Don’t cry because you’re dying, smile because you lived.
— MATANGI, TO LEON
Ascending the mountain trail, Hanna used one hand to steady Erik and the other to grip her shortsword as she peered back at the furious Nætstalkers creeping behind them. The hilt felt like a piece of ice in her hand, and the breeze that whipped her gore-stained dress was cold enough to make her teeth chatter. Mounds of gray-skinned corpses littered the slope, pregnant with the rank odor of decomposing flesh; the darkness obscured her vision somewhat and made her doubly conscious of the danger. Yet the hint of brightness in the sky promised the approach of dawn. It had been dusk when her ordeal began, hours earlier, and it only seemed right it should finish as the sun once again rose to bless the earth.
Hanna wrenched her head back around and tried to put the screeching Nætstalkers out of her mind. Hjörtur’s outer wall loomed above her, but no one came charging out of that seemingly solid wall of black to her rescue. Torches blazed on top of the ramparts and below them lay the shattered remains of the former wardstones.
Erik stumbled, lurching himself right out of Hanna’s grasp. She tilted sideways, then steadied herself as Erik smacked hard against the rocky terrain, face first.
“Erik!” Awkwardly crouching down while turning back to the Nætstalkers, Hanna reached down to shake her husband. Immediately the deformed creatures rushed forward, their twisted green bodies blurring in the dark. Her fingers tightened around the hilt of the shortsword.
Hanna jerked to her full height; she was tall for a woman, but she did not think that would be enough to terrify these monsters. She screamed for help and waved her blade at the horde. Shouts rose behind her and hope surged in her heart.
Piranha-like teeth gleamed in the dark as the Nætstalkers pulled up short, just out of reach of Hanna’s blade, snarling. Foul spittle hissed through the air. She took a step forward, fear giving way to fury. She had lost her anger after killing the Dökk, but it all came back now, twice as fierce. Rage boiled in her veins, burned away the weariness in her limbs. All those old aches that moments before seemed insurmountable faded from her awareness. What existed was the dog-like monstrosities before her and the inferno in her chest, pumping fire into her arms.
“He is mine!” Hanna screamed. “You will not have him!”
She lashed out, wounding the two-headed Nætstalker. When it had first lunged at Erik, minutes earlier, Hanna had been startled by the size of it, but now she was unafraid. She slashed at a three-eyed Nætstalker a little more daring than the rest next, missing it by an inch. Her heart hammered behind her breast. She would rather die than give any more ground to these beasts.
A black coated man sprinted past Hanna—moving impossibly fast, the man’s longsword blurred in his hand as a dark top-knot webbed with hints of gray whirled behind him. Deformed Nætstalker flesh parted before his weapon and rank life-fluid gushed forth.
Hanna froze, her earlier rage all but forgotten. It took a second, but she eventually identified the Lightbender as Sir Tandri when he slowed down enough to make out his face. The Nætstalkers fled from him like wild animals before a flood. He spun back to face her, his hazel eyes searching. His coat was finely woven and high-necked, but still plain enough it would not stand out if he stood among his brethren. The pin on his left collar, a small silver starburst, caught what little light there was and glittered.
“Sir Tandri,” Hanna greeted. From his expression, she suspected he did not recognize her dressed as she was. It felt like a lifetime since she had last seen Tandri in the Viscount Baldur’s private gardens, but it could not have been more than a handful of hours ago. So much had happened. So much had changed. None of it for the better.
That’s not true, I have Erik back. Erik!
Hanna spun away from Tandri and hurried to Erik’s side. She pressed her hand to the back of his neck and breathed a sigh of relief when she sensed a pulse. His flesh was hot to the touch, far warmer than any human skin had the right to be.
“Lady Hanna, is that you under all that blood?” Tandri asked from behind her.
Hanna looked up and saw a column of blue surcoated soldiers approaching them through the sally gate, perhaps two dozen men in burnished plate-and-mail armor and shining conical helmets, ladened with iron tipped wooden spears and longswords at their waists. She was suddenly very aware of the tears and rips in her dress, and the blood that matted her hair and flesh.
