Author: Alevtina Afanaseva


Editor, proofreader: Alevtina Afanaseva

English translator: Natalie Mainland

Translation Editor: Eugenia Sokolskaya

Cover art, illustrator: Olena Minko

This electronic book, in whole and in part, is protected by copyright and may not be copied, resold, or transferred to third parties without the consent of the author. All events and characters portrayed within are fictional. Any resemblance to real events or to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

* * * 1 * * *

To those who are no longer with us, but will always be in our hearts…

It all happened so fast. Nessa cried out in sudden, piercing pain as her armor crushed against her chest. She struggled to breathe, choking on air that was suddenly too heavy to take in, feeling for all the world as though she were drowning. Gasping, she wrenched at her helm and finally managed to toss it away on the second try. Every movement brought with it unbearable agony. Her vision swam as foul nausea rose up in her throat, tinged with the taste of blood.

The roar of battle faded into the distance, as though the fight had shifted nearer to the marshy ground of the wood, finally forsaking the bloody field. The sky, already dark, blackened further, giving the appearance of an impending storm. Nessa looked around, as though she had forgotten how she’d come to be in the very heart of the battle. Before her, reality melted away, and the world blurred until she could no longer comprehend what she was seeing.

She stood, gaping, unheeding of the danger that any new attack could easily crush her skull — but she was no longer a threat. Her blood-drenched armor marked her as one of the dead. She might as well have been hidden under a Veil of Defense, for no one paid her any mind. The warriors’ shouts, the clash of metal on metal, the crunch of splintering spears — it all ran together into one mighty din. As her vision dulled, so did her hearing, pulling her down into a deep darkness from which there could be no return.

Dense fog wreathed the forest on the horizon. It drifted heavily over the ground, clinging to the trees as though it were trying to climb them. They shuddered as if their roots were being struck from beneath by an enormous cave troll, perhaps in play, perhaps in an attempt to uproot them — though whether this was actually happening because of the Giant army, or if it only seemed so from blood loss and exhaustion, Nessa didn’t know. Her sight dimmed, and it grew even harder for her to discern the warriors; they were little more than shadows. Even those who fought desperately mere steps away from her to protect life and kingdom were indistinguishable through the crimson veil before her eyes. Around her, the world spun in a whirling dance that would put to shame the most ferocious blizzard in the foothills of the Frozen Land.

Nessa closed her eyes and pressed her hand over them, as though in so doing she could stop the spinning. Through the tattered fabric of her glove she felt a sticky chill and saw the blood on her palm — her own blood, different, somehow, from the blood of her slain enemies.

Fear gripped her. Temples pounding, Nessa slumped heavily to the ground, still afraid to release the sword from her hand. Her memory warned her that she could yet be attacked and killed. Now, though, those thoughts were so weak they seemed only part of a dream. The sharp smells of metal and of blood soaking into the earth grew more distinct. She felt vaguely sick, but she couldn’t escape it, only endure.

In the thick of the fight someone tripped over her and toppled her to the ground. Her sword fell nearby with a muffled clang. A soothing darkness enveloped Nessa, beckoning her elsewhere. All the world gave way before its clarion call, strong and sure, before its mysterious power over body and soul. It enthralled her, replacing her values with new ones, unwavering and infinite. She had read about this in books, before, but now — now she understood.

A horn sounded in the distance, punching through the foggy haze over the field. The battle continued, unceasing, but its course was already fixed. The rush of silver-armored soldiers with dragons embossed on their shields had weakened noticeably. Bloodied and maimed, they barely held the line, and slowly, as if unwilling to accept the coming defeat, they fell back. Their swords struck less furiously than before, and on their faces ill-concealed fatigue and pain shone through. Too slow to parry, they caught the incoming blows on their shields, and under the unforgiving onslaught they fell.

It all felt like a dream, in which Nessa lay frozen like a careless moth in amber. She lay among the bodies, bleeding out. She’d rejected all the entreaties, all the warnings not to go to battle — but how could she have done anything else? The land, the traditions, the warriors, each of whom she knew, her home — it was all part of Nessa’s inheritance, her kingdom. It was their common past, their common future. When danger loomed she’d stood together with everyone under the banner. All that they held dear remained behind, in the city around the castle. There was nowhere to retreat to. They could only fight.

When, with a grunt, a slain warrior came crashing down across her, she felt nothing.

The cheers of the vanquishers mingled with the groans of the fallen. A horn sounded over the din, announcing victory, and soon another joined it, and another. Nessa struggled against the darkness for some time, clutching desperately and hopelessly at the sounds, until at last the world around her sank into the bottomless abyss of oblivion, and a muffled silence fell over all.

