The Pale Wood

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Last Knight at Castle Thrace

Last Knight at

Castle Thrace

1

The worlds end in fire. They always do…

2

Kendrick walked his horse to the gate without fear. He’d been here before. Seven years past, he’d gone through these gates with five others. Only he returned.

He handed the letter to the guard and feigned watching the ceremonial opening of the gates.

Four men accompanied him. They all rode horses that stamped and tittered as their breath came steaming out of their mouths and noses. Five men and seven horses.

Kendrick was first. Behind him sat Mikal, a self-proclaimed hedge magician of limited magical ability, but Kendrick often doubted the man who seemed far more capable than he let on.

Next to Mikal sat Edmund the Pious, a priest and outlaw of ill repute. The man’s reputation ill fitted a man of the cloth, but fit Edmund the Pious like a hand in a velvet glove.

Vincente and his son Cass drew up the rear. Vincente was a knight once and like Kendrick, renounced his association with knights in general, though they did so for very different reasons.

Vincente and Cass swore fealty to Kendrick. Vincente claimed aspirations to become a Paladin. Kendrick sensed a falseness in Vincente’s words. Cass couldn’t hide his resentment.

Vincente moved his wife and children to Kendrick’s estate.

Cass held the reins for the horses without riders.

The problem with Vincente and with Cass was simple; Kendrick remained unsure of how to be a Paladin. He had no doctrine to follow, no set code of conduct. He’d cast aside the codes of knighthood knowing them to be nothing more than a mask. But those were ideals. Should the ideals be cast aside because the men who proclaimed their value fell willfully short?

“Philosophy is for doddering old men chasing girls.” Kendrick once said to Mikal. Mikal laughed knowing that Kendrick pondered so much that was inherently philosophical.

There was the book of course, but those were stories of folk long dead; those folk of both Fey and human descent. And within those pages were disturbing tales that Kendrick could not buy into. Tales detailing the consumption of your enemies flesh after battle. Feeding the soul with the meat of men, they called it.

The gate, massive and forbidding swung wide as the ritual opening progressed.

The sky remained gray.

The mist that obscured the castle and the peak from which it was carved hung limp in the air and stirred not at all. The mist sank slow, settling on the floor of the Bone Wood. The mist spilled out of the Wood as the gates opened.

The trees, those ancient giants; born as they say, from the bones of, not only a Forgotten God, but a dead one; they looked like angry soldiers. Limbs hung low, devoid of leaf, branches splayed like long, tapering fingers.

The wall cast no shadow in the gray light.

Through the gates and into the Wood.

It was day; dark and gray; indistinct; shrouded.

Kendrick did not look back as the gates closed with a dull thud he felt in his chest.

He thought.

He knew that he was not a knight any longer, not in the way he once was. He saw in himself that the Wood changed him the first time around. No. That wasn’t right. It was the Poor Knight who changed him. He knew somehow that had he succeeded in that first quest, had he returned to the city bearing the painted skull of a long dead Fey. Had he delivered that skull writ with magic, he would be a knight still and a knight like most of the knights. A pretender to service, but never a servant, never a protector of anything more than his own skin, his own wealth, his own interests. A bastard most miserable in thought and deed; Kendrick had escaped that fate in this dark Wood full of the ghosts of dead gods.

Once, knights engaged in all manner of criminal enterprise, though due to their quasi-noble and martial status, what they did was not illegal. Knights kidnapped the sons and daughters, wives and mothers of nobility and ransomed them back for gold or land, never their own nobles mind, just those from nearby principalities.

Slow payment or no payment resulted in rape, disfigurement, and death.

Knights were indiscriminate once beyond the borders of their respective prince.

A convention was held; nobility and those of the faith convened and laid out the codes of knighthood. Rules were made and published, knights were accountable. And, sometimes they were, but there were too many clever knights who circumvented their oaths. Sir Harris came to mind.

Kendrick knew how close he’d come to looking on men like Sir Longwell as a friend.

He knew he was a Paladin, but did not know how he knew. Nor did he know how to teach it.

He halted them at a cold fire pit and slipped to the ground. He looked at cold, wet ash packed down by the damp fog that muffled every sound and blurred every sight. He looked at blackened stone and the lonely, skeletal spit.

“Collect wood and water. We wait for him here.” Kendrick spoke in a low voice, just above a whisper. Those he spoke to said nothing, loathe to break the silence of the Wood with coarse, guttural speech.

3

Horses were hobbled, feed bags covered their noses and they ate rhythmically.

A fire cracked and popped within the circle of stones sending up a thin stream of smoke. The heat pushed the fog back and the yellow fire licking at the air lent some measure of color to the pervasive gray.

As they sat around the dancing flames and watched bitter smoke spiral into the bright gloom of the fog enshrouded wood; a deer walked within twenty feet. She stood and cocked her head in curiosity. Her liquid brown eyes showed no fear. No fear at all, not for man or fire.

Kendrick thought of his first meal in the Wood and how Cavill had scolded the Poor Knight for taking a deer, when all deer belonged to the prince and to kill one without his leave was poaching, punishable by death.

The Poor Knight explained that his kill was a wolf.

Cavill, foolish Cavill, dead seven years, rotting in the castle imprisoned in the Wood Beyond the Wall. Was he ghost? Was Cavill trapped in the castle?

The answer was forthcoming. He would know when he entered the castle.

The deer remained rooted to her spot, curiosity compelling her to stare.

Kendrick wound the crossbow he’d brought and gently lay the bolt in the slot as a mother lays her babe in a crib. He tucked the butt into his shoulder and fired. The bolt reached her faster than she could run. Her eyes never registered fear until the broad, steel tip punched through skin, into bone, thus severing the spinal cord. Her eyes widened in surprise when the tip pierced flesh. She dropped dead.

Kendrick lay the crossbow down and stood. The prince’s deer- no, the Princess Jael’s deer- was his. He hadn’t considered the law since Cavill spoke it to the Poor Knight seven years past. He thought of it then as he approached his kill. He thought it a stupid law. Denying the poor folk without even a lords lands to muck in, the ability to eat such a feast as this was… immoral.

With a wave, Vincente sent Cass to begin the butchering of the deer.

Kendrick told him no and set about the slaughter himself; deciding that no one should touch the raw results of his crime until it was cleansed by fire, to do otherwise was immoral.

No, his thoughts were no more than justification of action. The law, while ridiculous was the law and he had broken it and Kendrick determined only he would face the consequence if ever it should arise. It was a thin veneer of protection shattered by the truth that eating was as much a crime as killing.

Guts were spilled, blood was drained from a gaping hole in her neck while her rear hooves held her up high, head dangling loosely.

Kendrick carved steaks and set them to cook on the slab of stone that jutted into the fire. First, he’d greased the stone with a gobby handful of deer fat that sizzled.

The four men were stunned as Kendrick cooked and served supper. It was a strange feeling for all but Kendrick. He performed these servile tasks with an easy manner.

Edmund the Pious, a fallen and mostly forgotten priest ate and resumed his work which was a chunk of Bone Wood. He’d brought a small carving knife, a rasp, and chisel.

He worked the wood and followed the grain forming a simple knife that curved to the tip. He set the blade in the fire and watched it as he ate.

Of all of them he was least surprised by Kendrick’s behavior. He couldn’t say why, he couldn’t have predicted it, but there was something natural in the way Kendrick performed each task.

The choicest cuts had been given to himself and Mikal and two more awaited the Poor Knight and Devlin.

The smallest and toughest steak, Kendrick saved for himself. Edmund saw the lesson. It was one of service to those who serve you. It was why Edmund financed three small temples with his ill gotten gains. His donations served as a bribe too, should the Forgotten Gods judge him harsh in life, perhaps those donations might tip the scales. He doubted it, though.

