I feel the cold begin without and within, and now I must speak of times that have been.
The Wicker Knight loomed at the join of a mist-strangled wood and a reed-stabbed bog, staring down the dry splintered gorge that framed the Arch of Endings. The Wicker Knight was older than forest and marsh, and the gorge still was mazing a river when his sinews were woven, when his bark sword was bound to his fist, and when earth blessed by seven quarreling holy men was shoved into his gut. In some unknown fashion, that blessing had preserved the stuff of the Wicker Knight, throughout ages of woe and wonder.
But the Arch of Endings was older than Man or Woman, Tree or Grass.
When the afternoon shadow of the Wicker Knight stretched forty paces, piercing the Arch so that the head’s shade fell not within this world, the inscription beneath his feet lay in darkness—and so the five travelers approached close.
The three who led and the two who trailed stood within that shadow, and it was as though the darkness wicked down its length some essence of the Other Place, for its chill was no fit thing for summer’s afternoon.
The three peered. One of them, a pale man in a green hat and tunic, read words centuries old.
“‘Ye whom the darkness see.
Ye whom the daylight love.
If heroes worthy ye shall be
Then shall the Wicker Knight move.’
“Well, that settles it,” concluded the man in green, who was known as Sythre the Almost-Good. “We’re doomed.”
He gazed up at the Knight. Tall as an improbable tower of five tall men, its body was a confusion of bundled branches, except for the head with its helmet of peeled bark. Old hollows might have been eye-slits. A smell of rich earth came to Sythre’s nose, replete with the bright stink of growing things.
“Come, fool,” said Nala the Dancer, she of brown weathered face and short-hacked black hair, whose leathers were red and black and whose favorite dance partner was the rapier. “Courage is a matter of the Now.”
“Now is a little late for me to become a hero.”
“And yet Now is upon us,” said Tvarn Wind-Tamer, whose old visage recalled tanned leather; whose beard and robes were the hues of heavy cloud. “For the Perfection is moving. Look.”
And three heroes (perhaps and Now) gazed down the long shadow into the Arch of Endings.
The Arch was a tortured loop of black stone vast as an elephant. Its substance seemed no more exotic than onyx or obsidian, yet its dark undulations appeared too improbable for natural rock, recalling the jagged tongues of a forest blaze or the roiling surface of a stormy sea.
Around the Arch lay grey ridges crowded with boulders jutting through the grit.
But through the Arch lay a lightless spasm of a plain, lurching flows of stone frozen by some kiss of infinite Night. Jagged red things like twisted ingots hung in place of stars.
And far beyond the Arch, in the midst of that plain, lay the Perfection.
Perfection was filigrees of light in every rainbow hue. Perfection was glowing meshes outlining shapes resembling people, or pumas, or mice, or mammoths, or other forms that walked or crawled or slithered or flew. Perfection was an army of bright frameworks encasing nothingness, like pieces of Night wearing armor fragments forged of Summer—things of pure surfaces, smoothly advancing.
“They’re slow...” said Sythre, pulling back his hood. The head that housed his smooth sly voice was weathered and pocked. “Well, there is time to make a fire. I’m cold.” He set down his pack and commenced.
Tvarn nodded, dropping his own pack as Nala did likewise. “They will be here in perhaps an hour,” he said. “Under cloak of darkness they will methodically invade our world. They will march on Loomsberg and Tancimor, then Fallenbridge and Archaeopolis, until the heart of the Eldshore is dead. Our land will be Perfected—a zone of lifelessness in which mockeries of birds will alight upon the ruins, singing their flawless songs. And the Perfection will move on, till all the Earthe is consumed.”
“I hope you prove to be a hero, Tvarn,” said Sythre, piling branches, “for you would make a terrible teller of bedtime stories.”
Tvarn’s young charge Kverna, a dark-haired child of thirteen, was weeping. She bore her teacher his goatskin bag, the one that sometimes rippled of its own accord. “Send them back, master,” she said. “Use the winds.” For she had once seen the vision of Perfection in the augur-smoke of Tvarn’s yurt, the foretelling that bade him gather allies and make for Loomsberg, and it was more terrible than the long-ago grassfire that had slain her family.
The remaining member of their party, Fayne, the Lord-Mayor of Loomsberg, who now stood nearest the Other Place, chuckled as his gold-embroidered blue robe rippled in a cold wind. He flexed fleshy, iron-bound hands. “Yes, drive them off with the ten winds! Get the job done in comfort! That is surely the heroism the Wicker Knight demands.”