* * * 2 * * *

The fires glowed in the fading darkness of the night. Their light seemed ghostly, as though it came from under water. In the half-dark the shapes of people could just be made out. One of them sat near one of the dead bodies, swaying from side to side in a fit of tears and cursing everything the world over. Others roamed the field with torches, searching for their loved ones. Let them be wounded or maimed, they prayed, just let them be alive! Physical wounds could be healed: spells, healing potions, and ointments would see to that. And if that didn’t help, they could sell the horse, the cattle, anything they owned to call on a mage and save their loved one.

The torchlight picked the faces of the warriors out of the dark, seamed with scars and awash in blood; skulls cleaved in two; bodies pierced with swords and arrows; severed limbs, their former owners unknown; the carcasses of horses.

Seeing all this was more than a person can handle. The pain came in waves, without a pause for breath, when in the midst of the cold bodies there appeared to be a familiar face. He was there — and yet he wasn’t. An empty shell only, the soul gone over to the Other Side. The losses weighed heavy on hearts, like a pile of stones. To those left behind the world forever lost its color. What could be more terrible than losing beloved people, than losing the battle? Even if the whole world were flying straight into the abyss — after all that, it no longer mattered.

The sparks of departed souls rose above the misty field, carried away to the stars. When a frightened cry, shrill as a bird’s, pierced the predawn gloom, louder than the rest, no one paid it any mind. It was just another drop in a sea of weeping, barely discernible from the rest of the flood. Only those nearest heard the horror in it. And they hadn’t the strength to find out the cause; they were already burdened with too great a sorrow.

A woman dropped her torch, hurriedly whispering Words of Protection. As tears ran down her face, a face aged by the trials of that night, her gaze was drawn to an enormous shadow trudging through the thick fog. It was like a hallucination or an ugly dream.

Shielding herself with her hands, as though it could protect her from the giant, she hurled herself to the ground, covering her mortally wounded son. The Words of Protection didn’t work — to her horror, her tongue refused to obey, the spell wouldn’t come together; it fell apart. In desperate hope that the beast wouldn’t bother them, the woman bid farewell to life and thanked the gods that her son hadn’t regained consciousness after the battle. The last thing she wanted was for him to suffer further. To go without leaving the comfort of oblivion — wasn’t that the best possible death?

The unknown creature, a demon in the flesh, stalked across the body-strewn field. It seemed otherworldly, now vanishing into thick fog, now appearing again, as though the gods, not wishing to see the sullied earth, had covered it with a shroud. The beast moved like a phantom through it all. Only its heavy tread and the crunch of bones breaking under its feet made it clear that it was real. Breathing noisily, the demon sniffed, hunting for something, uncaring that humans might see. It unceremoniously stalked back and forth, exploring the battlefield and seeking out the scents that curled thickly over the ground.

The old woman forgot about magic and apprehensively looked to the ancient beast, afraid to move a muscle. The stories she had heard from others had come to life. The nursery rhymes and fairy stories from dusty tomes had come to life and taken on a whole new meaning. The azur himself, the dark hound of the Old Gods, had come to earth. Was it possible that he was real?

The shadow drew closer. It seemed that with one more step it would burst out of the fog. The woman only pulled her son’s body closer, following each footstep of the giant beast, as though enthralled. Her heart, ready to burst from terror, beat frantically inside her chest. What good was the azur to her, when in her hands now was the only thing that mattered? Could it be that the beast would have mercy, and bring them back to life?

The giant breathed heavily, as though it were trying to brush aside the smell of strange blood and concentrate on the object of its search, to more closely take it in. It shook its head and with its paw turned over one of the bodies. The armored corpse of a soldier that stood between it and its goal was unceremoniously thrown aside. The beast began sniffing again. Its movements suddenly changed: it became cautious, almost gentle.

Delicately taking one of the body’s legs between its teeth, the beast deftly turned it over. It seemed miraculous that such a powerful creature could move with such grace. Taking hold of the body’s shoulders, the azur arranged it more comfortably, so that it wouldn’t come loose when walking, then looked around, its gaze lingering on the old woman.

She almost cried out in terror. She waved her arms at the azur, like a black bird defending its nest. She cried out, a muddle of magical words, but didn’t budge. Her fear of death could not hope to compete with a mother’s love.

In the midst of her cry, she coughed and then trailed off into silence, in anticipation of her coming death. A grimace skewed her features; a plea froze in her eyes.

As silence fell the beast’s breathing grew more labored. It bent closer, sniffing at the body she was trying to hide. She tried to fend off the azur, pushing in desperation at the enormous muzzle with her hands. It easily knocked her aside and for some reason nosed at the wounded youth, either sniffing or wanting to bite. In desperation the woman rose up on her knees, again shielding her son’s body with her own. She no longer had the strength to shout, to cry; silently she spread her arms wide and froze, awaiting judgment.

The beast looked at the old woman intently and withdrew. She appeared to be pleading with him; the tears in her eyes marked her determination to protect. The azur sighed heavily and headed away, tail wagging.

