Keri

The tense stand-off between Brandt and Syts was interrupted by figures stirring outside on the snow out in walled garden. Much to Talya’s chagrin, though she quickly controlled her expression before anybody in the room could notice.

Melissa was leaning against the far wall, knees tucked up under her chin and eyes closed. She looked to be asleep. Considering the night they had all had she probably was the smartest of the little group, trying to get what little rest she could find before what was promising to be another insane day.

Talya was alerted to the motion outside and her sudden turning away from listening to the contest of wills between the men, drew their attention.

Without a word Brandt pulled open the door and all but jumped through, gathering Keri in his arms and carrying her inside, out of the cold.

The brown haired woman was stirring feebly, as if the initial movement had exhausted what little strength she had left. Or perhaps it was the sunlight that had lent her the strength, and being brought inside had cut it off.

“Keep her in the sunlight,” Talya hissed. “She’s only barely recovering.”

Brandt glared at her but did as she told.

He was staring at the other victims, still outside. They were pale with the cold, close to blue, but showing some signs of waking up.

“I’ll get her outside if I have to,” Brandt said impatiently. “But not before she warms up. If she gets any colder all the sunlight in the world will not help her.”

Talya shrugged but kept quiet, for once not baiting the big man.

Melissa had slept through the commotion, or pretended very convincingly to do so.

“Brandt?” Keri whispered.

Instantly the old bard was on her side as well, his eyes tearing up in relief. “Keri,love. You’re alive.” he whispered, his voice breaking.

“I don’t feel so well uncle,” Keri croaked.

“I reckon you don’t dear, it’s been a terrible night.”

Keri closed her eyes, breathing laboriously.

“She’s running a fever,” Brandt said urgently, after lightly touching her forehead, which was developing a faint sheen.

“Fever is good,” Syts said. “It’s her body fighting the infection.”

Talya looked up sharply at that comment, but after a long moment looked away again to the people still out in the garden, pretending to not pay attention. Syts caught her look and returned his own. He too kept quiet though, whatever was going on between them left unvoiced.

“Will she be alright?” Brandt asked, oblivious to the exchange. Glancing briefly at the garden he amended, “Will they all be alright?”

Syts looked troubled, “I don’t know. I would like a real healer to see to them but … I don’t think any healer knows what exactly this is? Would they?”

“They wouldn’t,” Talya admitted from her position near the window, back still to the others. “We need to get the others out of the cold soon.”

As an attempt to change the direction of the conversation it was a poor one. It also was undeniably true.

“This is the only room with windows big enough.”

“We could get a big fire started in the garden,” Talya suggested.

Brandt winced, “That might work. It’s going to be expensive.” He didn’t need to add that they didn’t have the money for expensive. Staying in this inn they could only really afford because their rooms would have been closed up for the winter otherwise. The big doors were leaking freezing air, and there was enough of a gap under them that snow had blown into the room during the night.

“There’s some beds upstairs that have been all but demolished by the Nothing,” Talya said unexpectedly “If you can put your girl in the old man’s arms for a bit you can help me get down enough wood to get a decent fire going.”

“She’s not my …” Brandt stammered. He stopped, eyeing her impassive expression and narrowed his eyes in a glare.

“Let’s hurry,” he said, his voice frosty with irritation.

Before much longer there was the sound of crashing and of splintering wood coming from upstairs, followed shortly by running steps and shouting. Syts knew he should pay attention but found he couldn’t. He was sitting on the bare mattress, which was all that was left of the bed that Keri had slept in, the sheets and blankets completely consumed by that strange darkness. She had a new blanket wrapped about her of course, to protect her against the cold, and he held her close to the warmth of his own body as well.

Looking down he saw tiny drops of sweat pearl just below her hair line, and with a gentle finger he wiped them off.

My nightmares have returned, he remembered she had said. When she had come running into his life over a decade ago she’d suffered from terrible nightmares and only managed to catch fitfull bits of sleep wrapped in his arms like this. Of course, she’d been fourteen years old at that time and escaping more nightmares than the ones that had followed her into the trainee dormitories and when the extent and fragility of her talent was discovered, into his daughter’s bedroom.