Mikal was astonished. Here was an unexpected skill set on display. Here was a man, a Paladin, with depth in an unexpected place.

Along with astonishment, Mikal felt excitement. For all he knew of Kendrick, the man never ceased to surprise him. Kendrick was a surprise from their first meeting.

While Kendrick knew nothing of Mikal, Mikal knew about Kendrick. As a knight he’d failed to retrieve the quest item from Castle Thrace and had insisted that the cause was sabotage by the sorcerer Stitch. The sorcerers of Byzantis objected with such vehemence as to raise eyebrows in all of the chapterhouses across the principalities.

Mikal suspected that naiveté led Kendrick to proclaim Stitch’s treachery and it was stubborn, foolhardy, principal that compelled him to proclaim the truth over and over again securing sorcerers in Byzantis as enemies. All while lying about some of what happened. A near fatal naïveté thought Mikal.

Kendrick insisted just as much and as stolidly with his account of the priest Hugh.

Kendrick the Pariah, they called him. None could dispute his words. His disgrace was not one that forced him to don the mantle of Poor Knight, it was inconceivable to think the Poor Knight would let him leave the Wood if his failure was so complete.

And who was left to dispute the knight’s words? No one. All died save Kendrick and the Poor Knight.

In hearing the story, it was in that part where Mikal heard the hint of a lie. All dead save knight and Poor Knight. The Poor Knight lived. No doubt regarding his fate, so where was the lie?

Mikal didn’t care.

Next, Kendrick achieved fame by thwarting a rather powerful wizard who’d adopted the mantle of cult leader of sorts and sought to raise that castle known as Drowned.

Kendrick, a virtual poor knight outside the walls led squires, mostly boys untested and un-blooded, against the cult and the wizard and slaughtered the bunch.

After the city was besieged over a princeling bastard, Kendrick was the sacrifice made by Prince Jasper to save his city; Kendrick and the bastard baby. None expected Kendrick to kill the Black Knight, the hero of Keii, slayer of countless men. But, Kendrick slew the most formidable knight in all the principalities.

Mikal arrived in Byzantis after the Drowned Castle. He sought out Kendrick, then a knight still. Mikal antagonized a sorcerer or two to earn their ire and succeeded. Thus, he allowed the then Sir Kendrick to extricate him from the clutches of the sorcerers who feared him so. A masterful stroke, or so he thought, ignoring all the things that could’ve gone terribly wrong.

It was no fluke that Kendrick was near Mikal, as Mikal was following the knight, studying him, determining if he was a man to be trusted, or a pretender to the oaths knights took.

Mikal never discovered the answer through passive observation.

Within the narrow world of academia, specifically magical theory and the practical application thereof, Mikal was known. He was a sage who demonstrated his prowess of memory, theoretical understanding, and rhetorical dominance who may or may not have any true skill in the wielding of all he knew. It was assumed then he could barely light a candle with magic. This was an attitude Mikal encouraged. Perhaps the most significant difference between a sorcerer and a sage is this; sorcerers tend to group together, form chapterhouses and formal disciplines, focus on the primeval forms of magic, classic stuff from the beginning of time, guttural, primal language and the use of bodily fluids in pursuit of magic; sages, or as Mikal called himself to further deprecate his image, hedge magicians, are less social, individuals apprentice with a personal selection of sages who teach according to whim and personality.

Each method bears its strengths and weaknesses, but as in most things, each declares their way, the right way, and the others to be fools.

So, Mikal observed Kendrick and the sorcerers observed Mikal, then, as planned, they accosted him. This was in fact the first time that Mikal was surprised by Kendrick. Kendrick, he suspected, would intervene for no better reason than to oppose sorcerers. His intervention went beyond simple contrarian shortly after. One man, a knight to be sure, but a lone man faced down three sorcerers. Mikal saw the fear that was quashed within Kendrick, he saw Kendrick intimidate three sorcerers, all of whom in theory should have been able to dominate Kendrick. They could not. The three slunk away eyes cast down at cobbles and muttering curses and inventing a rationale to explain away their collective failure.

The second surprise was the ease with which they became friends. Mikal lost count of how many surprises followed and even expected them in a way.

Vincente fidgeted as Kendrick cut up the deer and prepared it for consumption. It startled him when the man laid out food for seven men and grimaced as the nastier bits of flesh sizzled on the edge of the slab.

Vincente, formerly a knight, was governed by guilt. Guilt compelled his disavowal of knighthood, guilt led him to Mikal’s house with his son in tow to kill the men inside. Guilt gave him his wife and nine months after, his son. And if it wasn’t guilt that dominated him, it was fear held in check more often than not, by bravado.

As the venison cracked and sizzled on the stone, weeping blood, he remembered the carnage inside Mikal’s house, the spray of blood, the imperious look on Mikal’s face as he began to unroll the parchment, the gleeful sneer as Edmund drove blade into throat. But worst of all was Kendrick. His was a terrible face; with terrible eyes projecting terrible violence upon his enemies.

For Vincente, most terrible of all, was the easy forgiveness from Kendrick. Vincente saw how his eyes seemed to thank him for not making it necessary to slaughter father and son while imagining it all the same.

The sword Kendrick carried was rumored to be conflicted; both blessed and cursed.

Vincente had once thought the man mirrored the sword, but no, the sword mirrored the man, if only the Forgotten Gods would save him from Kendrick. This was his daily prayer, unanswered.

Vincente ate with a ferocity he associated with the fight in Mikal’s house. He wished to be like Kendrick all the while knowing that it was no more than a romanticized wish. Being like Kendrick terrified him.

At fourteen, Cass was relieved to see Kendrick butcher the deer. Soon he was bored. The oppressive fog, the cool touch of the mist, bothered him not at all.

Or so he thought and would’ve said if asked, but in truth it did creep into him. Boredom and the Wood conspired to send his daydreaming mind on a journey of how he wished the world was in the darkest part of him.

In Kendrick, Cass saw a powerful man. A man who defied every power in Byzantis, defied them openly with unparalleled arrogance, and thrust his sword into plots and plans whenever he needed to.

The boy imagined a world where his father was not Vincente, but Kendrick. This daydream found Cass out of the city, growing up on the estate and becoming the greatest swordsman in all the principalities.

Barring that, he wished his father had died at the hands of Kendrick and that Kendrick would not kill the boy, only disarm him and forgive him his desire for vengeance, because if Kendrick killed his father, he must avenge him- at least try. In time, Cass saw he would forgive Kendrick for the killing of his father. What choice did Kendrick have?

The daydream continued with Kendrick adopting Cass and making him his squire. In the dream, Cass was happy, heroic. In the dream, the sky was always blue and Kendrick never lost a fight and never took him into the Wood. In his dream, the princess stepped aside so that Cass became prince and Kendrick advised him so he was both wise and loved. Cass married and two sons were born; Kendrick and Vincente.

The dream was beautiful and he wanted it so very badly, but it ended in blood and fire. As all things do! The last thought jerked him out of his daydream and back to the now that faced him.

Cass looked up from the flames dancing in the circle of stones ringing the fire.

He smiled and thanked Kendrick for the bloody steak.

4

They settled into a routine over the course of five days.

Edmund spent much of his time demonstrating his knowledge of carving and the dogma of the Forgotten Gods. Always in his hand was a heavy chunk of Bone Wood and carving knife or rasp or stone. He took to wrapping the hilts in strips of deer hide that he scraped and cleaned with water. Wet and with the soft, short hair as a grip, he set finished knives to roast in the fire.

At first he watched each knife so as not to burn it, but it took days for one log to crumble to ash. Once he recognized this fact, he was apt to walk away. He grew bolder and bolder with his carving.

He duplicated each of his own blades. He carved a short sword like Kendrick’s and used deer hide and sand to polish the blackened wood to a mottled bone white and a ruddy maroon.