A groan and weakly stirring hands made it clear that her son had come back to her. The old woman dazedly watched the azur go, a faint smile alighting on her face. Now she was the happiest of those who, in their hour of grief, had come to the battlefield. The heavy footfalls of the beast were still audible for a while, then at last all was silent in the hazy fog.

* * * 3 * * *

The happy smile never left Nessa’s face as she walked through the garden of lush green grass. Light pink flowers enveloped the trees like thick clouds, and the air was suffused with the heady scent of honey. The light pleasantly warmed her face, though it did make her squint. It’d been so long since she’d seen such a glorious day!

The girl leaned against a tree trunk, luxuriating in the warmth. She closed her eyes. From somewhere came the sound of dripping meltwater. It lulled her, steady and soothing.

Drip… drip-drop… drip…

Everything around her reminded her of childhood, when they’d held games in this garden and Nessa had hid from it all in the shadow of an old tree. Nearby a gooseberry bush grew, spreading its leaves. While her nurse and nanny looked for her, she plucked unripened berries and rested from the midday sun. It was the perfect place: a homey burrow for a small animal, which was exactly how Nessa felt just then. After a bit she tired of her self-imposed loneliness and chose instead to return to that communal joy: drinking tea in the kitchen together with the children and servants. The hearth there was always warm and cozy. It had been a magical time, to which she always wished she could return.

She headed onward, wending her way through the woods. It began to grow dark. The dew felt colder with every step. She wanted to slip into comfortable clothing and climb into bed, with a fire going before her on the hearth. To curl up under a blanket. To sleep…

The sky had clouded over. In one brief moment, warm summer had given way to autumn’s chill. Only, for some reason, Nessa couldn’t remember in the least where to find her home. It was enormous, a confabulation of thick stone walls, clean-lined wood floors and magnificent stained-glass windows. Her castle, every corner of it known to her since childhood, had disappeared like a mirage into the twilit forest.

Anxiety and confusion bloomed inside her. She looked around, attempting to remember just when she’d left the path she’d been walking. The fog grew denser, enshrouding the garden completely. Nessa scrambled here and there, unable to recognize any of the places in which she stood. A thorn pierced her foot, and pebbles dug into her skin. Like a bird, she darted from side to side, but for the life of her she couldn’t figure out where to go.

In the midst of the chaos the steady dripping sound continued — nothing could drown it out. The cadence grew ever louder, as if the source of it were following her, only to escape as soon as she turned around. Who was it? What was it?

She looked around, forwards, backwards, but saw only the garden. A desolate, late-autumn garden, whose trees and shrubs had already lost the last of their leaves. The bare branches were covered in the needle-like lines of the first hard frost. The grey sky loomed close and heavy, promising a storm.

As if in response to some imperceptible signal, everything went still. The noises, the rustling, fled, and even the wind ceased its mighty breath. In the perfect stillness the sound of dripping against the stones continued, becoming a terrible alarm, warning her and driving her mad. The icy silence frightened her more than the impassable forests beyond the boundaries of the Eastern Cliffs, known for their overgrown trees and deep fens. It was as though Nessa had fallen into the abyss, as though she’d been dragged under water, far away from sunlight and the sounds of life. The Void was her companion, its icy hand on her shoulder.

She opened her eyes with a shudder.

It took her a moment to understand where she was. She looked about cautiously, anxiety creeping up her throat. It seemed as though an enemy must be lurking close by, waiting to attack. It was dark all around her, and through the darkness sounded the sad and lingering howl of the wind. Weakly, a ray of light from outside pierced the darkness, lightening the twilit cave in which she found herself.

How could this have happened? She had only just been wandering in the garden, and suddenly she’d been transported to this never-ending blackness. Why was there no one with her? Had she already crossed over to the Other Side? These thoughts ran through her, like icy water down her spine. She didn’t want to believe it.

Heavy boulders hung above her, clinging precariously to the rock. A grave chill and eerie silence completed the picture. Nessa tried to stand and nearly fainted from the pain, feeling, again, as though she’d fallen into the whirling abyss. She froze, hoping to bank the fire that surged through her wound. Time slowed and dragged, straining the already tenuous border of reality.

When the fire lessened a little, she turned, trying to lie comfortably. It was easier said than done — her armor hampered her movements. She longed to breathe deeply, to wash away the lingering blood, but she didn’t yet have the strength. Once again she could only endure.

With difficulty Nessa rolled onto her side, taking pressure off the wound. Once she’d had a chance to regain her bearings after the new explosion of pain, she dropped her head a little — and suddenly found it buried in fur. It was pleasantly cool, and made her feel protected. With a newfound warmth inside her, she breathed easily, and the darkness appeared to recede.

Before her mind’s eye drifted the images of the last battle, the faces of her enemies and the allies with whom she’d fought side-by-side, and who had perished under the banners of the two kingdoms.