“Is that the third Prince? Is he. . . .”
Tandri’s voice pulled Hanna’s mind back to the matter at hand. She took a calming breath and seized control of her wayward emotions. “He’s alive, he came back for me. He saved me.” She sensed hot tears spill down her cheeks and hated herself for the display of weakness.
“It’s all right, my Lady, you’re safe now.” Tandri draped his coat over Hanna’s shoulders and helped her to her feet. The armored men surrounded them, scanning the darkness. “Bring a stretcher,” he told them.
Hanna blinked away the tears in her eyes and held the coat closed with a hand; the coat was large enough that it protected her modesty and reached past her knees. She was hyper conscious of the eyes that roamed her body to an inordinate degree, and none of her training could keep her skin from crawling in disgust. It might have been her imagination, but she thought the soldiers’ eyes held the same hunger as the Gray Skins’ own had.
This is the truth of womanhood. To lay bound on your back with your legs spread open. . . . All males are conquerors, oppressors, and we are the victims. . . .
The Great Mrethren’s remembered words rolled through Hanna skull until she clenched her teeth and forced them away. Her shoulders trembled beneath the black coat. Her grip on the hilt of the shortsword tightened.
“Let’s get you inside,” Tandri said softly.
“Not without Erik.” Hanna shook her head and waited as the soldiers loaded her husband onto the stretcher. They strained and groaned, struggling to lift the Prince, and in the end, it took six men to carry him forward.
Hanna followed behind them with Tandri at her side. The main gate remained closed; it appeared damage and was held together by an assortment of rough, wooden boards. They entered the former stronghold of the Sorcerer-Kings through the arched sally gate. The half-charred remained of a nearby stable was the first sight that greeted her, then she noticed the growing crowd of soldiers who stared at Erik with reverence.
“You might not be aware of this, but when Ypse sprung his attack, Hjörtur was already under assault by the Dökk. They destroyed our wardstones and breached the gate. If not for your husband the citadel would have fallen.”
“I stabbed Ypse in the eye with my dagger, did he survive?” She worked to maintain the calm in her voice under the Lightbender’s steady, unblinking stare. She almost breathed a sigh of relief when he shifted it to observe the growing horde. News of their returned had spread quickly it seemed. When the Lightbender’s gaze returned to her, Hanna stiffened and carried on. “And with the Viscount dead, who is in command Hjörtur?”
“Prince Erik burnt the Sorcerer alive, and you’re mistaken, my Lady, the Viscount isn’t dead.”
Before Hanna had time to process that piece of information, a chant began. It started with one soldier beating his hand against his armored chest, and then it spread like an infection. Soon they were all doing it, shouting in unison with the steady clang of hard fists meeting steel. “Prince Erik! Prince Erik! Prince Erik!”
Erik’s heart hammered his breastplate as he ran past barren hills laden with swirling clouds of mist, though, no hint of a breeze stirred the land. This was not just a place where wildlife had declined; life had never existed here, and it never would. Nothing but dust sprouted from the cold soil that crunched beneath his sandals. He scrambled past ancient rubble, thrice as tall as he was; mist reclaimed the broken stone before he could more than glimpse it. The sun was a swollen, white blur, half concealed by the fog that roiled on every horizon, and despite its presence, the moist air burned his flesh like ice.
“Prince Erik! Prince Erik! Prince Erik!”
Erik glanced over his shoulder as he ran, but he could not see the ones yelling his name. Only the vague outline of hills shrouded in boiling vapors, now suddenly the size of jagged mountains, topped by plumes of red smoke. Though he could not see them, he certainly heard them, howling his name, powerful voices shouting in celebration.
He jerked his head back around and glimpsed a boy in a golden robe and a little girl in a cream-colored dress, running beside him, laughing and holding hands. Four pairs of green eyes peered up at him
“Come play,” said the little girl.
The reek of death enveloped Erik. It hurt to look at the girl’s face, turned his mind to smoldering coals. He did not want to think of the reason why. He did not. Her hand reached toward him, beckoning. With reckless haste, he scrambled away from her. His heart pounded harder. Faster. He had to get away. He had to.
