could not have been a dream.
“No!” He scrambled to his feet. “This was no dream!” He touched his nose and felt blood wet his hand. “What day is it?”
“Are you all right?”
“Is today the Renewal?” Erik grabbed Hanna by her shoulders. “Answer me!”
Apprehension marred Hanna’s face. “Yes,” she paused, “what has gotten into you.”
Erik dropped his hands from her shoulder and staggered back. His eyes glowed with something indescribable as blood continued to pour out of his nostril. He wiped it away with the back of his arm and began to pace beside the bed.
“Erik, you’re actually starting to scare me,” Hanna said, causing Erik to pause.
“I know,” he nodded, then gave a short bitter laugh. “I’m scaring myself.” He tilted his head back and pinched his nose to stop the flow. “I’ve lived today once before. I know it doesn’t make sense, but you have to believe me. I know what’s going to happen.”
“What going to happen?”
Erik took a deep breath through his mouth. “Later today the wardstones will stop working, and a herd of four-tusked mammoths will gather outside the village.” With his nose blocked his voice sounded different even to his own ears. “Then. . . Then. . . .” Dara and Elina. He was unsure whether the voice came outside his head or in; it seemed to echo through his bones as soft as a breeze, everywhere at once, urgent. You have to protect them from the horror. He dropped his blood-stained hand from his face and stared off into space blankly. You can’t let them die.
“Erik?” Hanna stood and waved her hand in front of him. Green eyes looked through her, seemingly as if she was not there. They blinked slowly overcame by tears. The moisture made them seem formed from glass, or perhaps crystal, catching the sunlight cast through the gaps in between the brocaded curtain and shattering it into a hundred glittering flashes.
“I have to warn them of what’s coming!” he shouted. “We’re all in danger!”
“Erik,” Hanna began, but it was too late, he had already run out the door. “You have no clothes on,” she finished with no one but herself in the room.
Leaping out of the house, Erik and ran outside, barefoot and wearing nothing but what he came out the womb with, heedless of the small stones that stabbed at his feet. For a moment the sun hid behind fluffy white clouds darkening the world. Erik spun in a circle. Wolfville looked just the way he remembered. Hanna’s home still sat at the edge of the village, encircled by a twenty-meter tall stockade with evenly placed watchtowers.
He turned away from the ancient forest of redwoods that stretched in every direction just past a handful of farms and hedge-bordered fields that stood outside the wall and continued his run, racing along a narrow path that led towards the heart of the village. Small gardens surrounded the high-peaked thatch-roofed homes of Wolfville and red and blue banners hung at their front.
Once passed the first row of houses, Erik shouted, “Arm yourselves! A beast swarm is coming!”
Faces turned towards Erik in alarm. Then the alarm changed to shock as they glimpsed Erik’s naked backside flash past. Goodwives gripped aprons with pink hands and aggrieved husbands covered the eyes of nearby children.
“Arm yourselves! Quickly! A beast swarm is coming!” Erik yelled.
Suddenly something hard bashed the back of Erik’s skull. His vision blurred, and his head rang like a struck bell; the reverberations shivered down into his toes. He stumbled to his knees as the blurs shifted into a swarm of growing dark spots. Then everything went black.
Slowly, Erik awoke in complete darkness. He sat up and pressed his hand to the back of his head. Wincing at the pain, he dropped his arm and took stock of his situation. His exposed skin itched and felt like it was covered with filth. The stink of his surroundings filled his nostrils, sour man-sweat and the reek of decomposing flesh.
Cautiously he reached out with his hands. He felt damp dirt through his fingertips. A growing fear made the hair on the back of his neck stand up. He scrambled to his feet. His heart pounded in his chest like autumn thunder, wet and dreary. All around him was dirt.
He was buried alive! No, he shook his head. With his hands stretched over his head, he could feel empty space. It’s too large to be a grave. Where am I?
He opened his mouth to scream, and suddenly a voice said, “I’ve come for my husband.” The manner in which the words were spoken was calm and collected.
Dara! Warmth rushed through Erik; hearing her voice was like a ray of light in a world of endless night. She’s come for me. For some reason, that surprised him. He knew it should not have, but it did. He did not warrant such a loyal wife, he decided.