Nessa recalled the first blood. A strong jet of it had spurted from her horse’s neck, after an arrow found its mark between the armored plates. It had snorted and tossed to the side, and for only the second time in her life she’d fallen from the saddle. What an embarrassment! To spend so much time in the stable, among the horses, and to then fall off — how shameful!

She’d nearly gotten herself trampled, but her bodyguards had reacted in time. One raised his shield against the arrows, a second helped her to her feet, and the third — the third took the mortal blow himself. Watching his broken, still-warm body fall to the ground with a muffled thump, Nessa flinched. The dead man’s last look at her was forever seared into her memory. Her fear of being killed swiftly fled, replaced by a desire for revenge.

She’d plunged herself into the battle — the unending, exhausting battle, with its steel weapons and screams of terror and triumph. Strange banners flying and blood, blood, blood… Like at the end of a long journey — a missed blow, pain and her own cry, skewed so much as to be unrecognizable. And the very sky above her split in two.

* * * 4 * * *

Reality suddenly came rushing back. For a moment it seemed to Nessa that the ground had fallen out from under her, bucking, and from this she’d fallen through somewhere. She tried to grab a hold of something, anything, and as she turned awkwardly the pain stabbed through her injured shoulder again. That woke her up, and the waves of pain swept the last of the visions to the far corners of her consciousness.

The soft fur into which Nessa had burrowed was gone, as though it hadn’t existed in the first place. Under her back now she felt only rock, and its chill slowly crept through her whole body. She began to shiver. The enemy sword hadn’t taken her life, but the whole-body chill might yet do it.

Realizing that she needed to do something about it before she finally froze, she gingerly sat up and looked around. Even that simple movement drenched her in sweat, but this time she wouldn’t give up so easily.

What Nessa had taken to be a rock was actually an unharnessed wagon, haphazardly piled with clothing and household goods. A blanket hung over the side, along with the edges of women’s dresses, belts, and kerchiefs. Around it were a few scraps of fabric, brocade and patterned velvet; a stack of tanned hides and canvas toolbags stood proudly nearby. Clay pots, mostly broken, spilled from a second wagon that lay on its side. Nearby horseshoes, bars of metal for forging into weapons, and scrolls of parchment were scattered everywhere, along with an enormous cauldron of vegetables. Though they were snow-covered and frozen through, Nessa was sure they were still edible. Taken altogether, the evidence seemed to show that she’d wound up with a group of traveling merchants.

Could it really be that simple?

Worry rose up inside of her — they had to have some reason for hiding her here! If her father’s army had won the battle she would have been at home, and if they’d lost she’d have been languishing in King Ladid’s prison — or dead.

Who in the world had brought her here?

As if in answer, something moved in the half-light, rattling slightly. Nessa jumped. Teeth clenched, she reached for her weapon out of habit, but the scabbard was gone. Her spare dagger, however, was still in place, tucked into the top of her boot, which only made things more confusing.

Had they really not searched her? They’d had plenty of opportunity: she’d been lying unconscious and defenseless, after all, perfect for ritual sacrifice, ransom-taking, or whatever else anyone could think up to gain some advantage from capturing the crown princess.

Nessa was ready to do whatever was necessary to defend her life and freedom. The dagger slid easily and soundlessly from its sheath, and she peered into the darkness, calm but wary. Sweat beaded down her spine. She realized that she couldn’t put up much resistance. She might only be able to scratch her enemy, but it was better than going down without a fight.

Her parched throat groaned before it let her ask her question. With a cough, she wheezed, “Who’s there?”

A flask flew out of the darkness in place of an answer and fell, bouncing on the stones. The cave filled with the soft noise of scraping metal from the flask’s trim.

What’s in this? Water? Poison? she thought, wanting desperately to drink, but even unbearable thirst couldn’t overcome her caution. If they’d wanted to kill me they would have done it already! They would’ve just stabbed or strangled me!

With great effort, Nessa picked herself up and crept forward on her side. Taking the flask, she began to drink. It was filled with spring water. She gulped it down, greedily, not stopping until it was completely empty.

“Hello? Who are you?” she called. “Why are you helping me?”

The answer didn’t come right away. There was a soft rustling and a clatter, and then a deep rumbling voice rolled through the cave, startling her. She could have sworn that the thing with which she now spoke wasn’t a person — there was something inexplicably alien in that deep voice. It reminded Nessa a little of the Forest Folk’s way of speaking. Whenever they had to use the language of humans, they spoke slowly, each sound almost excessively enunciated. People communicated hastily in comparison, especially the commoners, who shortened their words to the bare minimum needed to get the point across. This particular speaker even growled occasionally, which made him even harder to understand.

“Milady, the carts contain everything you need. Clean clothes, water, and food. Tend to your wounds and rest.”

