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Hinterland

James Clemens

In Shadow…

He has forgotten his name, leaving only will to drive him. Arrow-bit and cut to bone, he reaches one hand, then another. The very land rejects his naked body. Fingernails break and bleed. Toes scrabble for purchase on the cliff face. His blood blackens the cold stone as he climbs the Forge.

But he cannot stop.

His pursuers will not.

He hears them far below: the ravening cries of the leathery grecklings, the chinking rattle of their keepers, the harsh shouts of his former captors, and rising like steam, the worst yet, the sweet notes of seersong.

Tears run hotly across his cold cheeks.

The song calls him back, slows him. If he knew his name, he would be caught again. But all is forgotten, so he digs and climbs.

He must not stop.

He searches upward. Light streams over the top of the white cliff, reflecting the morning’s fire off the ice- capped peaks that frame the notched pass above. The Forge. The beacon between two lands. And though the brightness heralds the rise of the sun beyond the mountains, here on the western cliffs night still rules.

He must reach the border.

At last, one hand reaches out to find not rock but air. The top of the Forge. He draws his body upward with the very last of his strength into the morning’s warmth and light. He rolls to the flat stone nestled between two peaks. Ahead, the land falls away again, the slopes gentler.

But not gentle to him…

He rises to his knees, staring to the east.

More peaks, but nearer still lies a promise. Though shrouded by morning mist, the vast emerald cloud forest is visible. Birdsong reaches him even here. He smells loam and wet leaf.

Saysh Mal.

Green lands settled and forbidden to his blood.

He already feels the admonishment under his knees. Fire warms his bones, but it is not the pleasantness of a hearth’s glow: It is fever and fear. A warning at the border, written upon his marrow.

Do not pass.

He stands, and despite the warning, he trespasses. His bare feet move him away from the cliff’s edge, away from the cries below, away from the last notes of seersong.

He leaves the hinterlands behind.

There is a path ahead. Left by whom? Hunters of the distant forest? The curious, the foolhardy, the hopeless? Who would trek to this vantage to stare out over the blasted hinterlands?

He continues, tracing the path down toward Saysh Mal. Each step grows more agonizing. Warmth becomes fire. Warning becomes demand. The blood of this land rejects his own. He smells his own seared flesh. Smoke curls between blackened toes. Drops of his own blood ignite with spats of flame.

He walks onward.

Agony both erases and stretches time.

He hobbles now on fiery stubs, feet gone. And still the land is not satisfied. His bones are now tinder. The fire races through marrow, igniting hip, spine, rib, and skull. He smolders. The old arrows impaled in his body have become feathered torches, fueled by his own blood. Shafts fall to ash.

He struggles onward, a living candle of oil and meager fat.

Past the last peak, he falls to hands and knees. He crawls, blindly, amid smoke and flame.

Then he senses more than hears: Someone is near.

He stops. The land’s attack upon his blood rewards him for halting. Ever so slightly, the fire ebbs. Smoke clears. Though his eyes are burnt away, he notes shadows and light.

A figure steps toward him.

“No, boy!” someone shouts from a different direction. “Stand back from it! It’s a shiting rogue god from the hinter!”

“But it’s hurt.”

“Let it die!”

“But…”

Through his pain, the god hears compassion, not so much with his burnt ears as with his heart. It gives him the strength for one last act. He reaches to his lips and removes his burden, preserved in Grace, carried in his mouth.

No strength remains.

He falls to the ground and lets his burden roll from his flaming fingertips. Though blind, he senses its journey into the boy’s shadow.

It is his last hope, his heart, his life-and the only chance to save this world.

With his burden lifted at last, darkness settles over him as the land consumes the last of his life’s flame. Words echo to him as he fades from this world.

“What is it?”

The boy answers. “Only a rock.”

FIRST

Cloak and Shadow ser (regained knighthood) Tylar de Noche-regent of Chrismferry, the Godsword (too archaic as written) bearer of Rivenscryr, and vice-lord of Tashijan. Knighted in ann. 4154 and stripped in 4163, Tylar came to his regency after the Battle of Myrrwood the ninety-eight with the unanimous consent of all the gods Myrillia (to avoid repetition of “nine”) of the Nine Lands. His reign would herald the beginning of the second War of the Gods. -Hand-edited and unpublished page from The Compendia of Figures and Personages from the Age of Twilight, sold at auction for eleven hundred gold marches

A BRONZE BOY IN SNOW

He was being hunted through the wintry wood.

The forest whispered the hunter’s presence: with the shushing of snow slipping from a pine branch, the skeletal rub of brittle briar branches, the creak of twigs in an ancient deadfall.

Still, Brant remained calm, as he had been taught.

Unhurriedly, he continued through the woods.

With each crunch of his boot, the brittle crust of ice cracked into the deeper snow. He left a trail of footprints that could easily be followed. His father would shame him if he saw his carelessness, but he was long in his grave, killed by a she-panther, leaving no one around to admonish his son.

Especially not in this strange cold land.

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