In Sight of Ravens #4

In Sight of Ravens

It took two days to cross the city. It was littered with the corpses of horselords from when the Enemy took it for his own. It was the first to fall. Before the Old Gods called forces together to resist the Enemy. Before her.

She stared straight ahead without even a momentary flicker of recognition of the leftover carnage about her. He wondered if the Old Gods had given her the gift of ignorance with all the rest when They chose her.

He laughed, though there was no humor in it.

“What’s so funny?” the girl asked.


They marched on, boots crunching under the ash that coated the cobblestones. Still the girl looked ahead. The man grew envious.

* * *

On the outskirts of the city they found a holdfast. It was of a height with the city walls and seemed a mockery of the golden hall. The stones poked out at odd angles, hastily built by the Enemy whilst besieging the city. It was a wonder it was still standing. Each corner was marked with a spire, though its inside was too dark to ascertain any figures within its shoddy walls. The man checked the crenellations along the battlements for anyone inside.

There was a flash of movement, browning cloth fluttering behind. He dragged the girl roughly behind the city walls and told her to watch. She tried to ask questions, but her protests died on her lips as something emerged from the great stone structure. It was a bandaged form almost resembling a man, save for the lumps crawling across whatever lay inside the linen that covered its form.

“What was that?” the girl asked. “A corpse?”

“Swarm,” the man told her.

“What are Swarm?”

“Creatures enchanted by dark magic. Watch.”

There was movement again in the holdfast. The man watched one of the Swarm exiting the holdfast. It was wrapped in linen like a wrapped-up corpse that had returned to life. It had no eyes. Yet in a small hole where it should see through a spider poked through the bandages and then scuttled back inside. The thing moved in a grotesque mockery of the human form. Something scuttled out of an eyehole. A spider, big and red. It poked back in through the bandages and more came out, only to duck back in. The girl squeezed the man’s fingers until they went white.

“What’s inside those bandages?” the girl muttered.

“Spiders,” the man said. “Hundreds of them. Collectively making up a single Swarm.”

“How does it stay together,” the girl asked.

“I don’t know,” the man said. “Some kind of dark magic. I’ll not pretend to know the workings of the Enemy.”

“How do we stop them?”

“It might be time to use that fire,” the man said. “There’s Swarm down there. And Swarm don’t travel alone.”

“It’s not hurting anyone,” the girl protested.

“It’s going to hurt us if you don’t do something about it.”

“If I use the fire it’ll die.”

“That’s the idea.”

“I don’t want to kill things.”

The man set his jaw. “Okay.”



 * * *

The man had told the girl with the fire to stay inside the city walls. He told her to watch. He hoped she listened. He couldn’t chance to look over his shoulder. He reached for a dagger and tossed it sidearmed. The Swarm turned too late and the man’s blade bit cloth of its neck. It crumpled to the ground in a pile of bandages and insects.

Then there were screeches. Or as near as the Swarm could manage: a loud, long, clicking noise undercut by a high-pitched whistle

The man drew his sword as two more came out of the holdfast. And in the windows on the spires he descried dozens more descending the steps.

He cleft the first one met the first before it could raise its weapon and it crumpled in a spray of rags and spiders.

The other Swarm circled around, a spear at the ready and a spider crawling across the back of its hand only to disappear in the strip of cloth around its wrist. The man pivoted away as the spearhead flew past the bridge of his nose, opening its belly in the same motion.

Wounded, the Swarm advanced. But the man parried its counterstrike. It tried for another cut, but this, too, the man turned aside. Until at last the spiders had sloughed out from the opened bandages and it crumpled to the ground.

But he’d not time for respite. More were coming from all sides with axes and swords at the ready. He gave ground until found his back to the wall as the Swarm were converging on him. Some running, others scuttling on all fours, and more still crawling down the wall all browning linen and scurrying spiders. Clicks and whistles, clicks and whistles.

But at the last both spider and linen burst into flames and they hit the ground like sacks of flower.

The man did not stay to watch the rest of them die. Instead he stepped over the pile of burning rags and spiders, stopping only to retrieve his knife from the unburnt piles before he trudged back into the city.