“Who are you?”

“Later, milady. Tonight we will discuss everything.”

“I have to go home!” she protested, resentfully. “We won’t discuss anything tonight! Do you hear? My father needs to know that I’m alive! Show yourself and speak with me! If you’re the one who had the courage to save me, tell me your name and take me home — I’ll not leave your efforts unrewarded!”

“We shall head home later. For now you must stay here, milady. I understand that you are worry, but you must stay here.”

Its deep voice held not even the shadow of a threat, but she felt the force in it. From this she suddenly felt surprisingly calm. She obediently sank down against the stones, bereft of her fighting spirit.

“Save your questions for a later time. Do not leave the cave while your wounds are healing. It is very dangerous.”

“Just tell me one thing, please,” she asked in a quavering voice, putting words to her biggest worry. “How did the battle end?”

There was no answer. The beam of light at the cave’s entrance faded momentarily. Silence fell again, broken only by the familiar sound of dripping. The speaker vanished as swiftly as it had arrived, all without giving her the answer she needed.

After a bit of reflection, Nessa got a hold of herself. She didn’t feel like a prisoner, and she could even run away from here if she could find the strength — though she hoped it wouldn’t come to that. She planned on thanking her savior and returning comfortably home, and there was chance she might be able to do exactly that if the stranger’s words held any truth. On top of that, she wasn’t in any shape to go very far right now, and even if she could find a horse she certainly wasn’t in any shape to be riding. She didn’t have the strength. Since her rescuer knew more than she did, she figured she should follow his advice: give her wounds a chance to close, and then think about returning home.

Nessa decided to take off her armor. Removing it by herself wasn’t easy — at the castle, the servants had always helped her, but here she’d have to help herself. The rivets holding the armored plates together were crushed and undoing it all took some time. The thin shirt she wore underneath was crusted with dried blood. She had to fidget with it for a while before being able to remove it. The fabric was stuck to her wound and hurt to remove, leaving an ooze of fresh blood behind. The wound itself was a horrible sight. Her enemy’s sword had pierced her armor and bit deep into her flesh, down to the bone. Nasty bruising surrounded it, along with a frightful amount of dried blood. Just seeing it made her hands shake — a little more and she’d have been a goner. Only sheer good fortune had left her alive.

Hunting had given her a stronger arm and a steelier stomach than the other girls in the castle, but it hadn’t completely erased her sensitivity. Many times over the course of the campaigns Nessa had had to skin rabbits, in order to roast them over the fire, and she’d always done so without blanching; it was a necessary evil. To kill, in order to survive. Killing people, on the other hand, turned out to be difficult, even on the battlefield. To this day it still turned her stomach. And now, in order to survive, she had to spill a third blood — her own, and the most difficult.

She feared to touch the wound, but she found a healing tincture in one of the barrels and poured it on, holding down the scream by biting her lip until it bled. The tincture wouldn’t heal her injury, but it would prevent infection. Enough time had passed since the battle that Nessa was afraid of it festering. The ragged edges of her skin looked awful, and blood continued to trickle out between them. Gingerly she took a knife and cut out the discolored tissue, noticing as she did that she felt no pain from it.

An even more difficult task followed: she had to bandage herself. This proved to be a test of her will. Every touch was a lick of flame, burning her alive. She had to stop, periodically, and give her body a chance at respite. The chill breeze soothed the wound a little, but in the end it couldn’t help much. She wept with pain, but there was nothing for it: she had to finish.

When Nessa finally bandaged the last wound — and the easiest, a shallow cut on her hand — she stretched out beside the wagon, exhausted. She whipped one of the pelts off the pile, pulled it over herself as a blanket, and closed her eyes. Belatedly she remembered the dagger, lying somewhere in the darkness, but she hadn’t the strength to retrieve it, and fell instead into a restless sleep.

Her injuries and the cave’s lingering dampness, along with the cold wind, conspired together against her, and she started running a fever. Half-delirious, she fumbled for the flask, gulped its contents down, and went back to sleep, falling into a seemingly endless mire of fever dreams. They all jumbled together into a dizzying whirlpool of absurdity, never letting up and never letting her go.

A river of blood threatened to drown her, escaping its banks and flooding everything to the horizon, turning the ground into a crimson sea. Disembodied hands rose up from the waves, beckoning, and sank again into the churning tide.

Occasionally Nessa would wake, managing a brief escape from the horrors. Uncomprehending of where she was, she fumbled about, looking for something warm, some way to feel less alone. Wine magically appeared inside the flask and it burned going down, but afterward she breathed easier, and the fever would retreat for a spell. Sometimes Nessa came across an apple, a raw potato, or some stale bread. This wasn’t the time to be choosy; she ate it as it was. She wanted to recover her strength quickly and go home, so she chewed, half-awake, and then fell asleep again.