All the while he talked of gods whose names are lost, of free will and destiny and how in spite of every obvious incongruity, both did in fact exist and exerted pressure on the lives of every man.

He attacked the notion- expressed by the long dead philosopher, Sarter- that men exercised free will, but that free will was influenced by destiny through the feminine.

Edmund pontificated for hours on the ludicrousness of the idea that every man owned his will, while women were enslaved by cosmic desire and exerted that will over men through the only device women truly controlled; the cocks of men.

He looked at Cass. “Hear this boy and hear it well, women are formidable creatures to be feared, respected, and loved. While I agree with Sarter regarding the power between a woman’s legs. Only a fool thinks that is what makes women dangerous-“

“Enough Edmund, you’ll convince him to take a vow of chastity.” Mikal laughed.

Edmund shrugged, looked at Cass who seemed very deep in thought and said to Mikal, “such vows have done me no harm.” He winked and Mikal recalled the times he’d given Edmund potions and salves to deal with the consequences of his interactions with women committed to the oldest of all professions.

For his part, Mikal wrote in a thick book. The cover was Bone Wood, bound in thick, red leather, and banded in bronze. The pages were heavy vellum.

Kendrick, Vincente, and Cass trained with their swords. Kendrick put out of his mind two thoughts in particular; the first being his dead hand, whatever enchantment Mikal worked with the newly added blessing by Edmund. The hand worked in the Bone Wood; for the first time the hand was truly a part of him. The second, was the nagging thought that Cass was the new Cavill. He asked himself if it was the similarity in names, the equal status as squires, both? Or was it something else? Something darker.

The thought, thrust away, returned to cling to his thoughts as the fog clung to his skin. These thoughts assaulted him as his eyes closed and sleep, blessed sleep sought to welcome him into that warm embrace.

Putting Cavill back in his grave was the only thing he could do.

Two functional hands was an easy transition, as if he’d never lost the hand. He felt the coarse stubble of hair on his neck and considered shaving.

He felt the coarse hair with his left hand, his dead hand.

On the third day, the mist cleared and the fog lifted for a few moments and they saw Castle Thrace loom into bright sky, the seamless transition from natural rock to cut stone visible and extraordinary, fantastic to behold; then, gone.

The water in the Wood was cool and pure; clean in a way none experienced before or since the Wood. They each stripped to the skin and bathed in the water though the cold pricked their skin and that same skin pebbled like a freshly plucked goose before being dressed for the fire in the oven.

On the fourth day, Edmund had carved three daggers and cured them, and sharpened them to an edge fit for shaving.

Kendrick made for himself a small shield from Bone Wood. He soaked the wood before fitting the pieces together, then he cured it in the flames and attached the straps he brought for this purpose. It felt good to be able to hold a shield again. In the Wood at least, he could take his dead hand for granted.

It was on the fifth day that the fog thinned. Cold sunlight blasted much of the mist to steam and cold sweat chilled their skin.

Edmund the Pious, deranged priest of the Forgotten Gods, remembered for the highwayman he’d become, fancied himself an expert woodsman. He was startled indeed when he realized two men had arrived in their camp.

These men had hard looks on their faces. The older of them- and Edmund guessed this based only on the man’s eyes- looked out from beneath a hood rimmed with wolf’s teeth.

The second was a slim man who looked fresh and youthful and old and stale all at once. The men stood amidst the camp having appeared seemingly from nowhere. Each stood on the balls of their feet, ready to move, to pounce. They wore an air of repressed violence on the verge of breaking free.

Vincente and Cass were also taken by surprise and waited, breath caught in tightened throats.

Mikal observed in silence.

It was Kendrick who broke both the silence and the tension. With a clatter he set the kettle over the flame.

“The water boils quickly and we’ll drink tea. I know how you miss it. I brought more than we need.”

Poor Knight looked at Paladin and nodded. He sat and in time the kettle began to scream in that high pitch so familiar. Kendrick pulled it from the fire and prepared two cups.

Edmund saw the array of weapons the men carried. He watched as the Poor Knight threw back his hood and saw the scarred face beneath; saw the tortured mass of scar tissue that rippled across what was left of his nose as he leaned over the cup and breathed deep, sipped, and smiled.

The other one slunk away, slipped into the brightness of day, clear sun filtered and refracting in the mist and fog. Devlin, Edmund thought, as the thief disappeared.

Kendrick looked right at him and spoke. “Devlin, sit, have some tea.” Kendrick offered the second cup to him. The Poor Knight said nothing, only smiled. Devlin received some signal. He reappeared and sat, taking the offered cup. He drank.

As before, Kendrick prepared tea for all. He prepared six cups and began his own, but there was not enough water.

He stood and took the kettle to the spring fed pool nearby and filled it. He sat and waited for the water to boil.

The Poor Knight watched Kendrick. He waited.

Across a fire, past seven years, they faced each other and neither spoke a word. Behind the Poor Knight, Devlin fidgeted. The years of solitude and silence, the quiet companionship he shared with the Poor Knight was disturbed. That disturbance rippled outward and through Devlin. He struggled to contain himself.

Cass gripped the hilt of his sword with knuckles as white as milk. Vincente teetered on a razor’s edge, but… but he hid it better.

Edmund was unnerved by the ease with which the pair had come upon the small camp unnoticed. Mikal studied Devlin and the Poor Knight with bright, curious eyes that shook any confidence one might have that he was in fact an old man; his eyes filled with childlike wonder and curiosity created skepticism.

Water boiled.

Kendrick reached out and took the Poor Knight’s empty cup and sprinkled dried leaves and a bit of honey into the cup before pouring steaming water in. He returned the cup and prepared one for himself.

“You are early.” The Poor Knight said.

“I’m not sure how it all works inside the walls.” Kendrick spoke in soft tones.

The Poor Knight nodded, but offered no explanation.

Silence.

The Poor Knight’s eyes widened, then narrowed and he smiled.

“You’re not supposed to be here.” He stated. Kendrick nodded.

“Much can change over the course of time.” Intoned the poor Knight.

Kendrick looked in his cup. He sipped his tea.

After a spell in which they drank tea and watched the fire dance, they spoke:

The conversation covered seven years briefly and the next two days over the course of hours. The Poor Knight received a message telling him that a quest was called. This came as no great surprise, that message came every seven years. Nor did seeing Kendrick and four men come as any surprise. The only surprise being that the questing heroes arrived within the wall before the Poor Knight reached the gate. That surprise was further compounded by the revelation that Kendrick and his companions were not in fact the sanctioned party, but something else.

“Six more to come.”

Kendrick nodded.

“And what do you intend?”

Kendrick looked at this man, the Poor Knight, he searched his face, his eyes in particular, for a sign, any sign that he was related to Alia, his wife.

“Where is your blackbird?”

The Poor Knight smiled a wan smile. “She said you were trouble and flew away.”

“I see.”

“Your intentions?”

Kendrick answered a question again with one of his own. “I ask the same of you?”

“You remember Kos?” Kendrick nodded. “He said to you that I was the lowest of all men. He suggested that I was less than an animal.”

“And?”

The Poor Knight spread his hands. “Who am I to question which group is the correct group?”

“Tomorrow, when Sir Longworth and his men arrive we’ll confront them.”

“What then?”

Kendrick sipped his tea, looked into the eyes of the Poor Knight and rested his hand on his terrible sword, and shrugged.

5

Of the thirteen principalities scattered across the land, Byzantis was by no means the largest, the most important, the wealthiest, or the most learned… Byzantis was none of these. Byzantis was the northernmost principality and the closest to the Wood.

Thirteen cities with twelve princes and one princess.

In that, Byzantis was also different from the other principalities. Byzantis was ruled in name if not quite in fact, by a princess.

