Nera thought she had never seen a man so strong, which was funny, really. The rocks Johr piled onto the cairn were so small. She sat with her back to his travel bags and watched him wander across the blasted land in search of stones. Pulling her cloak around her shoulders the wind played with the expensive fur of the collar and hood. She squinted into the dimming light as Khor’s chariot raced west.
The light of the day faded away and still her guide laboured to shape the cairn. She knew only too well what it was like to lose a brother. The Wastes were no place to bury loved ones, but sometimes the gods do not give you a choice.
Johr placed another stone and stood still with an air of finality about him. He nodded once and murmured some words in his Northern tongue. Nera was too far away to hear them but she could feel their intention. She let her eyes trace the furs concealing his broad shoulders, down to the visibly callous palms, bare to the wind. She watched as his head turned and caught her eye. Her breath caught in her throat and her heart wrenched in a way which she was wholly unaccustomed. She wanted nothing more than to seize his hand and run back across the Goblin Wastes. Under the wisps of her chestnut hair her ears lit with heat: she wished she could abandon everything and fly until the clay and sand of this place turned into the rolling green of Verrayne.
She drew her eyes away from Johr and let a sigh escape. There was no purpose in letting herself linger on such foolishness. There were her ancestors to consider. She had paid both Johr and his brother handsomely and in full, far in advance. They had already sent their shares back north to their wives before they set off on her journey.
Without noticing she lightly chewed on her lip, remembering the way the brothers had stood on a wet morning three weeks past, swearing on their father’s gods to shield her life. They vowed to escort Nera to her ancestral keep before the lunar eclipse marked the beginning of the Axe Festival, or to die trying. Die trying. It had seemed funny to Nera, once. But she had been a stupid girl.
Now he was all she had left.
Johr returned from his brother’s resting place, hoping his charge could not see the stiffness he was concealing. Nothing the goblins had thrown at him in the melee had pieced his leathers but his body was bruised. He bit down a grimace and sat. The dust and blood over his armor were marks of prowess. The blood that stained the hard lines of his face and matted the rough bind of his beard – that was something different. It was his brother’s blood, his own blood. And grief had put it there.
Nera watched in silence as he sawed a dagger through the tangle on his face. When only sticky stubble remained he carefully passed the edge of his blade. Her brow furrowed in pity knowing he would not spare a drop of their water to ease his work. She wanted to say something, but everything she could think to say felt like an injury.
Wincing he crawled to her side. Nera craned her neck, the wind sending dust about them. There was no wonder in the heavens, here in the Wastes. Only cold light and the creep of death.
“Definitely no fire tonight. There might be more of them out there,” he said apologetically. “But I’ll keep you warm, I promise.” At that he reached his fur cloak around her and, cheeks tinged red with embarrassment, pulled her close to his side.
Nera turned her eyes to him and fashioned a gentle smile. “I understand.” She paused, trying to think of an appropriate way to share in his heartbreak.
Johr’s eyes darted about her face and mistook the uncertainty he found there.
“I will not fail you.” It was a grim absolution.
Nera found his hand and wrapped her fingers like creeping vines as far around as she could.
“I know.” She whispered in reply, turning her body to meet his.
She awoke with a frantic flutter, prophetic dreams burnt away by the first sight of dawn. Johr sat beside her. Immediately it was clear he had not slept. Exhaustion clung to his raw face like the pallor of death. Alarmed she arose on her delicate arms.
“Johr you need to sleep some. At least a little. I can watch. Please.” She demanded gently, trying desperately to read his expression. What if he had been wounded worse than she thought? She felt a tremble spread like a fever down her arms. Please, she begged the heavens, Please spare him.
He said nothing at first but curled onto the furs.
“If you see anything…” he began, but passed out before he could say a word more.
Nera lifted his head gingerly onto her thigh. A song came to her as her fingers drifted through his hair. It was a Northern song. A love song. She tried to remember what he said his wife looked like, from his stories, but he had said so little.
That made her smile.
When Johr finally stirred the Wastes was a glare of sunlight. Shielding his eyes with a fist he searched for Nera. He wiped blood from his cracked lips and willed himself to his feet. The sun was at its zenith; she had let him sleep far too long.
“Nera,” he called hoarsely, “We have much ground to cover still.”