She didn’t think about where the food came from. It was magic, just like in childhood, when mothers appear as sorceresses, knowing or guessing their children’s greatest desires. One can only appreciate that with age, or after having known loneliness, and a lack of maternal warmth. Nessa’s illness had left her childlike and open, taking in everything around her. She forgot all her fears, trusting as she had been when she was a little girl.

Sometimes it seemed to be getting better. As soon as it did, she tried getting up again. The illusion would break, and the cave would begin to dance in front of her eyes, making her feel ill. Whether it was a result of the strong wine or her wound, Nessa didn’t know, just as she didn’t know how many times she’d tried to get up. They all blurred together in the endless clinging dreams. Hours muddles together into days and days into nights, all reeling in a perpetual dance.

It grew very cold outside. Winter, it seemed, ruled over the Six-Moon World with a greater ferocity than usual, as though it was her last reign. Lakes froze over, the water hidden under thick crusts of ice. Trees met the same fate, buried beneath massive caps of snow. Animals, little match for the winds’ onslaught, died in search of cover. Some of them worked together, in spite of the difference in species. And in the cities, all was madness: people fled the coast in haste, seeking refuge in the depths of the interior.

While Nessa slept, the freezing wind either brought people together or drove them apart. It was like someone had rewritten the rules of the World going forward, dictating who would be allowed to survive. It was a barren, frost-white world, into which were cruelly thrown lost and lonely souls.

Unheeding of it all, Nessa slept and wrestled with her own demons. With each fight, it grew easier to break free of the nightmares. Her body regained its strength and eventually Nessa prevailed, ready to continue her journey.

The frost found its way even into the cave, leaching away the last of the heat. Nessa fumbled, half-awake, for another pelt to burrow under. She tried to pull it over herself and failed. She rolled onto her back and gasped, awestruck. Even half-conscious with sickness, she felt a heartbeat pulsing underneath the fur. Her own heart warmed to know that someone was taking care of her.

Nessa dreamed of her parents, places dear to her heart, her dead friends, and a large black beast, holding her in its paws. She patted it on the head, stroking its ears and chin — for now, if only in dreams, the world was at peace, and anything was possible. The beast’s eyes drifted closed in contentment, and Nessa knew that if danger struck it would leap to protect her. This unspoken knowledge warmed her heart and, without even realizing it, Nessa smiled.

* * * 5 * * *

When she woke, it took her a while to remember where she was. She’d been dreaming so long that to see around her the darkness and piles of random objects seemed strange and wrong. The wounds now bothered her much less. The most serious of them had stopped bleeding and healed over. The fever had left her feeling wrung-out, little stronger than a rag doll. With great effort, she got up to drink.

“You managed to get up, milady Rosa. It means the wounds have closed up.”

The booming voice gave Nessa a fright.

She jumped, dropping the ceramic fragment she’d been using as a cup. Her unknown host was close, but still unseen. He’d be familiar with the caves, all the better to hide in them.

“There is no need to fear, milady.”

Nessa carefully picked a copper pitcher up off the floor. It would be at least a little protection. She slid her gaze around the corners of the cave, trying to make out the stranger.

“Believe me, I am not your enemy.”

His voice was muffled; sometimes he distorted the words and sometimes he stopped altogether, as though he’d thought of something else mid-sentence.

“Maybe you aren’t, but how should I know? You haven’t told me your name! What else was I supposed to think?” His use of her second name surprised her. Clearly, whoever this was, he wasn’t a simple peasant, nor a merchant. Maybe her father had asked him to hide her, in case the battle went poorly. That idea comforted her a little. “Are you the one who helped me?”

“Yes, milady Rosa.”

“My thanks!”

“It was nothing. It is my duty.”

“Tell me, have I been here long?”

“Ten days. You were gravely ill…”

Nessa grew anxious. She’d thought she’d been there three or maybe four days, not ten. “I need to go home immediately! Ten days! The wound wasn’t deadly, I can make it!”

He gave a raspy sigh. “I beg pardon, milady, but we must wait just a little longer.”

“No! They’ll already be in mourning! Everyone’s returned except me!” Nessa clutched at her head in horror, picturing it all too vividly in her mind. “What are we going to do? What’s happening? What about my father, what about my people? I don’t know anything!”

“You will not find answers to these questions just now,” the stranger said, gently but firmly. “You are safe for now, milady Rosa, and for now you must stay here. Please trust me when I say this.”

The hardness, the sheer force of will in the stranger’s voice stunned her — to think that someone would tell her what to do! Her, the Crown Princess! No one would dare to be so bold. It took some time for Nessa to think of a response. Only the thought that he might know more than she did made her curb her tongue, instead of answering with rudeness. His will was overbearing, forcing her to see the situation from a different perspective.

“Very well. Who are you? Why are you helping me? Is this part of a plan to win favor with my father?” she asked nervously.

