There was midwinter ice in the air, sharp enough to make the air burn in your lungs and sting your eyes. Nothing but ice and snow and darkness, and the wolves themselves, darkness made manifest; nothing green, nothing growing, and the winter stores long since exhausted, leaving nothing but hunger: men dropping where they walked, weak with starvation, dying of cold even in their own homes. Only the wolves would eat well.
There was one bar in town, and it was about what you might expect: part bar, part brothel, part inn. There were regulars, playing dice or just concentrating on getting drunk with admirable single-mindedness; there were a couple of soldiers from the nearest outpost, officers by the look of them, proud of their smart clothes and shiny weapons, being overcharged for cheap wine; there were travellers, merchants or traders, lodging in the rooms above – they were the ones who were actually eating, rather than just knocking back ale or wine or the local rotgut. The food wasn't bad, either - overcooked and undersalted, but not the geriatric mutton or shoe-leather ox served in so many similar establishments.
There was another stranger, too, over in the corner. Nasty looking piece of work: dead white skin and unsettling green eyes that stared at everything that bit too hard, like they were staring through it; dark hair; a few scars, though they hardly showed, being old enough to be white themselves; a face you might have said had good bone structure, had it been on someone less gaunt, but as it was put you straight in mind of the skull beneath the skin. Good, serviceable clothes, well tailored in their day, but put to hard use since. No obvious weapons, but back to the wall, and those sharp eyes on anyone coming in or out, or getting too close: by the look of things, obviously a hired tough, skilled enough to have reached middle age but now aging out of the market, or a wandering brigand (if you think there's anything to choose between the two). Not someone you'd want to get to know, not if you had any sense, although clearly a couple of the local girls didn't, because they were making up to her like anything. To be fair, she seemed prepared to pay, which may have been more than you could say for the regulars or the officers, although the traders should have been good for something.
She was working her way pretty well through a bottle of said local rotgut, which was strong and slightly bitter and went a cloudy white if you were stupid enough to dilute it with water. (If you were stupid enough to drink it undiluted … well it was quite impressive she still looked relatively sober.) Eventually she and the remains of the bottle and one of the girls headed off upstairs, and there was no further excitement that night apart from an argument over the dice, and one of the officers throwing up and then trying to sing a marching song, which latter was held to be if anything more offensive in its insistent tunelessness than the former. He was thrown out unceremoniously and was last seen weaving his way out of town, unsteadily supported by his equally drunken comrade. The traders went up to bed, alone, the regulars dispersed, the barkeep and the remaining girl shut up for the night; by the time the great bells tolled for the Dead Men's Mass, the streets and the bar were empty alike.
Friends, companions, sworn comrades … the warmth of the winter fire and the easy laughter as the cup passed round, a willing hand to help with any labour, old jokes worn smooth and familiar in the telling. When had it begun to change? A moment too long in answering, a darkness behind the eye: things easily dismissed or overlooked or just excused, until it was too late. A pack of traitors, brother against brother, united only in avarice, those old smiles contorting into a rapacious snarl that mocked the memory of friendship. A pack of wolves to tear the world apart between them and devour the sun.
The stranger was back in the same corner the next morning, nursing a hangover and a cup of what passed locally for coffee, while the barkeep muttered about men who couldn't hold their liquor and expected him to clean up after them, and the girls, who were the ones doing the actual cleaning, muttered in the one case about pinch-penny merchants who wouldn't hire them, and in the other about suspicious bastards who threw them out after, rather than going peacefully to sleep so their belongings could be rifled. Sometime early afternoon, someone came round asking after the soldiers, who hadn't made it back, but the general feeling was that anyone wandering around outside when the bells started up deserved whatever they got.
The inn had a sign up proclaiming itself with surprising patriotism as The Sword and Crown, although then again, it wasn't as though it specified whose crown. The sign was old and peeling, no doubt dating back to the good old days of the old king, when the land had been at peace. (Obviously, neighbouring lands hadn't been at peace, what with the constant invasions, but they'd been too busy defending themselves to invade in turn.)
The stranger eventually bestirred herself to go out, asking the way to the Cathedral. It might seem strange so small a town should merit a proper cathedral, but it had been built at the farthest border of the civilized world for the sake of its graveyard: no ordinary graveyard this, with orderly rows of graves, marked in their proper manner with names and dates. No, this graveyard was an empty expanse of desolate land, scoured nearly bare by the wind and sweeping down to the bitter, storm-wracked sea, with never a grave or tombstone in sight. It was the graveyard of the unknown dead, of those lost beyond sight of land and given to the deeps, of those consumed by fire or left to rot unburied, of those who vanished beyond finding, or who died unnoticed and unmourned. Few came so far merely to pray for those best forgotten.
It was some distance to the graveyard, out beyond the edge of town, and on the way she passed an old man sitting by a well, with a little boy at his feet, maybe his grandson. In the way of the old, the man was reminiscing, recalling the vastly superior days of his youth. The little boy was still young enough to find it interesting, provided the story was suitably larded with banners and processions and tales of derring do.