The girl glowed as the light within her came pouring to the surface. Tears raced down her cheeks where they dried and steamed. “I didn’t want to kill them. I don’t want to be a murderer.”

“Ssssh. The Old Gods put fire in you, child. You don’t have a choice.”

The glow faded and he hugged her. She was hot to the touch and burned him, but he didn’t let go.



In Sight of Ravens #3

In Sight of Ravens

The man was moving constantly, always leading the girl along. And the girl followed, as if she were being dragged by the mere coercion of his will.

The man’s eyes were sightless with fatigue by midday. But he could not let the girl know that. He had lost all sense of time and movement. Everything except the hurt in his feet and the ache in his muscles.

That night, he found himself lying in twilight on the floor of the file of a path in the woods. The girl had woken him to offer him a bowl of cold broth. The last of such supplies. He gulped it down feeling as though he had dreamed the whole thing.

The man had them back on that trail at the first sign of light. He led the girl on.

Before the day was done, the man suspected that the girl had become an expert on his back. He made sure never to slouch. The girl might see that as a doubt of his authority. He did not offer her any commiseration. Though his muscles were fatigues and inarticulate in their movements. He was weary and rhythmic. But he could not let the girl know that.

He had a suspicion she already did.

His back compelled the girl like an ultimatum: keep moving or let the fire consuming; I permit no other alternatives.

And she could not deny him. He stalked ahead of her like a silhouette in a nightmare figure, and she followed as if catching up with him would bring her the secret to the fire she carried.

Throughout that whole day, the man stood erect as he continued on. He remained relentless and did not relax in his compulsion. The girl could not see the he was weary. He led her on. Up slopes and down hillsides, across glens, around thickets-along the western margin of the hills—he drew the girl onward against all odds. She never complained. It was not her way. She was too perplexed—or afraid—by all that was around her to see the use in complaining.

But early in the afternoon the stopped suddenly, looked about himself as if he had heard a distant cry. He was sure he had heard familiar clicks. An insect-like sound. The Enemy used them…no. The girl was beginning to see his anxiety. He shouldered their backs and started forward once again.

Late in the morning, they left the end of the file, and found themselves on a heathered hillside almost directly north of a high, grim finger of slab of stone. They could see the south plains off to the west; burnt black and as soon as the file ended, a stream of brown water turned that way, flowing to some distant union with all the other brown waters twisting serpentine about the land.

“Don’t drink,” the man said.

“I know,” the girl responded.

But at the last the man led the girl northward, toward the slab of stone, weaving his way along fragmentary tracks and across unpathed leas which bordered the hills on her right.

To the west, the grasslands of the plains were brittle with blackened bracken, though some of it seemed purplish in the sunlight. And to the east, the hills rose calmly, cresting a few hundred feet higher than the path which the man chose along their sides. In this middle ground, the heather alternated with broad swaths of bluegrass. The hillsides wore flowers and butterflies around thick copses of wattle and clusters of taller trees-oaks and sycamores, a few elms, and some gold-leaved trees which looked like almost but not quite like maples. All the colors—the trees, the heather, and bracken, the flowers, and the infinite azure sky-were vibrant with the blackness of the dark land. It was a scar upon the world. Nothing of beauty was allowed to grow.

The man crested the stony slab, and saw the walls to some great city off in the distance. The golden gates were charred with the remnants of a fire. He could smell what remained of ash and smoke even from the distance.

“Will there be people there?” The girl asked.

“No,” the man said. “Only us.”

They reached abandoned city by midday. He closed his hand around the hilt of his sword as they passed the gates. “Whatever happens,” he said, “Stay close.”

The girl followed him, holding onto his cloak.

The city was mostly burned like the trees before it. The last vestiges of wooden huts and thatch roofs had been fire-curled as if they shrank away from the man and the child. There was a golden hall atop a hill that was once the home of a great king and his riders. The only edifice built of stone and it rose as high as the city’s walls. On it was carved the likeness of a great stallion flanked by riders, and its roof was a dome of gleaming gold.