“I do not help you for the sake of a reward, milady Rosa,” her would-be savior snorted. “I only wish to help you, protect you.”

Nessa was silent for some time, pondering his words. Though she didn’t know him, somehow, she knew that he spoke the truth. The inner strength of his words left no room for doubt.

“I’ve heard such words from my sworn soldiers. Are you one of them — who, exactly? I don’t recognize your voice. If you’re not one of my men, why are you hiding? If you’re injured or disfigured, I’ll arrange for you to get help when I get back home. You saved my life, kept me from dying of cold, fed me. I do not know what it cost you, but to me it’s worth everything. I promise not to condemn you if you’ve done other, less-than-honorable deeds.” Nessa eyed the stolen merchants’ carts. “Please, tell me.”

“My name is Velt.” her companion sighed heavily, and into the light at the entrance to the cave, a shadow stepped toward her.

Expecting to find a man, a soldier, or one of the forest folk, Nessa involuntarily fell to her knees in shock. The pain from her wound flared up again, but she only gave a stifled gasp. She clutched her hands to her head, wide-eyed, trying to regain her senses, her heart pounding so frantically she thought it might burst.

An enormous black beast stood not far from her. Her savior was a hound, as big as a fully-grown dragon, with thick fur and powerful paws. Claws and golden eyes completed the tableau. More than a hound, he was a beast straight out of the ancient legends that spoke of the creation of the world. Nessa felt as though she were in a waking dream, trancelike and sober all at once.

“Gods!” She exclaimed. “You’re an — azur, a real azur. How can this be? They say you all disappeared, gone forever…”

Velt seemed pleased at her reaction. He nodded sagely, and sat back on his haunches, allowing her to get a better look at him. Nessa heard him panting, and his breath rose in great clouds of steam.

He smelled of damp pine forests, the glittering crystals of northern snowstorms, flowing bitter-cold rivers and something else she couldn’t quite place, something that smacked of magic — not quite spices, nor grass growing in starlit forest clearings. It was as though the azur were wreathed in magic, and magic filled the world around him.

“When I was little, they used to read me legends about the azurs.” Nessa grinned, trying not to show her nerves. “I never dreamed I would be speaking to one. Maybe I’m still dreaming. How can this be, that you’re here, that you’re real? The magic is long gone, here, and in the books it is written that…”

“Books!” The azur’s tail twitched. “You should not believe everything you read. I am real.”

“Aside from words, how else are we to communicate the essence of things? Words are the most reliable. And those who know how to listen, they will hear.”

“Yes, there is that, but there is more to it. Only when sent by those who know does a word strike its mark. Only when the person who released it realizes why it was done. If the essence is distorted, the message will not come into the world. We hid in the places marked by the Barrier, hidden from the eyes of ordinary people. The magic is here, still, but not as clearly. Something is happening outside, altering the world. Those who survive will find their lives changed as well.”

“As my life will change after meeting you.”

“Yes, your life and mine. Rise from your knees, milady. You see me as a god, whom you ought to worship. That is what time has made of us. But it is not so. Strange games, distortions of reality, and deceptions are all around. Once, long ago the azurs were many, and they were ordinary inhabitants of this world, not guests upon it. People knew of us, and saw us as frequently as Nova appears in the sky. Now we come out from behind the Barrier when we choose — and when we must.”

Nessa listened to him in awe. The legends had given her the sense that the azurs were haughty, and never would stoop to conversing with a mere mortal. But Velt was just the opposite.

She rose, weak-kneed, and dared to venture closer. The beast dropped his ears and bent his head as she shyly held out a hand to pet him. “Oh, thank you!”

He nuzzled against her in answer — but gently, to avoid knocking her over, like a big dog nudging its owner’s hand.

“Out of so many people, why did you choose me?”

“It was my duty, milady Rosa. My ancient duty.”

“Duty?” Nessa asked, uncomprehending.

“Yes.” The azur let his gaze linger on her. “And an ancient one. Frankly, I doubted that I would still be able to carry it out. And least of all did I want to fulfill it under these circumstances.”

“What do you mean, ‘these circumstances’? You found me, I’m alive, your duty’s fulfilled. What more could you need?”

“It is not so simple, milady. I shall tell you how it began, and then it will all fall into place. When I was a puppy, but a few weeks old, humans destroyed our den. It was a hard time, then. There was severe drought, and the crops withered and died before the harvest. Wells dried up. In that year, Nova’s rays set ablaze village and forest in turn. Ignorance and fear took root among the people. Someone decided that the wizards were to blame. First they were simply exiled. Then they were killed. The people thought that watering the earth with blood would appease the gods and bring rain to douse the fires and heal the crops. They were wrong. Killing became commonplace, until bodies lay everywhere, but still no more rain fell from the sky. A plague began.