Softly he crooned the children’s sleeping song he had sung for her then, now even more inappropriate than it had been when she was fourteen and fifteen. It also was the right sing to do because his voice had been one of the few things that could drive the nightmares away. Other than potions so strong that the healers were extremely reluctant to leave them with him because, they had warned him over and over again, they were killing her a little bit each time she used them.

He mostly ignored Talya as she passed through the door with her arms full of splintered lengths of wood and what looked to be the remains of a mattress. The deathly pale woman did something that set the dry grass inside the mattress on fire, he had not seen a tinderbox on her but assumed it must have been hidden behind the bundles of wood. Then she methodically set a fire around the rapidly burning grass.

And if Talya thought it odd he was singing a song usually used to get fractious babies to sleep to the obviously mature Keri, she kept that opinion to herself. Silent as a ghost she passed through the room, carefully closing the doors to keep as much of the meager heat in the room as she could.

Eventually the healers had been able to use the knowledge found by the bards in the oldest and most decrepit parts of the library, long pre-dating even the founding of th e Kingdom, to cure Keri of the nightmares. But they had taken her talent with them, leaving the girl as nothing but a talented musician instead of the master bard she could have become.

He wondered what the price would be this time, for her winning free of the nightmares that were the consequence of her true and terrible talent. A talent buried so deep that there was not even a mention of her nightmares in the archives. He’d personally made sure of that after she had recovered from those final treatments.

“Uncle?” Keri said weakly, her voice barely a whisper. A rather croaked whisper. She hadn’t had anything to drink of course, and the fever she was running couldn’t be helpful for her parched state either.

Carefully the old bard dripped a few drops of water in her mouth, looking carefully if she would swallow them of her own.

“Hush dear,” he whispered. “No talking until you are stronger.”

Keri swallowed painfully. Her throat was so dry and raw that even swallowing down a few drops of water sent spikes of pain through her. Her head was feeling worse still. But there also was a memory in it. Painfully bright in its immediacy and urgency, but fading rapidly.

Weakly she pulled at his arm to draw his attention.

“Must … say … now … or … forget,” she croaked. Each word painful to get out.

He dropped more water drops in her mouth and she swallowed them. The moisture at least would make her throat feel better, though nothing could help her head other than something far stronger and far more sinister than the strongest willowbark tea.

“Was in … granary,” she said, squeezing her eyes shut against the headache and the flashes of blinding light it set of behind her eyelids.

Syts bent closer to tell her to stay quiet and rest a little longer but she found the strength to stop him.

“Was on fire … cold … so cold,” she shuddered at the strength of the fading memory of the intense cold. “clothes burned … away … was naked.”

The old bard tensed because, other than the cold she had complained of, this was much like what Keri and the other victims had suffered from. Melissa and Oboru had been wearing little more than tattered and charred rags by the time they had brought Keri into the brightly lit main room. And he himself had lost a large part of the sleeve of his nightgown when he had accidentally brushed it against one of the victims. It had just shrivelled up like parchment in a fire and then the ashes had blown away with a wind that nobody could feel.

“the grain burned … tried to warn … people laughed … ashamed … ”

Syts could feel Keri’s strength begin to flag now that the urgency of telling about her nightmare was past. Keri, who was more a daughter to him than his own flesh and blood, closer to his heart than the woman who had inherited none of his talent and loathed his love for music.

“It’s okay little song bird, I understand.” His murmured assurances calmed her down and she fell asleep again, breathing easier. The fever would start to break soon, he knew from experience. Not that she had ever been feverish when recovering from her nightmares that he could recall. Only that telling somebody about them always calmed her down and allowed her to recover.

And he did understand what the nightmare was about. It was so obvious now Keri had pointed it out to him. The darkness had consumed the clothes of the victims, the bedlinen, and according to Talya even the wood of some of the bed, but not the stone tiles of the floor they had lain the victims on. All of those things that had vanished were plants once, and so was the grain Keri had foreseen. It would have taken only a single guard in the granary to be affected by that darkness the way Keri had to make it all inedible. Or maybe even make it vanish entirely. The town could have a famine on its hand halfway through winter.

Talya and Brandt came in, both carrying a load of broken bed. Brandt dumped his load in the snow, leaving it to Talya, who already was kneeling by the small fire, to build it up further. From the rigid posture Syts could tell that she was angry about something. Brandt, just then turning around from closing the garden door, looked angry as well. Syts wondered what was going on between the two. He didn’t think he should pry though, tempting as it was.

