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On the Last Day:
He was born white, before she burned him.
But that wasn't what happened first. Not in the beginning.
In the beginning was the end of the world.
There was snow at the end of the world, and Kasimir was dying in it. Broken wings dragged from his shoulders like defeated banners, disordered feathers hauling crimson streaks through the snow that would not stop falling. The wings were the worst pain, each step grinding bone shards through savaged muscle and lacing his withers with acid ribbons.
The worst pain, but not the only. One foreleg wouldn't bear his weight. His harness dragged askew, girth snapped, stirrups banging his ribs as he hobbled in circles, right head hanging, antlers scraping ice and frozen earth and fouling his remaining foreleg.
But still he walked, limping in tightening circles, bellying through drifts that rose to his chest, blood freezing bright as hawthorn berries on feathers and hide that faded into the mounting snow.
It was cold, and he was dying alone. But somewhere under the snow was Herfjotur, who had been his before she was torn from the saddle. Kasimir was a valraven, the war-steed of a waelcyrge, and they were dead, all dead, every one of them, the waelcyrge and the einherjar, the Choosers of the slain and their immortal warriors.
They were dead. Herfjotur was dead. It was snowing.
And Kasimir would not lie down until he found her.
They had sworn to die singing, and they had done it, every one of them. Ten thousand taken all together, einherjar and waelcyrge and the tarnished, the children of the Light and those fallen to the shadow, together again under the falling snow.
Every one of them, except for Muire.
Now she slogged through thigh-deep snow, returning to the field of battle. She was not dead, though she should have been. She lived because she had fled, because she had broken and run and left her brothers and sisters to fall without her. To fall like stars, and die singing, here on this high place with their backs to the ocean and the snow drifting over their corpses. She stumbled past the great slumped shapes of valravens, the smaller hillocks of her brothers and sisters lying tangled in their silver chain mail and their ice-colored swords and their cloaks of midnight blue, spangled with embroidered stars.
In death they were anonymous. She could not tell the tarnished from the Bright, and she did not pause to uncover their faces. She tried not to see the gaunt black shapes of the sdadown sprawled among them, red tongues lolling in the snow, poison-green eyes sunken and lightless.
And over all of it the blood, and the ice over that.
Muire did not feel the cold. She was a child of the Light, of the North, of the ice and the winter, and no cold could touch her. It could not make the bones in her hands ache or numb and gall her feet. It could not crack her lips and pull the moisture from her skin.
She was a child of the Light, one of the wardens of Valdyr-gard. But now she reached out to that Light and touched nothing. No song, and no singing, and no power of the massed will of her brothers and sisters. They were gone, and she was the last, limping through snow on a leg scored by the teeth of a sdada that had charged past her, to join the pack pulling the war-leader apart.
Strifbjorn had died there, eaten alive, borne down under a black wave of sdadown. And Muire had lived, because she ran.
Now she returned. She'd lost her helm somewhere, and her crystal sword, Nathr, was dark as a splinter of glacier in her hand. Ash-colored plaits hung down her back like a pair of rope ladders, snow snagging on stray hairs. She saw other braids vanishing under the snow, smooth golden or flaxen ones without the split ends and sprung bits that always seemed to come of Muire's impatience with the brush.
Snow had drifted over most of the blood, but her boots broke through the crust to ink a red trail behind her. She trudged, head down, and when the brief winter light was failing, she found the place that she had fled from. She sheathed her blade and dropped to her knees in the snow, fresh blood oozing from her ragged wound, and there, with bare hands, she began to dig.
She found Arngeir first, Bergdis lying half over him, as if their mutual slaughter had been the consummation of an embrace. Menglad Brightwing was cold and quiet beside them, her hand cast over her mouth, palm outward, as if expressing surprise. She lay unmarked, except for the blood of her enemies, victim of a tarnished kiss.
And then Muire uncovered Strifbjorn. She hunkered, knees drawn up before her, and bit her fingers and stared and tried to find the courage to lie down in the snow beside him.
He had died bravely, but he hadn't died well. The sdadown had had their way with him, so she would not have known him from his face. But his stature and his silver-white plait told her whose body this was, as did the blade called Alvitr lying unbroken by the remains of his hand.
Behind the storm, night was falling. The long sweet howl of a sdada lifted the hair on her neck, as perfect and mournful as the call of the wolf the monster had once been. Muire pulled her cloak tight to her shoulders and rubbed at icy tears.
She could not stay here. She did not have the strength to bury them. They were frozen in the snow, and there were too many. She dared not even sing them to sleep; a raised voice would lead the hunting sdadown to her.