Princess Jael stood on an eastern facing balcony that thrust out high above Byzantis, her city. The cold sun clawed its way through pallid sky, but she had eyes only for the north. North and west was another castle, larger by all available accounts, hidden behind mists, surrounded by mystical trees, held in check by a wall.

The mists parted and she saw one of the great towers of Castle Thrace. The parting mist closed in on itself and the view was gone as if it had never been, but she saw it. She shivered.

She, like most folk of Byzantis and the surrounding land, believed that seeing the castle in the Wood was good luck. She shivered again and fear crept into her consciousness and she doubted that good luck was to come her way.

North to the Wood went the men her father selected for the quest into the Wood and the haunted castle it contained. Her father selected, she shook her head, knowing, having known for some time that her father was little better than a figurehead who held almost no power at all. Those men were chosen by others. Princess Jael wondered if her father realized how much power his steward Radburn actually wielded. She herself had no idea until a few days after seizing the city as rightful heir.

She shivered thinking of him and his cold, cold eyes.

She wondered if Cooke and Goulding realized that though they pulled on her father’s strings, Radburn pulled on theirs. Knowing these things terrified her.

To the north rode her father’s men, picked by Cooke and Goulding in their uneasy truce, that partnership that seemed more precarious than ever. In truth, they were Radburn’s choices or at the very least, men he chose not to reject.

Sir Longworth, Sir Longwell, Sir Howard, Martin the sorcerer, and Roland the Priest rode north to the Wood Beyond the Wall. Another rode with them, a man, little more than a boy condemned to hang for crimes against the city. The princess found she remembered neither his name, nor his crimes, and that she had no time for him, this lone boy, she had a city to concern herself with.

She looked away from the north and the wall encircling the Wood. She turned her gaze southward where even now she knew her mother was coming in company of her grandfather.

She remembered the last time her grandfather had come; the siege.

Her mother had sided with her grandfather then too. Princess Jael felt that her mother was jealous for never having tried to rest the reins of power for herself.

Princess Jael was not her mother. She would never run to her father because the mistress of her husband gave him a son. No, she refused. She knew in her head that it was quite impossible, her father was dead, but in her heart she substituted Prince Jasper for her grandfather, who intended to marry her off and install his own lackey on her throne. She could almost see his army winding its way north to unseat her.

She thought of watching her father as his chest rose up, then down with ragged, uneven breaths that broke in the air into near sobs.

She thought of how each breath was loud, painful to hear and therefore even worse to experience, but the gap between each breath brought both blessed silence and the uneven certainty that he was finally gone. Two days like that.

The end was a relief.

Once his eyes were open. She’d not seen them open, they just were and his eyes were clear and filled with hurt and he drew her close with those terrible eyes.

“Take it…” He rasped, the words strangled by whatever poison gripped his lungs and filled them with stagnant water and mucus. “You… My… Heir…” He coughed and his lips turned red, frothy, pink bubbles formed in the corners of his mouth. “Beware. Beware the... Beware the hidden… Prince’s.”

A feeble hand was thrust in her face. Upon the third finger was his ring. His signet ring.

She took it. It slipped from his emaciated finger with ease. He smiled his last smile, it was a terrible thing, horrid to see. Teeth yellow and pink glimpsed between red lips foamy with spit and blood. His eyes closed.

She looked at the ring on her finger, at the sigil on it, then looked south again. Byzantis was her city, if she could keep it.

6

Sir Longworth was not surprised that Kendrick was within the Wall. Not in the least. Before the gate ever opened, the black clad Gatekeepers told him he couldn’t enter. And why? A company was already inside.

The writ with the seal and sign of Princess Jael convinced the man to open the gate, those things coupled with the glares of three knights, a priest and a sorcerer.

The surprise was Kendrick waiting for him. The Poor Knight with him. They were seven versus his five, six counting the thief, but Sir Longworth did not count him.

“Kendrick. You honorless ba-“

“Shut up.” Kendrick said.

Sir Longworth obeyed the command. Always Kendrick had unnerved him. The way he moved, the casual acceptance of his circumstances and the fury he applied to resolve all conflicts. It was then that Sir Longworth saw the man was whole again, at least in body.

Kendrick strode forward. Dead fingers picked up a shield and strapped it to an arm that had been shortened years ago.

Sir Longworth gulped. He looked to his son, then to Sir Howard. Both men wore grim expressions that offered him no help. Neither Roland, nor Martin offered him anything, but raised eyebrows and shrugs.

Kendrick moved with slow deadly grace and drew his sword, that damned sword given him by Jasper- may he rot in hell- enchanted by dark sorcery, cursed by the priests, but blessed as well.

Sword and shield hung at his sides, casual and easy, but Kendrick still managed to exude violence. Sir Longworth felt the blood drain from his face.

No one moved save for Kendrick who walked at a leisurely pace.

Sir Longworth’s hand trembled. He balled it into a fist and tried to swallow. But his mouth was dust.

It was the force of personality the Poor Knight decided. This man, Kendrick who entered the Wood long ago, was not the same. Sir Kendrick, seven years past who was brought low by the sorcerer Stitch; pushed down by sorcery, bent and nearly broken.

The Poor Knight saw the cracks then. What he saw now was a different man. This man was hard, But not so hard as to be brittle. The Poor Knight thought he was perhaps unbreakable.

Kendrick threw his arms wide. He wore his customary leather cuirass studded with dull steel. His hair was pulled back and knotted. His cheeks showed signs of the beard to come. His chin was buried under coarse graying hair that hung to his chest. Long mustaches hung to his chin. He looked the part of the barbarians of the deep southlands.

Mikal told him not so long ago that in many ways he thought Kendrick was feral, dangerous, and also in a strange, inexplicable way, the most civilized man he knew. Mikal concluded that it was in fact an illusion molded by the force of Kendrick’s charismatic personality.

Kendrick spoke softly. “You on your horse, holding your lance. Would you kill me, Sir Longworth? Will you take my heart as I offer it? Or… or will you stay your hand?”

Sir Longworth opened his mouth, but no words emerged, his tongue, dry and cracking stuck to the roof of his mouth.

“Kill me now, Longworth… or die here.”

Sir Longworth toppled from his saddle and held out his begging hands and cried out.

“A poor knight you make Longworth. You’re in good company.”

Longworth covered his face.

“We have food aplenty. You will wait here for our return.” Kendrick told them in a voice that afforded no outlet for argument. He gave each a hard stare and waited for them to nod.

They did.

Every last one of them.

They nodded and kept their eyes lowered.

All save Sir Longworth who covered his face with steel gauntleted hands.

7

Princess Jael summoned Radburn.

He arrived as she listened to the council of Cooke and Goulding. She spent the better part of an hour convincing the pair of certain truths. First among these was her total lack of fear of them. This she demonstrated by having spies in their individual employ exposed, then strangled while they watched. Then she set about stripping them of land and titles given them by her father. In his weakness he’d given so much away.

The princess determined to take it back.

Radburn watched it all with a placid expression.

Princess Jael dismissed the sorcerer and the priest and ordered Sir Alfred to be admitted. The knight strode into her presence an arrogant look on his pinched face. His helm remained tucked under his arm.

He inclined his head. An insulting degree of deference to be sure, but Sir Alfred was a vocal dissenter of the princess. He objected like so many others to her genitals, or more precisely, her lack of dangling bits and the apparent belief that said bits were a requirement for competent governance. Was not Prince Jasper proof of such falsehood?

“You are stripped of all titles, all land, and hereby banished from the principality of Byzantis from this day till your last.” Princess Jael said without preamble.

Alfred stood struck dumb.

He was dragged away by guards loyal to the princess.

She turned to Radburn once the room was empty save the two of them.