"Yes," the old man said dreamily, lost in memories. "Yes: you should have seen it, after the coronation. Empire and glory! And we were all half in love with the new queen, back then: we wanted to lay the dominions of the world at her feet. It meant something in those days, to be a soldier. Not like now."
She wondered privately if he'd ever been to war. Well, perhaps he had, and he chose now to remember only the good bits, such as they were.
She stood a long time at the graveyard, gazing out across the empty land and the barren, salt-sewn soil, but there was nothing there, no echo of laughter, no remaining trace of human warmth. Foolish to think anything would remain, even here. Particularly here. Why should the dead linger on a bare spit of land, so many miles from their homes?
She turned and walked back into town.
It was a cosy little house, snug and well provisioned, with a larder and a meat-safe, and stack of logs by the fire. It was a cosy little village, too, prosperous and well-fed with fertile land and a good road for trade. It was down that road the soldiers came, eating up the food and burning the crops. Burning the village too, when they were done with the villagers. It burned bright, that fire, but the bodies lay not only in the blazing streets but in the fields and ditches too, carrion for the crows and the wolves. It was not an important village, in the scheme of things.
There was little enough to do in town, once you had admired the Cathedral and the graveyard. You could walk out along the sea edge, if you had a taste for being wet and cold, or you could walk inland towards the military outpost, high on the ridge above, if you had a taste for being dry and cold, and also tired, for it was a long, steep walk. The old man sat by the well every day, although not always with the little boy. Much the same people frequented the inn, and if one trader left, another took his place. Really, the place looked best by moonlight, the weak, silvery light casting a deceptive glamour, as though it were in truth a place outside the common run, where the dead might yet meet with the living.
The streets were empty now, the torches extinguished, lit only by the moon and the stars. She heard no sound of footsteps to warn her – and her hearing was acute – but all the same, one moment she walked alone, and the next the old man walked beside her.
"They come here, sometimes," he said quietly, as though he spoke mostly to himself. "The guilty who think if they can beg forgiveness they will escape their just punishment. They do not know there is no coming to terms with the dead."
She smiled bitterly. "There is no need to tell me that. And what is forgiveness, anyway? What is done is done, and can't be changed."
"I thought I'd mention it", the old man said peaceably. "It's the most common reason to come here, you know. Although those who come for forgiveness usually have the sense to stick inside at night."
"It's an hour yet till the bells ring."
"My apologies if you were about to turn back. But it isn't cowardice to want to live."
"I wouldn't know."
The man shook his head sadly. "That was what worried me."
Her mouth tightened with anger. "Tell me then, if you are so keen to offer advice: what is to be done about the other sins? The ones where you can't look back and say there, there is where I went wrong, for that reason. A man who kills his friend, or just a stranger who has something he wants; someone who steals or even just longs in his heart to take what isn't his … you can see the error, see what they could have done differently. But what if others kill or steal in your name, and you don't know to stop them? Or you refuse to kill, and the man you freed fires the flames of destruction. Or you will not steal, and so your family starves. Those who had faith, and were betrayed; those who were just, and could not prevent injustice; those who were too good to prevent evil. What of them? And what of the others, who give up on good and evil both, and think only to survive from day to day, by whatever means are necessary, exiles from virtue and willing vice alike?"
There was no answer, and when she turned the street stretched empty away into the distance. She walked on. The wind was getting up, catching rubbish up in little flurries, still salt tinged even this far from the sea's edge. It was a cold wind, the biting sort that cuts through the heaviest coat and seems to slice straight to the bone. It moaned and soughed round corners and across roofs, setting the little good luck charms above the doors jingling, echoing with a thousand strange sounds in the empty streets. At times it almost sounded like laughter, and she was not entirely surprised to round a corner and find the little boy, kicking his ball about as though he played in the bright, safe light of day.
He looked up at her with solemn, childlike eyes. "You're on the wrong road, you know."
She kicked the ball back to him. "Well, so are you, then. Shouldn't you be tucked up safely in bed by now?" But he turned away from her, back to his ball game, and didn't answer.
There is a darkness at the heart of things, always hungry, always devouring, feeding on joy. Regrets slink to and fro by night: dim, dark shapes that snuffle round the door, that search for an open window, that always find some chink, some weakness. Their breath smells of old blood; their teeth are sharp.
The morning sun fell across the battered tables of the Sword and Crown, painfully bright, picking out every scratch and knick in the woodwork, every stain. It turned out they did breakfast there, as well as dinner: fresh farm eggs and good bread straight from the baker.
"I didn't think to see you back," the landlord said, "not when you left so late."
The stranger shrugged, and tore off another hunk of bread. "I realised I was walking the wrong way, that's all. There used to be stray dogs, you know, where I grew up: you fed them, and they'd follow you everywhere. If you didn't want to be followed, you had to drive them off and ignore them, not give them so much as a scrap. Well, that's what I'm going to do, set my mind to living and let the darkness starve."