It is snowing, deep in the mountains. Clouds like curdled milk lace the sky, and fat flakes of blinding white drift past my window and pile up on a soft bank outside the door. The fire crackles in the hearth, and I watch the flames leap and dance amongst the coals. The stone walls take far too long to warm, and I am the only one who lives within them. While it is hardly a comfortable life I lead, I am content. There is peace here, high above the rest of the world, that I rarely find elsewhere. The village folk do not ask about me, used as they are to those of my kind.
A sound startles me from my thoughts, and I tense, instinctively ducking below the window. Someone is climbing up the path to my cabin. I hear the sound of boots trudging through the snow, and then a familiar curse catches me off balance.
I did not expect it to be him. But here he is.
A knock sounds on the door faster than I expect it to. I get off the chair, reluctant to leave the warmth of the fire, and open the door. There he stands. Snow glides smoothly off his hair, and slides off his clothes. As he enters the house he tracks no slush, nor does he leave a trail of water behind him. His face glows like the fire in my hearth. Naturally, he does not wait for me to speak before he does.
"This place, Rin. It's the end of the world! For Ayva's sake, why do you abide here?" He casts a scornful eye around the spartan furnishings.
"You don't live here," I reply. "Why complain?"
He glares at me. "That is hardly the point!"
I lift my eyebrows in mock surprise. "And what brings you here? Get on with it, and get out."
"Such ice, Rin! Mightn't I have come out of concern for you?"
I smile. It is not a happy smile. I began to speak, but the door he failed to close has brought draft in with it. And the cold air is not the passing inconvenience it would once have been. The cold tickles something deep within my chest, and I begin to cough. The coughing fit lasts for a great deal longer than it should, the spasms wracking my frame so much so that I feel weak after they are over. I walk past him, staggering slightly, to push the door shut. I lean against it and close my eyes momentarily, then move to the chair beside the hearth and sit down. I ache in a way that has become far too familiar to me. A footfall sounds far too close to my chair, and I look up. I would like to say that it is concern that shadows his face, but I have known him too long and far too well. It is avarice. Fear, maybe, that I should die before I have exhausted my usefulness to him. Well. It is of no matter now.
I straighten up, and a fresh wave of pain ripples across my back. I wince, more in shame than actual agony. It is hardly pleasing to be reminded of one's infirmities.
"What happened to you?" His voice is softer than I thought it would be.
"We all get old, Fychan. Some of us faster than others."
"You are hardly old! And you won't have me believe -"
"That is hardly the issue here." I feel a traitorous tickle in my throat. I clamp down on it. He stands before me in the firelight. And in its warm and gentle glow, he seems more a child than a man. His face is as boyish as I remember it, and the lock of hair he kept because the girls liked it still curls past his forehead. I remember with a pang that he is still a child, in many respects. How many years have gone by since I left the House? They seemed long enough to me. But truly. I frown slightly as I remember. They were but seven years. Seven years is not such a long time. Fychan, if I remember it right. has just passed his majority, at the most. So. he is still very young.
As if noting my appraising glance, he straightens almost unconsciously. His hands clasp behind his back, and he begins to speak in terse, quick tones. I chuckle to myself and wonder if he knows that he has assumed the stance of reporting to me. Acceding seniority to me. We used to fight about that all the time, when we were younger. There was only a year between us, but he made it seem like a century, and would take great delight in using the privilege of age to order me around.
"As late as this fall past, the holdings have been struck with a series of. incidents."
He does not look at me, but away from me, and he certainly does not meet my eyes.
"Father thought it was just the serfs and their imaginations, at first. Their superstitious imaginations running wild. They said that. Rebbec had risen, and walked the earth once more."
Even to hear him say the name brought a prickle of fear up my spine.
"They call her the Queen of Knives. The Maiden of Anguish." Did I detect a tremor in his voice?
"They wouldn't go to work. Even during the Harvest time."
I could understand how Father would be furious.
"They stayed indoors, and refused to go outdoors. They were terrified! Father didn't know, he didn't look! But Dirassa, Aseigan, Aoi and I went out to the holdings and had a look. And they told us the same thing. All of them. That they'd seen her. Some of the ancient ones - like Mael, they called her Rebbec. Devourer of Souls. They wouldn't say much, but what we did get sounded frightening enough. Father wanted to force them into the fields to work. They wept and shook and said no matter what he did to them, what she could do would be far worse."
"I won't believe Father let it go like that," I said.
A ghost of a smile played at his mouth. "You got him right, Rin. He hired slaves from Jamuura. They worked all right, for a time. Then -"
"And then the attacks started," I said, watching him intensely.
He glanced over his shoulder. The weak afternoon sun was obscured by a veil of scudding clouds. He swallowed convulsively.
"Horrible. Just horrible. Father had to believe them then."
"What was it like?" I asked softly.
"One afternoon we came up to see how it was going, and there the slaves were. Standing in the middle of the fields. Not working. We went to them. And they attacked us. We fought them off for a time, and managed to get away. And then the folk of the holdings, their words got back to us. The soulless ones, they called them. Rebbec's Own, Mael called them."
"What really happened to them?"
He flicked me a wry grin. "Like the folk called it. Soulless. The slaves became. animals."
"Did they lose their minds?"
"Not in the sense one would usually define it. They were. smart enough, after a fashion. Intelligent enough. They certainly ran down prey well enough. But you couldn't reason with them anymore. You looked into their eyes, and you'd see. nothing. Nothing there. No mind. Nothing. And Aya? Remember how he was like?"
I nodded imperceptibly. Aya, my nephew, had one of the gifts. He could sense thoughts. He could see souls. A talent. And a curse.