“Shut up, Fayne,” said Nala.
“Why, my dear?” said Lord-Mayor Fayne, who leered for good measure. “Is the truth too much for such heroes to bear?”
“What truth torments your lying throat?” said Tvarn.
“The truth that led me to toss the Gems of Awakening into the Arch of Endings. The truth that a man of vision dares what others fear.”
“Spit it out,” said Sythre. He snapped a long branch, tossed its pieces upon its kin. “You planned to let the Perfection overwhelm the land. Then at the final hour you’d sell the Empress the Wicker Knight’s secret. But behold! It is you who stand in Perfection’s path. You have no reward to win, and only yourself to save. So, how is it done?”
Fayne shrugged and watched lights grow in the Arch’s dark eye.
“How it’s done,” Nala said, “is clearly this. He will wait until the last possible moment to reveal the secret. No doubt hoping to exact some price for his trouble.”
Fayne smiled. “Why should a secret be of any consequence? The inscription is clear. Hero your way out of this.”
Young Kverna stared at him, turned away, and walked up to the Knight.
“Wicker Knight,” she said, “will you help us?”
The Wicker Knight did not speak. He did not move.
“Wicker Knight, the Perfection is coming. I have learned that true perfection is not a thing of this world. Perhaps we will find it in the next. If there is such a place. But a Perfection that comes in this life can only be death. Like ashes and bone left clean in the blackened grass.”
The Wicker Knight did not move.
Kverna pounded fists upon stone words. “Help us! Please! It’s said you were made for this. Help us now.”
Nala the Dancer shook her head. “Heroes must help themselves.”
As Kverna scowled at her, Nala strode down the carpet of shadow, ignoring the smirk of Fayne, all the way to the Arch of Endings. There she drew her rapier and stepped through.
There was an instant in which she seemed to fade, as though her world had forgotten her and the Other Place had to recall her into being. Then she stood at attention upon the plain of twisted rock.
“Eh?” Sythre said, false levity in his voice, “does no one care to help me with the campfire?”
But he, like the others, watched Nala shiver in the Other Place. And as one, they all looked to the Wicker Knight.
The Wicker Knight did not move.
“It may be,” Tvarn said, scratching his beard, “that we have already been evaluated and found wanting. If so we are denied the prophesied ally, and I fear greatly for our world.”
“Maybe you’d better go find real heroes,” Fayne said.
“You know,” said Sythre, spreading orange-lit hands, “he has a point. But I have kindled a flame at last and do not feel like moving.”
“There’s no time to seek others,” Tvarn said. “If Nala the Dancer does not qualify, I do not know who does.”
Sythre gestured to himself in mock dismay. “Am I invisible?” He sighed and rose. “Very well. We need to do something more emphatically heroic.”
He drew his short sword and struck a valiant pose.
The Wicker Knight did not move.
Sythre smiled. “Well, perhaps something else. Perhaps it’s as Nala said, heroism is a matter of Now. And, much as I admire us all, at this moment our foes are no worse than one stubborn Lord-Mayor and a chill.”
“That is an awkward point,” said Tvarn. “For if we combat the Perfection we will surely die before we can demonstrate our courage to the Knight.”
“Are we certain of that?” Sythre said. “Reports of their last incursion are over a thousand years old and fragmentary, no? The Perfection may only be magnificently deadly, as opposed to superlatively deadly.”
“We could test this,” Tvarn mused. “Your dagger and my bag of winds might facilitate an experiment....”
He led Sythre toward the Arch. Fayne and Kverna held back.
Beside the Arch the chill of the Other Place seeped into their skins. Nala called out to them from beyond it, from through it, “Gentlemen!” Her voice had the dim immediacy of the resonance heard within a seashell held tight against the ear. “It’s good to see warm friends. It’s cold on this side.”
“Sadly, I must disappoint,” Sythre said. “Our experiment can be conducted from here.”
“What? Are you men afraid simply to stand here on the other side?”
“No,” scoffed Tvarn.
“Yes,” said Sythre. “But you may cross, Tvarn.”
The wind-tamer did so. He faded and reappeared, as Nala had. “Chilly,” he said, crossing his arms with a frown.
“Like winter?” asked Sythre.
“Like burying your first love,” said Tvarn.
“Like waking friendless in a plague-ravaged city,” said Nala.
“I’ll stay here,” said Sythre. He drew a dagger. “Good Tancimoor steel....”