“I should like your council Radburn on the army of my grandfather as it approaches my city.”

Radburn looked at her with fresh eyes. “I am but a steward my princess…”

“My father was a fool. I loved him, love him still I suppose, but though I have been at times foolish and will likely be again, I am no fool. Hear me, Radburn, I am no fool...”

Radburn nodded slowly and considered not only her words but the way she emphasized them.

“I hear you my princess, I hear you very well.”

8

The trek through the Wood was swift. They rode hard and ate from the saddle.

They all felt it, the sense of urgency, the need, yes need, to reach Castle Thrace now, now, now! It was an urgency not easily suppressed and impossible to ignore. It washed over them almost as soon as Longworth and his miserable band were defeated without violence.

Night cascaded down upon them with sudden and violent abandon. The sun, weak in the Wood was dashed against the mountain as starless night flung herself across the land.

They halted and Mikal administered first to himself then the others the cure for night blindness; the eye drops stung, but night and her terrors were partially banished and again they were off. To them all, half the world was consumed in the void.

To the mountain, up the narrow stairs, the Poor Knight refusing to acknowledge that he climbed at all, into the gatehouse courtyard overrun by the Bone Wood trees and the spindly shoots leaping from the cracks.

For three of them this trek was familiar, but the other four:

Vincente and Cass felt the oppressive ghosts of the long past whispering just beyond their ability to hear.

The Bone Wood trees, always sinister, seemed somehow more so within the fringes of the castle. The branches, stripped bare by the season reaching, grasping for them.

Edmund felt pious for the first time in a long time. He felt the presence of those Forgotten Gods and felt the stirrings of a renewed faith in the form of fear.

Mikal, Mikal was awed. The castle despite its cruel past was a wonder to him. It was a place of deep magic and dark secrets, a place to solve mysteries.

Through cavernous streets they walked until they entered the castle in darkness.

En masse, they entered the chamber without doors. Those who had never been here stared at the carved reliefs that covered the walls. Mikal traced aged fingers over the smooth carved stone and Devlin began his work.

9

Roland fed the fire. He looked at Sir Longworth with resentment. It was he who insisted on the quest, for himself, and, Roland admitted, for his son, but…

But, they sat here and waited for Kendrick to return or for the gates to swing wide. Damn Cooke, he thought and his bungling attempts to co-opt Kendrick, make him theirs. Isolate him, Cooke declared. Cull him from the knights and make him our creature, to do as we require, he’d commanded.

Cooke stayed the course despite one failure following another. The essential failure, Roland thought, was in Cooke’s assessment of Kendrick.

Retrospection made the man’s unsuitability abundantly clear, true, seeing it in the moment may well have been impossible. Cooke’s oracular abilities aside, such predictions were fraught with peril. If any good came of this, perhaps it was that Cooke was through as the High Priest.

Roland turned his night blind eyes to where the castle must be and thought of Hugh. So close. They’d been so close to a Reformation.

“What happened to you my friend?” Roland muttered.

He turned back to the fire to see Sir Longworth stagger and stand. The drunken knight lurched away two, three, four steps and let loose with his bladder. Mid way through his piss, he farted. It was loud and unsettling in the gloom.

Martin lamented this setback to his ambition. The wine he drank tasted sour, turning to vinegar along with his mood.

He looked into darkness and was greeted by twin pink lights.

10

Beneath Byzantis, Grandfather looked at Little Brother and Little Sister. She was no fool. She spoke only in a whisper, so Little Brother would in this remain in the dark. Little Brother scowled beneath his mask and Grandfather saw this in his shoulders and clenching fists. The scowl had everything to do with this new member of their cabal, not the plan to save the city from yet another siege by Prince Cornwell.

“How will we convince our new princess this course of action is the course?”

“Leave that to me.” Little Sister whispered. Little Brother nodded, but hated to do so, to trust this new one. His feelings he knew were irrational, hadn’t he been the new one once?

“And I will handle the annulment.” Grandfather said in even tones, his voice so different here than… anywhere else.

Little Brother raised his hand in mock toast. “To the wedding.”

And the others in the cabal saluted Little Brother in his mock toast.

11

Once upon a time, their lived a priest called Hugh.

Hugh embodied the very worst in the faithful as he had absolutely no faith in his professed beliefs. This is of course a betrayal. It is a betrayal on par with one who proselytizes the virtues of chastity and is caught in the arms of a whore or as the case may be, whores.

Once upon a time, Hugh positioned himself to unseat Cooke in a coup of the religious sort.

He failed only in that he moved just a bit too slow. This resulted in his accompanying a company into the Wood Beyond the Wall.

Once upon a time the faithless priest Hugh met an aspect of one of the Forgotten Gods he no longer believed existed; in fact, in his mind the Forgotten Gods had never existed outside the minds of first the Fey, then men.

Such a meeting, like as not, was likely to cripple most anyone. That meeting blasted the mind of Hugh into ragged tatters.

Roland, seven years later entered the Wood in part to learn the truth of Hugh’s death.

Imagine his surprise at seeing Hugh waltz into camp unchanged, spry, full of vim and vigor.

Well there was one change immediately visible. His eyes, they glowed a bright, rosy pink. The sight scared Roland so thoroughly that his bowels turned to water and evacuated his body.

His gaze fell into the pink and he learned the fate of Hugh in one terrible instant- that was the instant before he shared that fate.

Roland had been standing as he met the gaze of Hugh. He toppled into the fire where his robes burst into flame, then his hair. Ultimately, he was cooked by the fire as Bone Wood fed flames consumed his flesh.

In his final instant, Roland learned many a secret reserved for the dead. Having learned such secrets, he expired.

It was to Martin that Hugh turned to. Martin the sorcerer. Martin, whose mind cracked beneath the pink, whose mind shook, whose mind nearly shattered, but… but did not.

Martin wiped away the blood that mixed with his tears and snot. The thing wearing the skin of Hugh wagged a slim finger at him and he understood and let it flow.

Hugh reached out and dipped that same finger in the blood, tears and snot. He then drew a strange set of runes across Martin’s forehead. Martin shuddered; it was ecstasy as he’d never before known. He blinked and Hugh was gone.

Martin turned to his three knights and one thief. All four groveled at his feet within moments. They each in turn pledged their lives to him, for him, forever.

Martin stripped to his skin, every orifice leaked fluid and he needed to access those same fluids to kill Kendrick and the Poor Knight.

In the blackest night they left the camp and ran for Castle Thrace.

12

In a single sweeping gesture, Cooke annulled a marriage and decreed another. Pages were sent out of the city with no less than three horses to spread the news across the principality.

Alia was dumbstruck when she heard the news and couldn’t quite believe it.

Hours later, a few miles south and on the road, Prince Cornwall received the same news. He looked at his daughter Stephanie and scowled. He crushed the parchment in his fist. It was an ineffectual gesture. He considered executing the page who delivered the message, but decided to whip him instead and send him home.

No longer was he riding to war, there would be no siege now, the other prince’s would never allow it. And yet he must continue, there would be feasts to attend, perhaps a tournament, and if luck prevailed, blood.

The parchment, rolled and tied with a ribbon, now crumpled and torn lay in the dust. Any with that rare skill of literacy could pick up the fragile page and smooth it out and read the decree that said in simplicity:

Princess Jael has taken a husband, Knight, Paladin, Prince… Kendrick, hero of Byzantis, slayer of the Black Knight.

13

The door opened by Devlin was quite different from the one he’d opened previous. His fingers, sensitive and clever could not find that previous door and so they found a different one.

Kendrick led the way through the door. They carried no torches to see and needed no torch. Mikal’s magic made fire unnecessary.

Kendrick refused the map Mikal carried. He stopped at each intersection and allowed his intuition to guide him. Thus far, intuition had led him to two of the three skulls. Those skulls, he found while not even looking. Call it providence, or perhaps fate.