"Well, he took one look at them and he ran away screaming. We got him, later, and he was wild with fear. He said he'd looked into them and found nothing. A void at the center of their beings. And he couldn't believe they existed. Things that walk that should not walk. Things that are that should not be. That was what he said."
"Poor Aya," I whispered.
"And then it - she - began attacking the folk of the holdings."
"Oh, Ayva, no."
"Oh, yes. The village was gone in a week. More mindless. things. to walk the land. And they'd fight, too. Among themselves. For food. Clothes. Houses. Anything. It was awful. And then they'd roam about - and cause more damage. Awful."
He lapses into silence, and I have to prompt him, "Did you see how it was spread?"
"No. It always happened at night. And you know what the holdings are at night."
True. No sane person would be out at night. When darkness fell, the shadows rose: ghasts, the D'aar beasts, and sometimes, if it was truly your day to die, the Al'shadran. But then, sometimes, no matter what you do - something darker comes for you.
"What would you say it is?"
His eyes flicker uncertainly to mine. I feel a flicker for the cocky youngster he used to be, the one who would loudly insist his view was the sole correct one, and would not scruple to use force to prove it, even on me. I nod slightly, and he says, "I think they were right. Rebbec. It must be." He seems to draw into himself even further, and the shadows against the wall flicker fitfully. Afternoon is turning into dusk.
"What does it matter now?" He whispered. And it was only then that I noticed how very tired he looked.
"Why?" I asked, dreading to know the answer.
"The holdings. They're all gone. And the Keep. It's fallen."
"No!" I cried, staring at him in horror. "That can't be!"
"It fell," he stated, quietly and implacably. "Last night. A gyr-falcon got to me. The family's gone. Everyone's gone. Except you, Rin." His voice echoed hollowly about the room. It seemed like such a small sound. So seemingly powerless, for what it had done to my life. It had destroyed something I'd held unconsciously as the edifice of my mind - the family. Always, I'd thought, no matter where I was, or what I had done, they would be there. Even if we were miles apart, they would stand, and the family, our family, would endure the ages, together.
But they had not.
Yet I resisted, held back that wave of grief that threatened to swamp my mind. A new and ugly thought was beginning to form in my mind.
At my call he swiveled round to face me.
"You said, 'Everyone's gone. Except you, Rin.' Where does that leave you?"
Consternation warred with despair on his face. "What do you mean? Rin? You and I, that's what I meant!" Yet a wild light had begun to spark in his eyes, a light that told me the truth his voice could no longer say.
"I should ask, what do you mean?" I lifted my eyes and met his. "Rebbec."
Something dark flared up behind his eyes, and as I steeled myself, he came towards me, sword out.
No time for thoughts now. No time to worry about what machinations had been set in motion that day. This was what I had been born to do. I drew my sword.
I was not fighting kin. I was not fighting family. If I was to die today, it would not be under Fychan's blade. His will did not go with his sword. It was not him I fought. Rebbec had touched his soul, and rode him as a parasite rides its host, all the way to Harrogath. And now she had shrugged off all pretence at humanity.
She was much faster than Fychan had ever been. Deadlier, too. But of course. This was Rebbec. Queen of Knives. Knives that could cut deeper than any blade could ever do. She was a poison made to maim, not to kill. A festering wound that could drain a soul free of the prison of the body. She was as eternal as the sky above my head, as the darkness that was falling ever-faster outside.
She darted past my side. A cut opened up high on my arm, and I cursed mentally. I leapt back, but she was with me every step of the way. I parried and she countered, the clash of our swords sounding over the silence of the mountains. Blow for blow, she was as fast as I, if not faster. I tried not to think of Fychan. He was dead already. It was not him I fought, but a far deadlier foe.
Exhaustion was creeping up on me as surely as the night crept up on the day outside. My breathing sounded labored to my own ears. I swung and missed. Her sword sliced open another cut, this time a shallow one on my side. I hissed. That had nearly gotten me. I fell to my knees on the floor, and raised my head to look at her through my hair as it fell to cover my eyes. She came for the final blow, and as she lifted the sword to slice off my head, I ducked beneath her and ran her through. I pulled clear to just miss the sword as it sped past me.
Rebbec's essence deserted the body as it died. I watched the darkness drain from its eyelids as I knelt a safe distance from Fychan's body. Life flickered within him for a while, long enough for him to smile - a true smile, from the child I had grown up with, the boy I had fought with, and finally, the man I had killed.
Fychan, my brother.
And then he died.
I did not have the strength to bury him that night, nor would I the following day. It was only on the third day after he had come to see me did I carry him out to the wayward pine behind my cabin, and bury him beneath the tree he loved best as a child.
I stood for a long time watching the mountains from the cabin. They are grey and eternal, and they reach high enough to brush the very top of the world. And it is said that the top of the world is where Heaven is. And there it is that Ayva watches over us, and in her eyes, none of us is too lacking for her love, and every one of us, no matter what sin we have committed, is worthy of her forgiveness if we should so prove that to be true. It is said that Rebbec has the most beautiful eyes anyone has ever seen. And that if anyone should look too long at them, they will become lost, mesmerized by what they see within. And then Rebbec will take their souls. And their lives.
What she truly is lies close enough to the name she has chosen for herself. Regret is an ugly thing. Yet it pretends to offer hope and beauty in a vision of the past long gone. Regret can shackle you with chains far stronger and far more binding than corporeal ones. In looking back on the past he can never change, a man may lose himself so much so that he never sees all that the future can offer him. In wishing for all that he never did, he forgets all that he can still do. In wanting to be the man he never was, he forgets the man he is. In his dream of how the future should have been, he neglects the power he still has to change it. That is why she is so dangerous. So many lives have been lost in her hands, as men turn to regret and the what ifs? of yesterday.
So the war against her goes on.
And today, I join it.