“May it fly true,” said Tvarn as he opened his bag of winds. “Throw as you would. Notus, speed it to the foe.”
Wind moaned and guided the blade across the plain of tormented stone.
Half a mile away it struck with a clang a slowly moving humanoid of Perfection. It hit where a heart would have been amidst the framework of rainbow filigree.
The soldier of Perfection plucked out the knife and held it to its notional lips.
It ate. The dagger disintegrated with a screech. Hints of light like sparks from an anvil filled Perfection’s empty gut.
The figure did not slack its pace.
“Tancimoor steel,” Sythre sighed.
“There may be weak points,” Nala persisted. “We cannot be sure from here.”
“Unlikely,” said Tvarn. “None have been recorded. It took great wonder-workers of the past to repel the Perfection. And all we have left of that legacy is what they made to guard the Arch.”
“We’re back to proving our heroism,” said Sythre.
“And quickly,” said Nala. “If a frontal assault is required I will do it.”
“Peace,” said Tvarn. “Let us again try speaking to the Knight.”
When he turned he cried out.
Fayne’s manacles lay twisted upon the ground. The Lord-Mayor himself was near the Wicker Knight, demonstrating unexpected strength, with one big arm around Kverna’s throat, the other clutching a dagger looted from Sythre’s pack.
“Don’t move!” he shouted. “You know in your hearts what is needed. A sacrifice! A brave innocent. I sense she is willing.”
Kverna did not struggle or speak.
Nala leapt through the Arch, back into the world. “Stop!”
“The records say nothing of such a thing!” Tvarn shouted.
“You said yourselves the stories are fragments,” Fayne replied, shifting nearer the Knight. “And we know the nature of other wicker effigies, do we not? Are you ready, girl? Are you ready to—”
“Die,” said Tvarn, opening his bag. “Boreas, Eurus, Lips, Argestes!”
Four winds, so named, converged upon Fayne as though seeking the focus of a compass rose.
Fayne’s skull compressed in the manner of a crushed orange. The resulting spray caused him to appear an exotic headless statue of rusting bronze, glistening wet in the dawn.
Yet the dagger in his dead hand was already bloodied.
Nala and Sythre ran to Kverna, who twitched from shock and a puncture in her neck. Together they staunched and wrapped the wound.
Tvarn came to their side. “Breathe, Kverna. Slow breaths. Help them work.”
Kverna coughed, trembling.
“We were lucky,” Nala said. “The cut’s not deep.”
“Why, Tvarn,” said Sythre the Almost-Good. “I commend your bloodlust.”
“Shut up!” said Tvarn. More gently he added, “It was a waste. Five winds left. A wounded child. And a dead fool.”
The immediate danger past, Sythre left Kverna’s care to Nala. “Maybe it wasn’t all a waste,” he said, leaning vulture-like over Fayne’s body.
“What are you doing?” Nala said.
“First, recovering this dagger. Now, seeing to it this corpse lies at the feet of the Wicker Knight. Just in case—urg—he was right—”
His companions were silent as Sythre completed the task. Fayne’s body lay between the Knight’s feet like a scarlet scarecrow with a head composed of squashed raspberries. It dripped.
The Wicker Knight did not move.
“It seems his ‘secret’ would not have helped,” Tvarn said.
Kverna had a cloth tight-wrapped around her neck, and Nala wiped clean the blood, most of it Fayne’s. Kverna sobbed.
“There now, child,” said Tvarn. “It was brave-hearted of you to envision, even for one instant, becoming a sacrifice. But those who argue with daggers drawn may have a selfish motive or three, eh?” Tvarn squeezed Kverna’s shoulder.
Shuddering, the girl said, “I did not want to. And yet, what he said.... I did wonder. For I want us to succeed.”
“We will succeed,” Nala said. She stood and shook her fist at the Knight. “How can you just stand there! Is not heroism embodied in this girl?”
The Knight was motionless.
“Not blood,” Sythre mused. “Not courage. Not self-sacrifice. Not handsomeness.” He smirked. “Our Wicker Knight drives a hard bargain. What is left?”
“We have not engaged the Perfection in good honest melee,” Nala said.
“And if that’s no more relevant than Fayne’s ‘secret?'” Sythre demanded. “You’ll simply be dead. Perfected out of existence.”
“Someone must try.”
Tvarn rubbed his eyes. “Not yet.” He lifted his gaze and his voice boomed. “Wicker Knight! Fight the Perfection!”
The Knight did nothing.