“Erik,” came the girl’s voice, displeased, and as if from a great distance.
Unseen talons touched the back of his head, clawed at his skull, trying to scoop out his brains. He ducked down and jerked to the right, glancing up. A massive crow swooped above him, missing him by inches. Its plumage was midnight black with a greenish purple sheen.
Erik’s heart twitched as terror dug its cold, lifeless fingers into his warm flesh. His legs exploded forward, carrying him away from the crow. Half-blinded by the steamy mist, he raced up a knife-edged slope until rock gave way before him to plunge a thousand meters into a canyon strewn with furious vapors. Thunder rumbled in the valley below, and lightning flashed through the foul gray, sometimes striking the sheer rock wall on which he stood.
From the center of the fog, a rattle snake thrust upward, a rattle snake taller than the Rin Mountains, a rattle snake as black as death. “Beloved, you’ve returned.” Its forked tongue flicked out of its mouth as it spoke.
Erik turned from it, but his path back down was blocked by a blue scaled qilin larger than an elephant, with antlers the size of a mammoth’s ivory tusks. Grim waves of gray broke against its hooves, glowing crimson as they parted as if magma flared then stilled. Enormous wings flapped above his head, but he did not bother to look up. He was surrounded.
Erik shifted back to the snake. His eyes narrowed, and rage surged through his chest. Fury entwined his heart with molten chains, pulled at his legs, called him forward. Screaming, he flung himself off the ridge. He fell, flailing through the mist, bombarded by the constant bone-numbing rumble of thunder.
Suddenly he was no longer tumbling through the fog, no longer screaming. Brown and orange leaves crunched under his sandals. He almost cried from the joy of being free from the endless gray. Leafless trees ringed the clearing he stood within, towing pillars of ancient wood. A blue orb with vague landmasses hung above him, surrounded by the void and distant points of light.
The sound of a melodious voice raised in song drew Erik’s attention to the center of the clearing where a giant, blue skinned woman with three eyes sat cross-legged, staring at the distant planet. Heavy chains adorned each one of her four arms, and a silver crescent moon dangled above her forehead, fastened in her long, dark hair. Other than that she was naked.
Erik dropped to his knees, and tears spilled down his cheeks, hot to the touch. The song, sang in an unknown language, in a haunting cadence, shivered despair into his bones. He had never heard it before, but he knew it. The knowledge of it flashed away like a silver minnow when he tried to grasp it, but it was there. He was sure of it, hiding within the depths of his mind.
The woman lowered her head to grace him with a sad smile. “Oh, my poor child, did you miss me that much? I released you, and you rush back to me. I’m afraid I have nothing for you but ballads and sorrow. More ballads than you can hope to listen to in a lifetime. More sorrow than your little heart can bear. ”
“That song, I know it,” Erik said.
“Do you now?” She sounded surprised, but her facial expression did not change. If anything her dark eyes suddenly seemed darker and almost appeared to devour the light. “The lineage of my demons go back many generations. What you see, what you hear is merely their newest iteration.”
“That’s supposed to signify something of great import, is it not?” Erik frowned, unsure. He wiped the now cold tears from his cheeks and climbed to his feet. “Where am I and who are you?”
“Call me Matangi or Earth Mother. This is my home.”
“Why am I here?”
“I assume you’re here to ask me to heal you. No.” Matangi shook her head and combed her fingers through her twig mattered hair. “That moment has yet to happen, or perhaps it already has. Forgive me, sometimes it is hard keeping things in order.”
Beloved, a voice hissed in the roiling confusion of his mind. A familiar voice.
“Careful,” Matangi cautioned, “if you listen too closely you will lose yourself completely and will never be able to find your way out again.”
Breathe, Erik told himself as he turned from her. He found himself drawn to the sound of the wind whistling through the leafless trees, watching as each new gust swayed the gnarled branches. Even with his back to Matangi, he could still sense her like the warmth of a crackling fire. “What happens now? I feel as if there is something I should be doing, but can’t remember what.”
“If you like, you can stay here with me.”
Erik spun back to her. “For how long?”
“If you would like, for forever.”