Whispers filled the long corridors of Castle Thrace. The voices were low, just on the edge of hearing, they spoke in the Fey tongue, but Kendrick felt the meaning more than heard it. These seven were in exclusive company. None living heard the Fey speak their tongue, but it was not the living speaking it to them.

Mikal listened, strained to hear every word, every inflection and emphasis. His blood ran slow through him, sluggish from the creeping fear brought on by the whispers.

These ghosts hated them, hated all men, hated their gods and in particular they hated the dead god whose bones gave birth to the Wood and her trees.

Mikal and Edmund knew the words and so knew the message. Kendrick just knew. They spoke of it not at all, but their understanding was without contradiction. The dead god walks. The dead god stalks. The worlds end in fire. They always do… They always burn…

The Poor Knight sensed the meaning, though the exact meaning eluded him. Devlin, from seven years with the walls, amongst the Wood, felt that something was terribly, terribly wrong.

Vincente and Cass feared in their way, their fear was born of the unknown, the sense of being lost, the realization that those around them were on edge.

Seeing without light is in itself a horror. There is no adjustment, no widening of pupils, no natural explanation. The way they saw was magic, nothing else; and like all magic, for something gained, something was lost. Light was now their enemy.

The company was beset by enemies: light, just the barest hint from flint and steel could blind; the castle and the surrounding Wood with its bizarre subconscious that filtered into everything, every sip of water or wine, every bite, and every breath; and finally, the dead god who walked and stalked and threatened to set the world afire.

And so they walked, weapons drawn, tension sapping strength.

And there was something else, the sense that they had lost something, that they were behind somehow…

Light flared and blinded them all.

It was not much of a light, but not much was needed. It was a ball of fire no bigger than those used by fools and jugglers. It flared blue and they threw arms over eyes.

There order was this: Kendrick with the Poor Knight on his right, Devlin, then Mikal, followed by Edmund, Vincente and Cass at the rear.

The ball of flickering blue fire spun through the air sizzling and cracking. Kendrick fell backward and felt the blue ball pull his hair straight, making it stand as it crackled by. Devlin cowered, though he was never in danger of being struck any more than Mikal or Edmund, both of whom threw themselves as far from the blue as they could.

It was Cass who was hit. He reacted too slowly and the ball of fire struck his collarbone on the right side. The armor melted into the padding beneath, the padding erupted in a flash and the wool sizzled away. Skin, touched by the blue cracked and peeled, turned black with char, and gray as it became no more than ash. Bone erupted boiling marrow and his body shook.

Violent vibrations coursed through him. Smoke billowed from eyes and ears. Hair singed and smoked and he fell away from his father who tried to catch him.

Martin, naked and panting laughed with mad delight at the strength of his magic. The fluids of his body oozed from him, sapping his strength and fueling his magic. He thought that perhaps he could kill a god with his newfound power.

He was giddy. Martin smeared his hands on his face, his stained ass, and finally he collected all that oozed from his cock in erratic spurts and rubbed his hands together and grunted the words to ignite the mixture.

Vincente charged the sorcerer. He did so without thought, without sight really. Motes of blinding light danced across his vision.

It was the thief, who only a few days prior was on the steps leading to his noose, to his last dance. He was so close to flailing and kicking, to filling his rough spun trousers with the remnants of his last meal. And now he served a godling who served a god.

Vincente never saw him, never really felt the crushing blow at the base of his skull that snapped his neck. His eyes went blank, limp fingers let his sword fly and clatter to the stones.

Edmund turned and saw the cretin drive the head of his mace into Vincente. The hilt of one, then two throwing knives blossomed in the thief. The first took him in the belly, near his liver, the second hit higher and rode a rib, scouring a groove, before skittering away. The first knife was fatal, though not immediately so, thus requiring the second which was as Edmund would say, “nothing more’n a fancy miss,” which is why Edmund the Pious closed on the thief and drove a blade into the thief’s heart, then under his chin, all the while offering him Last Rites in a frantic whisper before soul fled body.

It was the Poor Knight who took Martin. He drove his spear into the sorcerers groin and twisted. He chopped down with his sword and watched the rubbing hands fly away like startled birds, then flop on the floor like gawping, thrashing fish flung onto the beach.

Martin felt more of his fluids, his blood pump right out of him leaving not nearly enough to support his life, though his heart tried. It thundered in his ears, but the rhythm faltered, became erratic, and stopped altogether.

Mikal raised his head to see Kendrick tear his way through two knights. Sir Longworth watched his son die, watched his friend die and threw down his sword and begged for mercy.

Kendrick gave it to him, or perhaps not. He gave one command, but that command carried much with it, implied more, and Longworth wept, begged please, please not that, please, but Kendrick only raised his sword to cut him down. Longworth complied.

The command was this:

“Divest yourself of all that is metal, coward.”

Longworth left the castle naked and weeping. Without his clothes, his arms and armor, and without his honor though that he would never truly miss, without title, land, or name, save one; Poor knight of the Wood.

14

There was a time when Kendrick was told that the skull was that of a man, a priest. That was of course a lie. The relic was Fey. This of course, made sense.

He had no real understanding of what led him to the crypts, that dungeon of horrors filled with the interred remains of thousands of Fey. Bones are white, or near enough, they yellow with age true, but not the bones of the Fey. The bones of the Fey were much like their souls it seemed; black.

The skull was the color of soot, the ink etched across the surface was red. There were no runes or glyphs, no, the Fey painted something far more terrible. The skull was painted with pictures, graphic depictions of horrific atrocities performed by and against them. The pictures told a story, the story was a spell, part of one at least. Each one tiny, paint daubed on the surface with a single hair.

Mikal carried the painted skull of a man and of a Halfling- the hybrid of man and Fey- in a large bag. The bag was made of leather, made of a skinned men. He told Kendrick that the grisly bag was made from the faces of Halflings, their hair braided for the drawstring and handle. He told Kendrick the bag was as much a relic as the skulls.

Mikal refused the skull when Kendrick tried to give it to him, to put in the bag.

”You have to carry it, man.” Edmund said and Mikal nodded.

Mikal gestured for him to take the bag. The pair of skulls clacked inside, a deformed and vacant face leered at him.

Kendrick looked at the skull in his hand and shuddered.

Why? Why did he collect these things, these evil relics, what good were they, what good could possibly come from such macabre relics?

It was intuition that answered him. Nothing good came from these things, goodness came from whosoever should hold all three. Even gods, forgotten or remembered, quailed in fear of those three together. Together the skulls buried a god so deep only his bones remained, and those he spent centuries pushing through the soil.

Kendrick slung his shield over his shoulder and took the bag. He dropped the Fey skull in with the others and cinched the bag tight with the braided hair. He wrapped the hair around his wrist and palm, he knotted the cord tight so as not to drop the bag.

Just holding it he could feel the power, feel it travel up through dead fingers and hand, up through his shoulder and across his chest.

He clenched his jaw.

15

Her name was Alia. She shared that name with, amongst others, a forked tongued crow that lived within the Wall that held back the Wood of Bones, though she didn’t know this.

She rode a pony. She called the pony Elijah, a name from her past, the name of a man lost to her twenty one years. The pony, for some reason she could not quite explain, reminded her of him.

She rode alone though both Jericho and Aemon asked, begged to accompany her. She rode to find the truth of the royal proclamation. Truth or lie. Strange to think that the lie was often more appealing. She figured that was true only because of human frailty, not in body, but in spirit.

She clung to her doubt, that desperate need to view the proclamation as a lie. She fought an internal battle with every stride the pony made toward the city of Byzantis.

Insecurity and doubts about herself insisted that yes, her husband forsook her for the hand of a princess. And why not? Princesses offered so much more than poor girls without a father and numerous sisters, all of whom had at one point filled their bellies with water and air and little else.