She returned to him, walking across charred clay. The wind that blew past carried hushed cries of anguish across both time and space. He wondered at Nera’s strength. Johr had always found Caelmarans to be a sad folk in his travels and he could only imagine what this place must be doing to her heart. He thought of his own ancestral homeland, eternal mountains and forests that would forever overshadow the accomplishments of men. He shook his head looking about the emptiness. What madness would cause a people to do this to themselves?
As they set off he worried. She was too young, too green for this hell. He would have to distract her as best as he could from the pain of this blighted place.
For the many days that they trekked he told her the story of his life. He told her of his foolhardy youth, of finding a life in Mavros, whom his father had called Thor. He enchanted her with tales of the men he had conquered and those who had tried against his life. He spoke fondly of his brother, Edmor, who had loved many women and had been a skald of little compare.
He told her of his pilgrimage to Mavros’s Seat, how he and his brother survived the winding length of the Bone Road. He described the relief of finally spotting the tents and how sweet that sour lake’s water had tasted on a parched tongue. It was he who took his father’s blade up the Steps and laid his father’s iron and memory to rest in the flames of the crucible.
Nera took in his every word. Johr had never felt as proud in his life as he did hiking those last miles.
As they rose upon a black dune as the sun set, the Moon and the Mage’s Stars ascended. Beneath it lay the ruins of her ancestral keep. Once it must have been grand, Nera thought. But now it is nothing but shattered stone.
Visible from the dune was the narrow path that led deeper. It was an icy defile, open to the wounded air of the Wastes, a maze to lead them to her ancestor’s sanctum. She took measured steps down the black sand bank as the wind whipped the fine cloth of her cloak violently against her shins. Johr followed.
Standing at the mouth of the gorge she stared down the throat of her past. Fear began to grab her heart like the enchanted frost of this place, and she turned suddenly to face Johr.
“This is a mistake. Johr, I’m such a fool for thinking I could.” She said quickly, nervous terror creeping into her voice. The wind blew her hair from her face as she placed her hands over her mouth. She could feel a presence below.
Johr laughed, nudging Nera’s shoulder with his hand.
“Do not be silly. Mavros took my brother but the gods surely favour you. Look, girl, you are here without a scratch. The gods want this of you. I do not think there are many alive who would go this far for filial piety.” He brought his hand up to touch the cool of her face.
“You deserve this.”
She could see now that he was going to kiss her, and that gave her the strength to turn from him. He followed her into the claustrophobic maze feeling, somehow, that he had said the wrong thing.
The moon rose to its full glory, and its light lit their way. By the time they had navigated out of the narrow pass the moon was almost at its darkest. The Festival was nigh.
The passage opened into a circular chamber which seemed to retain some of its old glory. No sand dared fall through the exposed ring at its summit. In the center was a raised altar in the flat shape of Selles, the ancient moon. Set into the chamber floor and encircling the Altar of Selles were the Mage’s Stars. Six of them were brightly alight with the prismatic glow of elemental energies, and the seventh was beginning to glow.
There is little time.
Johr walked hesitantly clockwise around the arcane craft only to return to her side. He looked down at her small face, feeling the courage of Mavros running through his veins and the recklessness of his youth returning. He pulled back her fur hood with a careful hand.
“I told you I would get you here.” He said quietly, a warm smile on his face.
She looked first to her feet, and then to his eyes. Above them the lunar eclipse reached its apex and the moon bruised and bled crimson. She reached up and touched the ruddy warmth of his cheek.
He wondered at the tears in her eyes.
“I wish this did not have to hurt both of us.” She cried, a sob breaking the silent chamber. She wrapped her left hand around his neck, hating the look of confusion in his eyes.
Nera pulled him down to meet her lips and her dagger.
Through the madness of her tears she felt blood pooling about the hilt. Johr did nothing to pull away. She tried to kiss him but her lips could not be calmed. Trembling she pushed with all of her might and pulled the dagger from his breast.
Johr fell backwards onto the altar. One painful gasp. And then there was quiet.
Nera dropped the dagger. Her head lifted up to the stars and the blood moon.
“I have nothing of worth to offer as sacrifice but this.” She said numbly, repeating the words she had practiced a thousand times since she found the tome.
“I have nothing to give you but what might have been. I give you my future. Now give me my past.” Nera could hardly recognize her own voice now. To her ear it was a clattering of bones. The incantation seemed to shatter the edges of her world. Profane light filled her eyes.
A thought moved unbidden from her heart to her tongue. “Please,” she begged into the swirls of eldritch energies moving about her, “bring me home.”
The river of stars faded from her life and the chamber returned to darkness.
There was nothing left but a place without time.