The sound of moving furniture came from above, then the rumble of booted feet walking on wood. “Always the dutiful wife,” a male voice answered her. “You deserve better, Dara. Do you know where he was last night?”
“Ebbi—” Dara tried to interject.
“He was with the witch!” the Lightbender shouted. “That’s where he was until this morning when he decided to leave and run through the streets like a lunatic. Without a stitch of clothing on I might add. I would never treat you that way. Never!” He paused then continued in a quieter tone. “You should leave him.”
“And come with you?”
“Yes,” Ebbi’s voice was filled with longing. “I would treat you the way you should be treated.”
The sound of soft laughter trickled down to Erik’s ears. “That will never happen. I will never leave him,” she responded.
Dara cut in before he could continue, “Ebbi, you saved my life. For that, you will always hold a special place in my heart. But when you look at me you see something beautiful that you want to possess. Someone you hope will ease the loneliness you feel. When Erik looks at me, he sees me.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I know, but that’s all right. All that matters is that you release my husband.”
After a moment the lid of the pit Erik stood within was thrown open and a rope ladder was tossed down. Erik squinted his eyes against the sudden brightness and climbed up the ladder. The back of his head felt sticky with drying blood, but despite the pain he hardly noticed it in his rush to get out of the hole.
Ebbi’s distorted face was the first sight that greeted him as he made it above ground. He blinked, and the shimmering in his eyes steadied. The Lightbender still loomed up over him, a cruel look frozen on his half melted face. His hand gripped the sword at his side with something like devotion. He looked like he wanted to strike Erik down where he knelt.
“Erik, come here.”
Dara’s voice pulled Erik’s gaze away from Ebbi. She held a wool blanket open in her arms. He stood and allowed her to wrap it around him. He thought of sending the Lightbender a smile, but at last second he thought better of it. That would only lead to a fight he could not hope to win and right now there was much more than his pride at stake.
“Let’s go home,” Dara whispered.
Ebbi frowned, and opened his mouth as if to speak, but Dara fixed him with a steady, green-eyed stare. The Lightbender dropped his gaze and nodded.
Erik forced back a sigh, taking one last look at the room. It was an unembellished building with three cellar doors beside the one Erik had climbed out of. A rack filled with an assortment weapons sat pushed up against the wall next to a desk. Erik shook his head and followed Dara outside; that was the last he ever planned to see of the village jail.
Unashamed, Dara took his hand and weathered the hostile stares that were sent their way unblinkingly. Erik cleared his throat, embarrassed by all the looks. He clenched the blanket wrapped around his waist and chose his steps carefully.
“Ignore them. They’re all small minded fools,” Dara explained.
She squinted up at him in a way that made his heartbeat quicken.“I’m sorry,” he said without taking his eyes off her. “I acted without thinking. I should have made a plan.” He laughed bitterly. “Or at least put my clothes on.”
“What were you trying to achieve?” she asked, stopping him with a hand and pulling his head down. She looked at the wound on the back of his skull and winced. “Does it hurt?”
Erik shook Dara’s concern away and continued walking. He wanted to explain, but he was afraid she would not believe. After all he had been through; he did not think he could take that kind of rejection at the moment.
“If you rather not speak about it I understand,” she said softly.
He sagged with weariness. “You probably won’t believe me, but I’ve lived this day before. I know what’s going to happen. . . well up to a point. Later the wardstones will fail, and a herd of four-tusked mammoths and a pack of dire wolves will rampage through the village.”
“When exactly is this supposed to happen?” she asked as they came to a stop in front of the three stories tall plastered brick manor they called home.
Erik looked up at the sky and frowned. “Shortly after the Renewal ceremony.”
“So we don’t have much time.”
Erik gazed at Dara with incredulous eyes. “You believe me?” he asked. “Why? I half don’t believe myself.”
She fixed his sagging blanket and replied, “We’ve survived this long not because we’re smarter, though we are that, but because we’re more careful than our enemies. What you think you experienced might be a bout of delirium or it could be the truth. It’s better to air on the side of caution.
“And if what I saw never comes to pass?”
Dara gave a dazzling smile that never quite reached her eyes. “Well then, husband, we will have words.”