He was a great man, so why not a great woman. But…

But.

But, if he was such a great man, how could he divorce her in secret and marry the princess all without a single word. No man of greatness would mistreat her so, thus demonstrating that it was all a lie. This stance relied on more doubt, different doubt, skepticism about him, being something other than as she always believed.

Even these thoughts, circular and incestuous cast shadows across Kendrick. And so it went all the way to the gates of Byzantis and a wedding feast for all comers save the groom who remained trapped in the Wood, on a quest.

16

They waited for blindness.

That which ought to have been gray, barely discernible from the black, was a shining beacon.

Kendrick watched the brightness from the corner of his eye. He waited for the brightness to die and he mourned.

He never questioned how Longworth and his sorcerer found them in the castle, how they got ahead of them and worked their ambush. These truths were self-evident and not worth contemplation after the fact. But after it happened, right then, he should have asked that question, begged for an answer.

A dead god walked and stalked and would see them burn, not just the Wood, but the world beyond the Wall.

A Forgotten God remembered, and now named; Hugh.

Kendrick looked to the Poor Knight who’d whispered to Devlin, “Call me Eli,” and kissed his brow, Eli, the Poor Knight still held Devlin though he was surely cold to touch, undoubtedly dead.

Mikal looked old, had in fact always been an old man, but he never looked it. It was his eyes, or so Kendrick thought. Looking at Mikal now, Kendrick saw those eyes lost their glimmer, looked dull and terrible.

Kendrick thought back, back to their exit, to his intuitive retreat, three skulls bagged and in hand. His feet led them to a hall where once a banquet was held and then, much, much later- a thousand years?- a priest named Hugh met a god who blasted his lack of faith from his fragile mind leaving behind a husk.

That husk was filled with the pink and the pink moved and walked and talked and sent men to kill them, to whittle them to five, perhaps had hoped for more, but seven became five and five entered the hall. And the Pink, the pink was a dead god reborn, a forgotten god remembered and remembering.

Five did enter and four left, but three and only three would leave the castle, three to escape the Wood, but none could leave intact. They all left some part of themselves to ghosts of the Fey. Something for them to feed on.

So, into the hall they walked. The table remained much as it was before; littered with plates and knives, dusty bones of small animals, desiccated corpses in seats, most fallen to absolute ruin. One corpse sat not on one of the long benches, but in a chair with a high back and intricate carving buried in dust, indistinct in decay. He sat in the chair, dull empty sockets staring out, black and ruined.

Kendrick saw this, saw that Hugh was gone and looked to see that the Poor Knight, called Eli had seen it too, and Devlin as well.

Kendrick turned to the door and quickened his pace only to stop as Hugh entered the room and blocked their escape. Hugh wore a grin, a wide smile that stretched his skin taught, stretched too wide so that the corners of his mouth touched his ears. The mad exaggeration of a smile unsettled all of them.

Edmund whose profession changed, but never lost his faith- yes, he saw it change as he changed, but faith never abandoned him completely and he never abandoned his faith. Edmund the Pious saw the pink eyes. He saw the awful light leaking from empty sockets, the horrific, dancing, pink lights twinkled at him as the monster, the god, winked.

What use knives against the eternal? Edmund finding this question to be critical philosophy demanding an immediate answer, set out to discover the answer to his question.

Edmund the Pious ignored the hot wetness between his legs and soaking his woolen trousers. Edmund the Pious tumbled and leapt and drove a stiletto into the chest of the terrible thing. They heard a keening wail and Edmund thought yes, perhaps a knife can slay a god, if that knife were crafted from the god’s flesh, from its bones. But he was not inclined to declare this so based upon one strike, so he slashed using that wavy blade, pregnant with poison, and a slashing dagger, all made of Bone Wood.

Hugh’s robes, moth-eaten and threadbare parted like the legs of a cheap whore seeing pennies, so too, his skin. And Hugh bled only pink and his keening wail became a ghastly laugh, and his papery hands gripped Edmund the Pious by his leathered cheeks and Hugh laughed with his wide, aberrant mouth, revealing row upon row of gleaming teeth that stretched deep into his throat.

Hugh kissed Edmund on the mouth with lips wet and sticky.

Edmund was shaking as Hugh lifted him from his feet. Hugh shook the man as girls shook their dolls in fits of fury.

In the midst of laughter, Edmund’s screams were lost. The laughter and screams were cut off leaving only the sound of chewing.

Edmunds head, shaken loose of his body was now being held by Hugh who casually bit into it as one does an apple and the sound it made was not unlike that sound made when biting into a cool, crisp apple, and chewing.

Hugh tore Edmund’s jawbone free of his head and leapt at Devlin who closed his eyes and froze in terror. The jawbone, skin and tendons clinging to it, ripped open Devlin’s belly.

Mikal, hand shaking, read scroll after scroll and flung them from him. Blurred dark shapes attacked Hugh. Hugh ignored them. The darkness did little to harm the terrible god.

The Poor Knight, he who would later name himself Eli, drove his spear into the leg of Hugh. The spear pierced the leg, splintered bone and jutted from the other side. Eli grabbed Devlin and dragged him from the leering pink light.

Hugh took a second bite of the Edmund apple, piety tasting as sweet as honey, and turned to Kendrick. Hugh hobbled toward the Paladin. Kendrick held his sword and the bag.

Blood and bits of grey dribbled down Hugh’s chin and his grin seemed to grow.

“Ah, sweet mortality, the gift of your forebears.” Said Hugh as shadows crawled over him. The crawling shadows defeated the spread of the pink light if nothing else.

They circled; Hugh chewing his grotesque approximation of an apple and Kendrick, sword in hand, bag of skulls in the other.

“Those who called themselves, Fey, they gave their gift, so that I might die.”

Kendrickdid not reply, he circled.

“They gave with murder on their minds.”

Still, Kendrick offered no words.

“I called them pests, he who made them called them his children. Like all children, they turned away from him. They broke his heart, then, they forgot him. They forgot us all, all but me…” Hugh gave a mock pout, the impossibly elastic corners of his mouth drooped comically low.

“Nothing. You say nothing and I like that. They tried to kill me, but I broke them. They never recovered. In a way, I am the father of your race, in a way. That one made you and forgot you before you could forget him, so without me, you don’t exist.”

Kendrick persisted in saying nothing.

“Go away now. Go away and tell all the little men to never, ever come back.”

Kendrick listened and what he heard was fear and with that hearing came understanding. This dead god, walking and stalking was afraid; because the Fey came so close to ending him, so close to ridding all of creation of this thing.

It was evil, perhaps not always so, but he was evil now and if Kendrick walked away, then one day; in a hundred years, a thousand, ten thousand… Hugh would emerge and kill all. Hugh’s bones would cover the world and it would burn.

If he walked away. If…

If he killed Hugh now, then he would never, could never bury the world beneath his corpse and make them all kindling for his pyre.

Kendrick attacked.

Hugh ripped away the crawling darkness that veiled his eyes and they shone pink, bright! Alive, but dead! Terrible luminescence weeping from Hugh’s eyes and Kendrick was blind.

Kendrick staggered and felt cold papery hands on his cheeks and he felt the weight of worlds on him, the stretch of an infinite cosmos. He felt it all pulling him apart, the vastness of everything ripping him to pieces.

He should’ve been afraid, crippled by terror, but that part of him was dying.

He wanted to long for Alia, for his children, for the sun on his cheeks and the moon on his bed, for her touch, her gentle fingers on his back, tracing scars and bones, her soft lips near his ear whispering, whispering… I love you. I love you! I LOVE YOU!

