Over the cliff, down below, lay the remains of a terrific battle. Smoke from various fires spread itself on the wind, funnelling through the valley on its way to the ocean, far to the east.

Across the valley were rising foothills, a natural barrier to foot soldier and cavalry alike, reaching up to the snow-tipped peaks of the Karluk mountain range. Beyond these, far to the north, lay barren, cold-swept plains, lands of ever-frost, where mysterious peoples eked out a living on the ice and snow.

West, away from the wandering smoke, lay the town of Vernont, protected to the north by the mountains, to the west and south by forests and Lake Okanagan, and to the east by this valley, into which an invading army had come—and from which broken survivors now staggered away.

In the valley itself lay hundreds of dead and wounded: some horses, but mostly human. Almost all were alive, at least for a time. They suffered in silence, or in screaming; some for their mothers, some for an end to the pain, all without hope. There had been no victor here. The invading army, broken so badly those alive and well-enough to move now worked their way, alone or in small groups, back to the ocean, to many empty boats, most of which would not be filled again when they crossed back over the shallow sea. The victors, by default, wandered back home, some to town and their families, some instead to the home of the Baron, nestled above Vernont in the mountain foothills, to report what had happened, to seek care, and food and water.

To the south a low cliff rose from the valley floor. There was the sound of rocks coming loose and a hand suddenly appeared over the edge. A large hand, powerful, caked with blood, a scar running down it from the index finger to the wrist, then beyond, disappearing behind the cuff of a rough cotton shirt.

Another hand appeared, reaching further away from the cliff’s edge than its companion. More sounds of rock coming free and tumbling to the valley below.

Now a head appeared, then a torso, and, with a series of low grunts, a man pulled himself over the edge and stood, looking back over the ruins of battle.

He was dirty and unkempt, and quite covered in blood. Clearly he had taken part in the carnage below. For a time he stood quietly. There was a hemp rope tied around his waist, which traced down, beyond his feet, and disappeared over the ledge in front of him. Now his gaze shifted to the east and then west, then back, one after the other, as if to say in the negative in slow motion, before he finally turned and faced south.

Here a plain spread out before him, sinking slowly in elevation before ending at an impressive forest, beyond which remained a mystery. He stood quietly for a time, surveying those trees. His eyes were green, but with shards of grey. Not so much intense as they were weary. His face was mostly hidden behind a full beard, though a scar ran from just beneath his left eye and down into the wild growing mess of his beard, leaving an obvious furrow, before becoming lost to view near the edge of his chin.

A big man, and stocky. Not the sort of person one would wish to encounter in town at evening on a dimly-lit street. Nor on a battlefield.

His surveying of the forest concluded, he turned to face the cliff edge once more, this time sitting down. He wedged his leather boots into convenient outcroppings of rock. Then he began to heave on the hemp line, grunting with the effort of each pull.

At one point he stopped, suddenly, and turned his head quickly to examine the treeline, perhaps a hundred meters away. He remained motionless as he did, the heavy burden of the rope turning his knuckles white with the strain.

He saw nothing, heard nothing, except the occasional trill of birdsong. Slowly, like someone struggling out of a fugue, he turned back to the rope and continued hauling.

Not long after—the cliff was no more than twenty metres from the valley floor—something shiny flashed as it peeked over the edge. With one last grunt and heave, it came over the ledge completely and lay at his feet.

It was a suit of plate armour, a sword, and a large pack. Impossibly heavy for anyone to carry while free-climbing, even for a person of such a stature as his.

The man, clearly some kind of soldier, removed the rope from his waist, and then the bundle. He carefully coiled up the hemp and attached it to the rear of his pack. His movement was deliberate and careful, the sign of a person who understood hurry helps nothing but the cause of the hurrying.

Now he stood again and pulled his belongings onto his back. The plate armour, despite being covered in blood and dirt, despite being scored and dented, glinted in the evening light as it caught the rays of the setting sun. He took a few more minutes to survey the field of carnage below. Now the desperate had entered the field of battle, to take whatever they found of use or value off the fallen; quietly from the dead and hopeless, with violence when necessary from those with any fight left in them. There was no shortage of spear or axe, sword or rock, to dispatch those not willing to part with what was once theirs.

He turned from the valley and made his way toward the trees. The tip of his large sword slipped down, beneath the plate armour attached to the outside of his pack, nearly scraping on the ground. The sloping plain lead him to the trees, making the valley behind appear like a great scar carved out of a rolling hill on its way to the mountains.

He knew scars.

Once inside the treeline the world became intimate. The trees seemed venerable, covered in moss and lichens on their northern sides, and the undergrowth, as always this far north, was limited, making walking through it no great difficulty.