The same riders’ corpses now scabbed the street, dried to leather. The man wondered if they could come back here if they ran out of food. Strips of dried meat were easy to ration.

He did not let himself think any further down that road.

When he looked down an alleyway he saw patches of cloth with clusters of dead spiders inside. He knew what that meant. He knew who had ruined the horse lords’ city. Swarm. He scanned the roads and alleyways. Cloth and spiders laced the ground like patchwork. They were dead. He kept reminding himself they were dead.

But Swarm rarely traveled in small numbers. And there were more leathered corpses than there were patches of dead spiders. There was a reason this city fell.

He pulled the girl close to him.


In Sight of Ravens #2

In Sight of Ravens

The man and the girl with the fire inside her crunched along the cobblestones. The man said nothing and the girl continued her fantasy, every now and then glancing at his sword and forcing the memory of what had just happened back into his mind. He told himself he wouldn’t have drawn it, though he was not sure what it said of him that he needed to tell himself that.

“Where did you get that sword?” the girl asked.

“A corpse,” the man said. “I was hired to fight against the Enemy. But my employer went and got himself an arrow through his throat. It’s hard to pay a man when you’re dead. And I decided that a dead man has little and less uses for swords, so it’s mine now.”

“Does it have a name?”

The man laughed. He laughed and laughed, until his hands were braced on his knees. When he managed to compose himself, he knelt to be at eye level with the girl, who knitted her eyebrows in confusion.

“I’m sorry. I’m not laughing at you, girl. I swear it. You don’t know any better, but…listen, there are certain kinds of people that will tell you the best swords have names. These people are called morons. I’ve never understood the practice of naming swords. If I were to call it anything, I’d call it ‘Sharp’” The man left it at that and rose to continue onward.

But the girl wouldn’t follow. “If it did have a name,” she called, “What would it be?”

The man unsheathed his sword. It was polished, but there was no sunlight to reflect it. He checked the wolf on the pommel and the leather grip. “Steel is a special sort of magic,” he mused, and then sheathed his blade again. “I’d call it Sharpwand.”

The girl grinned at that, and rushed to catch up with him.

“Come,” the man said. “We must away.”

* * *

Two miles farther on the valley gave way to cobblestones, and the cobblestones led them to a tavern. Scorch marks clawed their way up the side of the building, and there was a five foot long black-and-pink lump nearby that the man ignored and the girl didn’t ask about. They stood there and studied it.

“Let’s have a look,” the man said.

“I don’t want to,” said the girl.

“There’s nothing left inside. There may be beds. We could—”

“No!” The girl said. The fire flared beneath her eyes.

“Okay,” the man said, “Let’s move on.”

* * *

On the far side of the river valley was a black burn of a forest. Charred tree trunks stretched and curved at odd angles. The meadow-lands just beyond the tree trunks were old and gray and spotted with small pools of muck. They traveled through the black burn, stepping carefully around the muck. They were in the Enemy’s country, and the Enemy made could make traps of anything.

Soon they crested a hill, and there the man stopped, cold wind lashing his face. He pulled his hood up and urged the girl to do the same. He looked at her.

“I’m okay,” she said. She pulled her cloak about herself.

“I’m sorry,” the man said.


“Because the Old Gods chose you to carry the fire. And they chose me as your guide.”

The girl wrapped her hand around two of his fingers. “What’s wrong with you?”

The man said nothing. And then, “We should keep moving.”

* * *

They found a rock that speared the apex of a hill, filling its descent with shadow. The thunder was booming. They took shelter under the rock and watched the gray sheets of rain blow over the valley below. The girl shivered, and the man asked her why she didn’t conjure her fire.

“I don’t want to,” she said. “Fire kills. I don’t want to kill things.”

“Fire has other uses.”

She wrapped her cloak about herself and hugged her knees to her chest. “Not for me.”