But all of that was gone, There was so little left to call Kendrick he wondered if he was Kendrick anymore, he looked back, behind him he saw a trail, pieces of himself shed like skin in huge translucent chunks as he hurtled through what? The void. To what? And he looked ahead and saw (sensed) forms and one came to him, looked him over and it was as if he looked in a mirror- but no mirror of the face, or the body, but the mind. And this mind was vast, enormous, cruel and gentle and so very small as it eclipsed him and Kendrick began to loose all sense of himself.

His name fell away and he wept, then that was lost to him, so he wished he could weep for all he lost, but he no longer remembered what was lost or that he’d lost anything at all.

“You do not belong here, my son.” The voice was vast (so small) and filled him (leaving him hungry for more).

And he answered by saying nothing. What could be said, what were words when everything you are, were, and will be is stripped bare and laid out.

“Ah.” Understanding washed over him as it saw the whole of the life before him, saw all that was to come and all that had past and knew that this moment was critical to his creation. All his little creations.

This god saw Kendrick, saw him without skin or sinew, muscle or bone, but saw the man laid bare. It saw that which orbited this man, three deaths, three lives snuffed and rekindled in a dark parody of godhood. And, it remembered.

A god, forgotten by Fey, forgotten by men, a god who forgot all, was reminded and in remembrance, sent Kendrick back.

And back he went, tumbling through the void remembering…

I am…

I am a man…

A Paladin…

I am a husband…

A father…

I am alive…

I am Kendrick…

“… I am Kendrick!” he shouted as his eyes snapped open. And he could see, though he was blind. His arm swung up, Bone Wood sword flashed in the pink light.

The sword pregnant with curses and a single blessing sliced through Hugh’s forearms and sent the severed hands tumbling through the air to land on stone. It was a duplication of Kendrick’s maiming, a parody of his suffering.

Hugh’s grin faltered.

Power pulsed through Kendrick. Three skulls, painted with spells, made to give mortality to a god, throbbed.

Hugh backed away, the pink streaming from the stumps of his arm, strobing with the beat of his heart.

‘Stop!” Hugh screamed. “Stop now and whatever you desire. I can give!”

Kendrick spat, but no words accompanied this act.

“Please! Stop! Listen to me, just for a min-“

Kendrick drove his sword into the mouth of the monster, cleaving it’s tongue. The blade erupted from the back of Hugh’s head and more pink blazed from him.

Kendrick drew back his hand and chopped into the neck, once, twice, and a third frenzied hack into bone.

Hugh’s head rolled away, broken. His body dropped as Kendrick hacked and hacked striking with fury and abandon until the pink light died away.

All that remained of Hugh twitched and broke. Dust puffed from his corpse.

All that remained of a forgotten god crumbled as the pink faded away to nothing.

They left the hall; Kendrick carried the gruesome bag filled with skulls, Mikal carried only his guilt, Eli, who was once a Poor Knight carried the dying Devlin and offered him his name.

17

Seven days after Sir Longworth led a company of heroes into the Wood, the gates opened.

Neither Sir Longworth, nor any who entered with him, returned from the quest.

Three men walked from the Wood leading fourteen horses.

One man was seen for the barest of instants lurking in the mist blurred trees.

The gates closed leaving him within.

History being a state wherein a society reflects on its past tells us that never before or since has there been so many to greet a quest returning from the Wood.

Prince Cornwall and his retinue sat on one side of the road. To his right sat Stephanie and standing to his left was Sir Hammond clad in matte black armor, the Black Knight.

Sir Hammond, the new Black Knight. Always Kaii was served by a Black Knight. He was an affectation of the princes of Kaii, a demonstration of power.

On the opposite side of the road sat Princess Jael her face set in grim determination. To her right was Radburn, her steward.

On both sides of the road were knights and merchants, priests and those who dabbled to varying degrees in the pursuit of magic.

Amongst the rabble, the peasantry, the serfs, the poor folk who make all else possible and are often fed nothing more than a pile of shit for their troubles. Amongst these was a woman called Alia. She, like the others in attendance watched the black bird fly through the gates and alight on the shoulder of the old man clad in the skins of animals.

She saw Kendrick as well and she sobbed in relief, a sob she choked.

Kendrick stood with Mikal and Eli at his side. He carried the bag, the grotesque bag filled with macabre skulls. The fingers of his dead hand twitched and slackened and once again were dead things without strength or feeling. The bag landed with the clacking sound of bone crashing against bone. The drawstrings braided from hair fell slack and the skulls tumbled loose.

The once painted skulls were washed clean of the ink that so recently covered them. They were dull and without luster; yellow, gray, and black.

Kendrick reached across his body and gripped the buckles that held his arm in place. He wrenched the belts loose and let the arm drop. The arm fell amidst a puff of dust joining the skulls.

Radburn drew in a hard breath and took an unconscious step forward.

Princess Jael leaned toward the skulls and gasped.

Prince Cornwall smiled and waved his Black Knight forward. Others among the crowd seemed to grasp the significance of the skulls lying in the dust looking tired and used in the pale light that filtered through the overcast sky.

The Black Knight grinned behind his visor and brandished the great sword he carried.

Kendrick glared at him, sneered and rested his palm on the pommel of his sword, but left it sheathed. The Black Knight met the eyes of Kendrick and saw more than he expected, he saw the briefest glimpse of his future should he continue, and what he saw terrified him.

Despite oaths to the contrary, he held no wish to spend his life in a lost cause, at least not one of the type he was faced with. He saw with the bright clarity of fresh memory his own death at the hands of this cripple in leather wielding a sword of Bone Wood.

The Black Knight gulped and bent the knee to the Paladin. He lay his sword in the dust hilt toward Kendrick and swore the truest of all the oaths he’d ever made. Finally, Sir Hammond was an honest man.

Prince Cornwall rose in fury. Princess Jael, his granddaughter knew with sudden insight that all her plans were ruined, and for the better. She was thankful for her back up plan.

She knew this one, this Kendrick was far, far more than even her father believed. She understood that her marriage to him could never be enforced and if she did so, it would be her final action as ruler of anything, her will included. Radburn saw this too and knew that the threat was imminent.

The princess, an intelligent woman possessed of a knack for planning for multiple eventualities said a word and raised the little finger, the third finger and the first finger on her left hand in rapid succession. It was a signal and one obeyed instantly.

The garrote was thin and strong, and sharp enough against the soft skin of Radburn to cut his throat.

Her grandfather’s neck however was hardened by sun and sand, so his death was slower and he thrashed a great deal more.

When his heels no longer kicked up clouds of dust, she took his crown from the dusty road and wiped it off on the hem of her dress. She placed the crown on the brow of her only uncle, a boy of twelve. She kissed his cheeks and said, “Your sister will guide you, fear not Prince Raydor.”

She turned and walked to meet Kendrick and knew fear, true fear.

Here was a man who’d seen the eternal and survived, no he thrived in a fearsome way she’d never be able to explain or understand.

She opened her mouth to speak, but said nothing. She blushed and turned away.

As one, all the varied factions turned to leave.

Alia ran to Kendrick. She hugged him, kissed him, and his hardness melted away. She looked at Eli through watery eyes. She knew him and he knew her.

Kendrick felt the pieces inside himself begin to mend as his coarse hand felt the soft skin behind Alia’s ear. The Wood broke him still, but she offered salvation. For all his strength, without her he was just broken.

The crow, called Alia, flew off toward Princess Jael, he circled and landed on the sill of her litter.

All saw it emerge from the Wood, so none dared wave her away. She whispered to Princess Jael, who looked to see and understood that within the Wall, flames erupted from the Bone Wood trees.

The black bird laughed and flew away, rising in lazy circles around pillars of black smoke that rose from within the Wall. before heading south toward the city. As she fled south, she sang, her words filled with mirth:

“The worlds, they end in fire. They always do…”

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