It would be a fitting way to die, but she looked on what remained of Strifbjorn, and she feared it. And so instead, she reached down, deep, to where the Light should have filled her. Where there should have been an answer, the knowledge of what it willed, a swanning. But the Light had no counsel. The brilliance that should have blazed from her hands and eyes and open mouth was nothing but a flicker, the last blue flame crawling over spent fuel before the wind unravels it.
It was only the ghost of strength dying in Muire's breast. The Light did not answer.
Kasimir could not find Herfjotur. There were so many under the snow, and the stench of blood and the dead musk of sdada was everywhere. He nosed aside the vile-wolf corpses, and swept snow from bodies with his horned head because the antlered one hung dripping blood from chill nostrils. The wind gusted this way and that, twisting his feathers. The night came on, and he, who had never known the cold, felt it leaching into his bones, pooling in his muscles, puddling in the bottoms of his lungs. It was heavy, that cold. Heavy, and it clawed at him with sharper talons than the sdadown.
Worlds had ended before: he had heard of the fall of Mid-gard, beyond a sea of space and time, whence the very oldest of creatures had journeyed: the Grey Wolf, his demon sibling, and the World Serpent, who was called the Dweller Within, and also the Bearer of Burdens. There were many tales, and Kasimir had heard them by firesides with his rider, when the Grey Wolf had deigned to speak. Before the Wolf had done what he had done.
Kasimir pushed through another drift, breast deep, hooves scrabbling as he floundered. Sometimes his feet struck frozen flesh under the snow, and each time he stopped and uncovered what he found, cold scents as good as names and faces in the gathering dark. As the sun fell it grew more difficult to tell the texture of flesh from that of stone, but he found Hrolf and Horsa, and Brynhild who had been Zacharij's rider, and the valravens Zacharij and Hryhoriy, more torn than Kasimir. Their feathers fluttered like tattered cloth when he swept the snow from their wings.
Then he found Olrun who had been Herfjotur's spear-sister, Olrun who had gone to the tarnished and whom Kasimir had shattered under his flailing hooves, there at the end of the world. Wings dragging, he paused to remember who she had been, before she had fallen.
But only for a moment. Night was falling, and he would find Herfjotur. He would lie down beside Herfjotur, and that would be good. But first he would rest here, only for a moment, he told himself, as his foreleg failed him and he went to his knees, ice and blood crunching under his settling weight.
Or maybe he would just lie down here. Beside Olrun. He had missed her, after she had tarnished. And surely Herfjotur would not wish her left alone. Surely she would forgive him. It was, in the end, only one more tiny failure.
He let his muzzle rest in the snow. He let his ears sag forward. He would only rest a little.
A sdada howled.
Kasimir, struggling to lift his head, saw a torn light flicker through the snow, and neighed with renewed desperation.
Muire found her feet, pushing against the unaccustomed pain of stiffened joints and the insulted, frozen muscle of her thigh. She grunted and staggered and caught herself with a wince.
The night seemed darker than it should, so Muire knew her waelcyrge's eyesight was also deserting her. But the cry was repeated, a frail, frantic neigh, and she unslung Nathr from her shoulders and used the scabbarded blade as a crutch.
Undignified, and the sword deserved better, but Muire's only other choice was to cast her aside, and she had not yet fallen so low. She comforted herself that even the tarnished had kept their blades, though the act profaned them.
He called again before she found him. Herfjotur's stallion waited with a sagging head, wings draggled like a dying falcon's, the other neck broken and twisted sideways, on his knees in the snow. He snorted, whuffling like a stabled horse when she came into sight, and even through the darkness, Muire could see enough to be cruelly glad she'd kept her sword. He would need its mercy.
"Bright one," she breathed, not daring to reach out and touch his neck. He made the connection for her, nosing her chest hard enough to nearly knock her off her feet. She gasped when her weight rocked onto her injured leg and she caught one spiraled horn to steady herself.
He froze, as white and still as the white drifts around him, and let her cling. And then, in a deep and sonorous voice that would have resonated through her chest if it had been spoken aloud, he said, Alive? Alive how?
She let his horn go as if scorched. His great brown eyes were soft and living, but she could see the broken bones jagged through the flesh of his wings, the twisted, back-bent leg. "Cowardice," she said, and leaned on her sword-crutch a moment before she could force the next words out. "I ran."
He turned his head to center her in one eye's vision. The Light?
"No more," she answered. She braced herself on her one good leg and raised her sword, her hand clutching the scabbard below the crosspiece. "Bright one—" she did not know his name; none but a valraven's rider knew his name "—I cannot heal you."
She could not even heal herself. Only hours ago, it would have been no more than the matter of a thought. Only hours—
Live, the stallion said, unflinching, and Muire stopped with her blade half skinned from the scabbard.