“Then the people decided that they had been wrong, and the wizards were not to blame — the Forest Folk were, or the other magical creatures. They captured them, killed them, and proudly displayed their trophies…

“One of these hunters came across our den. If only my brothers and I had been older, we might have been able to fight back… but what can puppies do against armed madmen? Nothing. I was the youngest, and so my brothers hid me in the back of the den, under the stones. My brothers tried to stop the attack. I saw how they died one after another.

“I will remember the humans forever, their caustic laughter and angry words. I had no choice but to lie there and listen, fearing to move or breathe. I wanted to kill them for what they had done, but I was too small.

“Our mother came home that night. Mad with grief, she rushed after the killers. Even knowing that I still lived did nothing to stop her. The humans became nothing more than bones, fertilizing the fields. One among those humans was a wizard, a traitor using his powers against the Laws of Balance. My mother was sorely wounded in the battle, and returned home barely alive.

“She laid a glamor on our den, the strongest she could manage. She hid me and fled into the forest, looking for someone who might look after me. The gods decided to play a joke and test our faith with their choice. They sent another human. At first my mother nearly ripped him to shreds, but she saw the goodness deep in his heart and stopped herself in time. He was not like those who killed my brothers. From that moment, our paths were intertwined. My mother left me with him, and was gone.”

“But why?” Nessa cried. “I thought the Azurs all had healing powers. Why didn’t she save herself? She could have lived!”

“She could have, had she not killed the humans… She had to choose, and that was her choice. She killed them and she died. Had she stayed she would have lost me. It is the Law. Killing and treachery are not forgiven,” he growled, with marked satisfaction. “The wizard traitor was punished.”

“What of the human who helped you? Where is he? Do you see him, still?”

“He is in his world, and I am in mine. My duty is fulfilled. We are both free.”

Nessa thought a moment, and shook her head. “It’s a complicated story. I am sorry that you lost your family. It’s a terrible loss, one that can never be made right. But Velt, the story doesn’t answer my question. Why me? There were so many other people on that field in need of help…”

“There is something about you that reminds me of the human who helped me. You are very alike…”

He gave her a sidelong glance. She sat leaning against his side, pensively running slender fingers through his fur. Her knuckles still hadn’t healed, and the battle-wounds stuck out sharply. Her fine-boned face reminded Velt of something he couldn’t quite place, and inside him a previously-unknown warmth stirred to life. Next to this human, he felt needed, and truly strong.

Nessa turned to Velt, but froze under his gaze. The beast watched her a little while, and then closed his eyes and turned away.

“Once I grew up and learned to feed myself,” he continued, “I returned here. This is our ancestral den, where many generations were raised. Now my mother’s magic protects it. It certainly has changed. It is no longer as comfortable, and it is too quiet. Only the stones speak to me. They remember everything. When I am particularly lonely I listen to their whispers. They do not allow the important things to be forgotten. I know you are thinking of your family, and how they are getting along. You shall see them in due time, but for now worry not. Strangers may not enter here.”

“When can I go home? I really must go!” Nessa exclaimed, and stopped herself just as suddenly. The azur drew back with a little growl. She hadn’t meant to offend him, but it seemed that she had anyway. Here, with Velt, it was peaceful, nice. Only, there was something wild and untamable lurking deep behind his eyes, coiled up tight and waiting to spring. He lived outside of time and space. It was unfathomable, but somehow beguiling.

“The travel will not be easy,” said Velt. “Outside the world is covered in a deadly frost. You are not up to such a journey.”

“I am! They’re all waiting for me! They still don’t even know that I’m alive!”

“I understand.” He ducked his head, nodding. “But it is still too early to leave the den. You need at least a few more days.”

“You shouldn’t keep me prisoner!”

“Imprisonment?! Rrrr, is that what you think this is?”

Abruptly, he leapt to his feet, and Nessa shrank back. Going by his tone, he was definitely offended.

“Only humans are capable of deception and betrayal, and I just swore to protect you. Why would you think such a thing?”

Tail twitching in irritation, Velt headed for the exit.

Cursing herself for a fool, Nessa rushed after him.

“I’m sorry! I’m just worried about my family.”

Velt stopped a little ways from the den’s entrance. For some time only his heavy breathing broke the silence.

“You do have a family, I remember this. I understand why you in such a hurry to reach home… I thought that perhaps we had an opportunity to become friends, but you have shown me that I was wrong. I no longer wish to try,” he said bitterly, flicking his ears. “I shall do as you ask. I shall take you home, and it shall be as though none of this ever happened.”

Timidly, she approached him, and buried her face in his thick fur. “Velt, please forgive me,” she said, a lump forming in her throat. “Please… we’ll wait a little longer, just as you say. When the frost melts, then please take me home.”

“Milady,” the azur said with a bow, “Do not worry. Life happens in its own time. You shall certainly return home someday. Certainly.”

* * * 6 * * *


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