He waited till Talya got back in, then said quietly, “We may have a bigger problem.”

Brandt looked at him sharply. Talya leaned against the wall looking impassive. She probably would have tried for bored if Brandt had been paying more attention to her.

“What problem?”

“Keri woke up for a moment, she reminded me that the towns granaries are at danger.”

“What?”

Syts ticked off on the fingers of his hand he used to support Keri with, “Clothes. Sheets. Blankets. Wood. All disappeared. It’s all things that were once alive.”

He couldn’t resist pausing for dramatic effect.

“So is grain.”

Brandt looked stricken. Talya said something in a strange language that nobody would have any trouble recognising of a curse word of sorts. It was the second time Syts noticed that she had let slip something that suggested that she was from out-Kingdom too, like Melissa and Oboru who made no effort to hide that fact.

“You have to warn the Mayor,” he told Brandt.

“Warn him of what?” was the blunt reply.

The old bard realised that they didn’t actually have anything that the mayor of this, or any, town would accept. All this talk about shadows from the Black Forest sounded like magic, which he would dismiss like any sensible citizen of the Kingdom. Stories about disappearing clothes and bed linen would make him scoff and, at best, suggest a far more prosaic reason for people losing them. At the same time, having seen the effect this strange darkness had that Melissa and Talya mentioned — in fact having witnessed its effect on his own clothes — he knew that the danger was real. Whatever had given the Black Forest its bad reputation had broken free and was now endangering the entire town of Glivenr.

His sudden tension transferred to Keri, who stirred awake. Her eyes were still unfocussed with fever and her voice not much better than it had been before. The old bard dropped a few more drops in her mouth, and then repeated it several times more till she could swallow more easily.

“You can’t drink too much at once,” he whispered at her. “Or you will loose it again.”

Keri tried to speak, and after a few tries her voice came out more or less normally if weakly. “I came here to ask bards about the oldest stories of the Black Forest. Other than the Cursed Carpenter.” she said. “Forest road and Inn were there before the first King.”

She closed her eyes and sagged against Syts, gathering strength while his mind raced. “The hill folk may have old stories about the Blue People,” he said.

“Pol is here?” Keri asked, referring to the bard who was considered to be a bit of an expert of the old myths and stories that were shared by the sheep herders in the hills south and east of the Black Forest. When they had arrived in the wake of the first King’s army and made their homes in those hills there had still been a few small tribes of the Blue people left, and the hill folk were rumoured to have had a wary truce with them as they slowly died out.

Syts shook his head and said regretfully, “he’s not here, no, but I can get a message to him quickly if you have a specific question?”

“Ask Talya. She knows more of this darkness. Understood the Carpenter.”

Both Brandt and the bard stared at the pale woman, who stared back at them expressionlessly. Melissa got to her feet too, adding a third pair of eyes.

“The dark figure Keri mentioned,” Syts said slowly, “the one that chased you through the forest. You gave it a name.”

Talya was silent for a long time. Her eyes betrayed that she was thinking very quickly.

“Yes,” she finally admitted.

“Care to share it with us?” There was a lot of menace in Brandt’s voice all of a sudden, a lot of the steel of command too he had to have learned before he … left. He hadn’t drawn his big sword, but that possibly was because that was by the door, leaning against the wooden post, just out of easy reach.

More silence. Everybody waited for the woman to explain herself. She wasn’t looking around furtively, trying to find an escape. She just looked back at them with that same expressionless eyes that she mostly showed between the rare glimmers of interest and expression.

“Darkwalkers. They are a … myth or my people. They’re not supposed to be real.”

“And what would these … darkwalkers … do? In your myths?”

“Unmake.”

“You mean … kill?” Brand asked.

Talya shook her head slowly and Syts, having made a life long study of facial expressions to gauge his audience and tailor his music, would have sworn to Lady Mercy herself, that the woman was scared. She hid it extremely well, but it was clear to him from the slight narrowing of her unusual eyes betraying her tension.

“No. Unmake. The world.”

Brandt sighed explosively.

Keri said softly in the silence that followed, “It killed all plants that it touched. Even the sand was … less.”