When it had cleared they opened up their bedrolls and supplies and all that they would need for the night. They went back up the hill and made their camp in the damp grass under the rocks. The girl asked to share his bedroll, so they did. He made her grab her short sword first. He put his arms around her, but when she shivered anyway, he gave her his cloak. He did not sleep that night. The dark was a shroud about them. But there were some who liked the dark.

Those who liked the dark didn’t like them. But the girl would know that before the journey was over.

* * *

The girl took a long while to get to sleep. In the blackness he felt her roll over to face him. The rain had matted her hair to her forehead. “Can I ask a question?”

“What is it?”

“Are we going to die?”

“Yes. Not now, but yes.”

“They say the Enemy’s fortress is filled with fire that doesn’t burn, don’t they?” the girl asked.

“They do.”

“Would that make it warm?”

“I suppose so.”

“I’d like to be warm.”

“I know.”

And then later: “Can I ask another question?”


“What would you do if I died?”

The man didn’t answer at first. “I would die too.”


“Because I’m supposed to keep you safe. If I fail in this life, mayhaps I could succeed in the next. All right?”

“All right.”

* * *

He woke before dawn and watched the day break. The sky turned from gray to pink to blue. He rose while the girl slept. She had folded his cloak for him and put it by her unused bedroll sometime in the night. He shook his head as he retrieved it and fastened it about his shoulders. He decided he would very much like to strangle the Old Gods who made this girl’s veins burn. Of all people they chose a child. Why? The Old Gods had said he could not understand Their will. But if Their will was to march children off into war, he wanted no part of Them.

After this war was over, of course.


In Sight of Ravens #1

In Sight of Ravens

The man in black trailed through the burnt, black trees, and the girl with the fire followed.

The wind whipped the man’s cloak, stirring the fur sewn about its shoulders and hurling it back so that its end tickled the girl’s nose.

She quickened her pace, scampering to his side. The air smelled of acrid smoke that made the girl prone to coughing.

They would not survive long if the girl remained weak. There were fouler things than smells in these burnt, black lands.

They came to a clearing amidst the forest. The man dropped his bedroll and then the girl’s. Had taken to carrying both their packs. The girl carried the fire. That was enough. Last he dropped his sword. The girl stared into the red eyes of the wolf on his pommel. This, too, was a habit she had formed during her travels with him. A question formed on her lips, but before she could noise it, the man spoke.

“We’ll bed here for the night.” The wind unclung the ash that hugged the trees and sent it sailing toward them.

“Why in a clearing? Wouldn’t we be spotted? Isn’t there anywhere safer to sleep?”

“Nothing is safe,” the man said. “Not here.”

* * *

When he awoke that night it was dark and cold. He flexed his hand to bring back feeling, then he reached to touch the child sleeping beside him. He didn’t realize he’d been holding his breath until he felt her beside him and let it out with his relief.

The sky was a color of a bruise and seemed to grow blacker toward their destination in the west. The dark tower rose in the sky, its windows glowing red as the light of forge-fires.

The man pushed his blankets away blankets and rose, wrapping his cloak about himself. He buckled his swordbelt about his waist and went off in search of game he was not like to find.

He couldn’t sleep anyway.

One dream had come to him that night, but since then nothing. He had dreamed the child had led him to a cave full of crystals. It was nonsense. The stuff of bedtime stories of adventurers who quested and came back with riches untold. She had yet to learn that her dreams were not real. Only her  nightmares. Crystal caves were filled with beasts like giant spiders, the man knew. But the child would know, too. She’d know soon enough.

* * *

The man returned to the girl and found her still asleep, wrapped up in her bedroll. The man crouched over her and tugged at her blanket. A quick, sharp pull to test her reflexes.

The girl had taken to sleeping with her short sword by her side. When he’d started testing her, she was slow to hone her defenses, waking only to fumble to retrieve the blade from the sheath.

It had been different, of late. The blade was pointed at the man before he’d a chance to sit back on his heels. The test had almost cost the man his head. He saw the child’s eyes glow. The fire was burning in her veins; held at bay by her will alone.

Recognition came, then. The glow faded and the fire sank below the surface of the child’s skin. She lowered her short sword.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“Don’t be,” said the man. “You’re learning.”