"We can't," she said, as an edgy, grieving howl drifted to her. She swallowed, and it felt as if the crunching ice cut her tender throat from the inside. She finished sliding Nathr's dark blade into her hand.
Ingrained habit made her work the sheath back through her baldric, where it banged her spine when her cloak lifted on the wind. The blood on her tongue when she bit her cheek brought some measure of courage. Somewhere out in the darkness, the sdadown hunted, and Muire jerked her chin. "I will be quicker than they."
The stallion surged up in the snow. Live, he demanded, his wings flopping with the sickening violence of landed fishes. Muire fell back, waving her blade well clear, and sprawled in the snow. It crushed down her collar and under her mailshirt, chilling her flesh—another unpleasant, unfamiliar sensation. Live, he said again, more softly, as she held the sword foolishly up out of the snow, struggling on her wounded leg. She floundered until the stallion extended his head again, offering his mane for a handle, and then she managed to haul herself up. She leaned against him, gasping, his warmth transmitted through her tunic and chain.
Live. One more time, and this time, no more than a meditative murmur. She stroked his blood-iced forelock from his eyes in time to feel him flinch from another howl, an answering one. She sighed. If only she'd had the sense to stand and die earlier, this would have been over now.
But the stallion, she thought. The stallion would be alone. Perhaps she could make some sort of amends by standing with him.
"As well now, here with you, as later, otherwise."
She whipped her blade on long twinned curves and put her back to the stallion's worse-injured shoulder. He whickered again, ears up, half braced on a leg that would not hold him, and mantled her with shattered wings so her flank was covered.
No such courage in all the world, she thought, and the sdad-own came upon them.
It was a small pack, only four, and not the dozen it had taken to pull down Strifbjorn. When they ventured c lose enough, she saw how their rib cages protruded, how their backbones and tails were knobby and spined. Great splayed paws held them lightly on the snow, and their red maws dripped slaver.
Once, she would have met them singing. Now, it was grim fury, ice and blood and her own silence, and the silence of the beasts. The sdadown hunted like the wolves they had once been—feints and distractions—but they were dead already, and the only way to destroy them was to destroy their hearts.
At first, they circled. Wise monsters, they knew that the valraven and waelcyrge were wounded, that the snow and the cold collected a toll that could not be replenished. Two feinted at the crippled stallion's haunches, and Muire surprised herself, half scrambling and half sliding over the broken wing to meet them, her sword outreached as she lunged.
She pricked one through the throat, but it dragged itself off the blade and retreated. Through what will she did not know, the valraven found the strength to kick out, sending the other sdada tumbling. A living wolf would have yelped, rolled to its feet, and circled, limping. The sdada rose and circled, certainly, but it did it in bitter silence, head sunk between jutting shoulders.
Muire prayed, and went unanswered. And as if they slipped over greased ice, the sdada struck again.
She stepped into it, thrusting, and staggered with the shock as the sdada impaled itself on her blade. The second one, the one she had earlier wounded, hurled itself out of darkness at her throat. She shied back, clinging to Nathr's hilt, and got her arm up as she whipsawed sideways. The first sdada's rib cage offered grating resistance to the blade, the vile-wolf thrashing until it slumped, suddenly, its heart bisected.
Through the hot sting of teeth meeting in the muscle of her off-side arm, she barely noticed. The weight struck her shoulder and chest and she staggered, thumping solidly into the stallion's haunches. Her blade, knocked free of the broken sdada, swung wildly, the ridged brass and iron hilt twisted unready in her hand.
The stallion snorted and stood firm, supporting her, while the sdada gnawed and thrashed. It felt hideous, not hide and hair but warm soft slickness, shadows wrinkled and slippery over the skinned flesh beneath. It had no breath.
It pressed her forearm against her throat, teeth grinding into bone, the pain eye-watering. But the warm hide against her shoulders heaved and surged over living muscle, and she heard the stallion's labored breathing, the sick kitchen sound of ripping flesh. Her own blood wet her face, her feet slipping as she floundered in deep snow. Kasimir surged and snorted, something crunching under his teeth and hooves.
She let the sdada shove her back against the stallion and struggled to right her sword. No blade for a mighty-thewed warrior, Nathr, but a light, quick sword, still long enough that little Muire had to wear it slung between her shoulders rather than at her hip. She was the least of her sisters, small and quiet, a sparrow among falcons.
She still could wield her sword.
Her fingers tightened, the blade's weight pushing her arm down. The sdada scrabbled against her, smelling faintly of loam and rotten meat, dead green eyes glowing behind clouded corneas like a sun behind mist. Its silence offended her.
Excerpted from All the Windwracked Stars by Elizabeth Bear.
Copyright © 2008 by Elizabeth Bear.
Published in November 2008 by Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.