After thirty minutes of travel he came across a massive tree, which lay fallen among its comrades. Life had made enthusiastic use of its broken body. Insects and moss, likens and vine plants bespeckled its swollen and rotting trunk, like a carnival without limit. He even heard some small animals scurry away, so he reminded himself to set snares before the light was gone.

And it was coming, the dark. When he looked up through the canopy of trees he could see rain clouds had darkened the sky, snatching away much of the fading light.

He set down his pack at the end of the fallen tree, where a riot of roots had been torn out of the ground as the giant fell. This made a natural covering for him to use for the night.

As the first drops of rain began to touch the forest canopy’s leaves—there would be no snares set tonight—he pulled out some large oilskins from his pack and set up a lean-to, using the fallen tree’s roots. He used foraged tree branches to fill the depression caused when the roots were pulled from the ground at the great tree’s end, then covered these with pine needles and creeping vines. With a second oilskin on top, he’d made a comfortable bed for the night.

Moving more quickly now, as the light was almost gone, he started a fire with dead moss and leaves, using the flint from his pack.

And as the rain fell in earnest, he got comfortable on his bed, dry beneath the oilskin stretched above him, and settled down to sleep.

No food. No water. No matter. Hardship could no longer reach him. In only a few minutes, even as his mind tried to fill the flickering firelight with ghosts from his past, he had fallen asleep. There, the ghosts could come at him without mercy, but the next daylight’s drink of Lethe would let him forget.


The morning came softly, birds singing and insects buzzing, all to the backdrop of a gentle wind playing among the trees. This slowly overtook the unrelenting hell-scape of his dreams, until the sounds of screaming became the crooning of a raven’s song.

He opened his eyes, letting the world of light wash away the nightmares. He could see through the canopy of the forest, into the bluing sky. The sun had not yet risen above the horizon, but its presence was soon, and eagerly anticipated by all the life down below on the forest floor.

Despite being hungry, and thirsty, and without kin, the embrace of this forest was more home to him than a warm log cabin, this place where the living strives against the living in never-ending struggle.

He would have to rise, soon, and place the weight of misfortune, called life, heavy upon his shoulders once more. But for this moment, he paused.

Then, with a sigh he turned to one side and began to map out his day. First renew the fire, then find water, then set the snares, and, finally, forage what food he could. It was as the sages say: before the truth, cut wood, fetch water; after the truth, cut wood, fetch water.

“Very profound. You should probably clean your armour, too.”

Laying next to him was a girl, not yet a woman, her nose mere centimetres from his own. In shock, and silently berating himself for letting down his guard so completely, he rolled away from her, his sword clutched in his hand—he slept with it beneath him for a reason—and rose to his feet, taking hold of the weapon with both hands.

The girl remained where she was, only raising herself up on one arm, her face turned up to look at him. She did not so much as flinch as the long sword hovered above her, ready to strike, its tip a full three meters of arc above her unprotected head.

“That, you would regret,” she continued, sitting upright and crossing her legs beneath her.

“Sorcery!” he spat, realizing this creature had responded to his thoughts. He had not spoken aloud.

“Yes, your mind is like a child’s story. How did you manage to get so old, being so transparent?” She looked off to her left, at something he could neither see nor hear, and when she turned back he realized there were no twigs and leaves and vines in her hair, as he’d first thought, but rather, there was only her shoulder-length hair, a mottled brown.

He lowered his sword until the hilt met his stomach. A defensive posture. The girl did not seem threatening, but as he gazed at her, with the growing sunlight beginning to filter more through the trees, he could see there was something altogether off. At moments, when stuck by the light of the sun, the skin of her face appeared supple. Yet a moment later, as the wind put her face back into shadow, like something far more rigid.

Her dress was… odd. Under the sunlight it looked like a beautiful silk gown, oddly mottled with dark and yellow patches, but generally more pale than her skin. And yet, in the shadows, how much it resembled the bark of a poplar tree, like one might find in this very forest.

Once he had seen a gittern crafted by a master luthier, from a tree known as Rosewood, which came from a forest many months of travel away, including the crossing of an ocean. The instrument had been made for the court of a king, and utterly remarkable. The sounds it made were without peer, and it smelled gently of roses. The artist who created this marvel had let him touch it, and his fingers had never felt something so smooth. A touch almost erotic.

But what struck him most was the colour of the grain. It varied from a red so deep it was like the smouldering ash of a dying fire, to near black, and back again. This was what the girl’s eyes seemed to be made of, with large, black pupils, eyes that seemed to pierce his mind, compelling him to… to what?

The tip of his sword swung slowly to the side, until it kissed the earth. He still held the hilt with one hand, but no longer firmly, no longer like a soldier. No, his grasp was now soft and gentle, like a caress. The almost-girl smiled, and his heart felt like it would burst out of his ribs.

“Fae,” he managed. Then the sword slipped from his hand, the world slipped into blackness, and he managed nothing more.

*featured image credit: DALL·E 2