* * *

An hour later they were on the trail. He carried their bedrolls and supplies and the child carried the fire that the Old Gods had put inside her. If they had to run, the man could easily abandon their supplies. But the fire was a different matter entirely. It could not be abandoned.

But the girl had not yet mastered the art of pulling her fire into the world. Not in a way that permitted control, at least.

The man resented that the Old Gods hadn’t bothered to teach her. The Enemy worked to make a ruin of Their world, but the Old Gods in their pride had declared it was beneath Them to teach her.

He decided that he did not much care for higher powers.

The two crested a hill and the trees died with the path, so they followed the suggestion of one. The man shifted the pack higher on his shoulders and looked out over what had once been a far green country. The Enemy had taken it upon themselves to undo that. “The horse lords once lived here,” he told the girl. “Before the war began. Before the Enemy invaded.”

“What happened to them?”

“They died.” Dry, withering grass crunched underfoot.

Now the land was empty. Below them was a valley cut through by a serpentine river. “Don’t go close to the water,” he cautioned. “And don’t drink from it.” Flanking its sides were gray dead weeds, wrinkled and writhing. They set out down the valley, the grass weighted with wind and bowing to their progression.

The girl’s cloak snapped behind her. A war banner.

* * *

They crossed the river by way of an old stone bridge. The river chuckled below them. “Don’t look down,” the man said.

“I wasn’t going to,” said the girl as she looked down.

They approached the apex of the bridge when the man reached out to hold the girl back.

“What is it?” she asked.

“Obsidian,” he said, pointing to the shards scattered about the bridge. “There shouldn’t be any obsidian there.”

The girl stood on her toes to get a look at them. “It looks sharp,” she said.

“That is so. Stay here, girl.” He started forward.

“What’s wrong?” the girl asked. She started forward, and the man whirled around. Seeing the threat in his eyes, she withdrew.

“When I tell you to stay, you stay. Understand?”

The girl nodded. “But why?”

“There could be trolls.”

“Trolls don’t live under bridges.”

“You’d be surprised.” He reached the apex of the bridge and withdrew his longsword. He made for what may come. His heartbeat throbbed in his ears, and he took his next step, descending.

He readied himself for any sign of danger ahead. He imagined a hand rising up from the stone and dragging him through the bridge. He would tell the girl the run and she would. She would run away from that bridge and make it to the Enemy’s tower, where it would all end.

And he would drown in some unnamed river in the middle of a scorched land. It would be over.

His boots crunched over the obsidian and nothing came. They obsidian was the memory of some battle long ago, he realized. There was nothing left to hurt them, so he sheathed his blade. “Follow me,” he said.

She crossed the bridge after him.

* * *

The valley sped downwards, and then turned suddenly up. The slope was steep and the man felt he was climbing more than hiking.

He stole the occasional glance over his shoulder to make sure the girl was still following. She had made a game out of her climb, though the man could not have said what this game was. She made strange noises and imitated voices as she climbed.

At length, he realized that her noises were a child’s imitation of war. The “Fwsh, fwsh” she would mutter before lying flat against the slope was an imitation of arrow flights. The hisses of whispers were her pretending to shout orders to soldiers that were not there.

She was playing at war in the midst of one.

The man climbed over the precipice and was greeted by a cobblestoned road.

The girl came up after him, muttering in pretend voices and rejoicing in pretend victories. “Let’s go,” she said, and scampered ahead of him.

“Slow down!” The man called after her.

“You can’t catch me!”

“Slow down!” He barked again. His hand had gone to his hilt, though he hadn’t realized until he saw the look on the girl’s face. Deliberately, he made his grip go slack, his hand drop to his side. “You can’t go too far ahead. I can’t lose you.”

“I’m sorry,” the girl said.

“Don’t apologize. There is no sorrow in your first mistake. Make it again, and we’ll discuss apologies.”

The girl nodded and went back to her pretend war. The man decided he’d let her have her fantasies. For now, at least. Soon, he knew, the war would come to her. And she was not like to play pretend when that day came.