Talya nodded slowly, hesitantly. “Less than a hole, it leaves a trail where … nothing can /be/.”

Keri sighed, eyes still closed. “I think I understand, Talya, but I don’t think I can really explain either.” Grasping for words she attempted it anyway. “If you dig a hole in the ground, the hole is still real. Still part of the world. It can be filled again. This thing that chased us, it leaves behind a nothing that can never be filled again.”

Talya added, “Rock and metal are very solid. Very real. The core of this world. Darkwalkers unmake them slowly. Living things they … make themselves. Difficult to unmake too. But dead things… not strong, and already disappearing. They are easy to unmake.”

“Was that what they tried to do to Keri?” Brandt asked.

“Yes,” Talya replied, after a tiny hesitation.

Syts looked sharply at here and said coldly, “That’s not true. Or it is not the whole truth.”

“Not this thing was,” Melissa said from her corner of the room. “Anchor for thing make.”

Keri as usual tried to explain the odd speech pattern of the tall out-Kingdom woman, “She means to say that something was trying to get /into/ me. I think,” she swallowed, “I think it tried to turn me into one of those things.”

Talya shrugged, “probably yes.”

“Why didn’t you say so?” Brandt’s voice was full of suspicion.

“These are myths. Nobody believes in them any more. Why scare everybody with ancient children’s tales?” There were a lot of lies in those three sentences, but she had herself under control now that she knew how astute the old man’s observations were. She believed in the myths, as did the Mage-Priest and his acolytes. And most of the people in his lands.

Syts pursed his lips while thinking, ignoring Brandt glowering at Talya, and the pale woman haughtily ignoring him.

“You mentioned the … darkwalker was slow and you could easily outrun it. It also couldn’t push through undergrowth easily. What makes it so dangerous?”

“Terror,” Keri shuddered. “We ran away as fast as we could until we were too tired and had to rest. And then it would catch up.”

Stories say,” Talya said, putting a lot of emphasis on the first word, “that they can infect a person with a slight touch.”

Both Brandt and Syts looked dubious. “You said it could not unmake living beings?”

Talya narrowed her eyes at Brandt. She plucked at her linen shirt, the skin of her hand, held up a strand of hair. “All dead. Easy to unmake. Then the Darkwalker clings to you and slowly unmakes you as well. Burrowing deep into you till you die. And become another darkwalker.”

“Is that happening to Talya?” he asked, his tone stricken.

“No. Life and light protected her. It was the.” She cut off abruptly and looked away from the others.

“It was the what?”

“To speak of it is anathema,” she stubbornly refused.

Brandt flexed his muscles in anger.

“Brandt,” Keri whispered, but it cut through his temper. “She meant the previous world myth. It is what she believes. And … the myth says that the gods that were left behind were destroying the worlds while our gods brought those they could reach to a new world.”

Brandt looked mutinous, and while Keri couldn’t see him, pressed against Syts as she was, she seemed to know that. “You’re asking her to speak the name of the Dark Ones.”

The old bard smiled down on the feverish woman he thought of as his daughter in his unguarded moments. “You always were smarter than any other bard,” he whispered fondly.

Melissa drew a sharp breath but, after a long moment slowly expelled it again. Almost as if, Syts thought, she had been about to say something and then thought better of it.

In the silence that followed Keri asked, her voice a little unsteady, “So … what happens? While I be?” she let her question trail off into silence.

“I don’t know,” Talya admitted, and it was clear that it cost her. Stranger still, Syts could see that she could not entirely hide the fact that she was scared by something.

“Light burns,” Melissa said, as if that settled the question.

Brandt grimaced, “You can protect Keri. But what about the townfolk?”

Talya had smoothed over the mask she was wearing, hiding the tiny cracks through which Syts had glimpsed some of her real emotions. “Bright fires will protect the living from this dark. For the dead and dying… burn them, and then burn the ashes again till nothin remains. Or put them in a tomb so deep in the mountain that not even air can reach there, seal up the tomb and erase even the memory of it. Kill the ones who did the burying and burn them to ashes too.”

Everybody was shocked at the cold ruthlessness with which she spoke.

“Isn’t that a bit extreme?” Syts asked.

“No,” came her reply with a cold finality. “It may not be enough to protect this world from being consumed like the first.”

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