“Wicker Knight! I swear I will make a stand here!”
“And I,” said Nala.
“And I,” said Kverna.
“And.... I,” said Sythre.
The Wicker Knight was still.
“We can’t wait,” Nala said, “let me—”
“Peace,” Sythre said, and strode up to the Knight. He sliced his own hand with the reclaimed dagger and smeared the blood upon the wicker.
The Knight did nothing.
“Well,” observed Sythre. “That was both useless and painful. A rare accomplishment.”
“Come here, you fool,” said Nala, and bandaged his hand.
“Had to try,” Sythre said. “You are so determined to extinguish yourself.”
“I am determined to win.”
Their eyes met a long moment, before each looked away. In silence Sythre accepted her care.
“Master,” Kverna said. “What Nala just said.... Lord-Mayor Fayne mocked you, saying attacking with the winds was not heroic. But... what if all our posturing is irrelevant to the Knight after all? It is made in the shape of a warrior. How would a warrior view this situation?”
“Warriors vary greatly by time and place,” Tvarn said. “We know too little about the Knight’s makers.”
“But consider, master. What if a warrior were charged not with simply being brave, or looking mighty, but with victory? With the very survival of his people? What then?”
“Interesting,” said Tvarn. “If we consider the problem without regard to the Knight... then it would seem our task is preventing the Perfection from crossing over. The Arch is said to be indestructible, but perhaps there is a way. The winds....”
Kverna said, “Perhaps if the Knight sees us struggle to solve the problem on our own....”
“You are a wise apprentice, Kverna. Let me consider an approach. To victory.”
He led them to the Arch and they circled it, searching for weak points.
From the rear, the view through the Arch showed not the otherworldly plain but the bog, and with a hazy look to it, as if viewed through hot desert air.
“I could strike the Arch with winds converging there, at its apex,” Tvarn said. “If I command all five properly they can be strengthened by shaping them with the gorge. I think that is it! We may even succeed without the Knight’s help! I will begin.”
They took up positions amid the boulders at the mouth of the gorge. Tvarn opened his bag and intoned the names of five winds.
He called forth Kaikias of the Northeast, and Apeliotes of the Southeast, and Zephyrus of the West. A moaning commenced down the dry gorge.
And now Tvarn called upon the last two winds, which only the greatest of Wind-Tamers might summon, Chthonios the burning wind that sears the heart of the Earthe, and Astros the maddening wind from the stars.
A five-fold howling shrieked and crescendoed in a concussion that slapped the four watchers off their feet. Pebbles flew, and teeth chattered. The echoes took long moments to die.
When Tvarn and those near him came to their senses, the Arch was undamaged, and the Wicker Knight had not moved.
“I am a fool,” Tvarn said.
“Where is Sythre?” said Kverna.
Nala was on her feet, searching here and there. Sythre was nowhere evident, although she had a good view down the canyon and through the Arch.
“He couldn’t have gotten far,” Tvarn said, rising. “Even if the winds blew him—”
“No,” said Nala. “That is not it.”
She sprinted around the Arch, so that she might be able to gaze through the side that led to the Other Place.
There she stopped and beheld the other world and the dim green form of Sythre sprinting across the dark land toward the Perfection.
“Why?” Nala demanded. “Why?”
Tvarn and Kverna had caught up with her.
“The heart of one such as Sythre the Almost-Good may be unknown even to himself,” Tvarn said. “It may be he could not bear you to sacrifice....”
“No!” Nala said, and charged after.
“Kverna. We must wait.” Tvarn lowered his head. “If they fail we must be ready to try, and try, and try again until we have an answer.”
In the Other Place, Sythre had reached the Perfection. He did not act as one who expects to die. He threw a dagger, ducked and weaved, rolled and tumbled. A warrior of prismatic beauty reached for him and missed. Sythre slipped past him, made a rude gesture, and drew his short sword.
“I believe I understand,” Tvarn said. “He hopes to survive this maneuver, through sheer speed and daring. Risking all, so the Wicker Knight may see.” Tvarn turned and beheld the Wicker Knight unmoved.
“Master,” Kverna said, “I am coming to hate the Wicker Knight.”
Nala roared into the fray. She jabbed at a rainbow-strewn female figure who clawed at Sythre.
“No!” Sythre was shouting. “I can do this—”
“Fool!” Nala shouted. “In war I am your superior. Run!”
Neither noticed until too late that they had been encircled.
The battle of Nala and Sythre against the Perfection was a flight of hummingbirds buffeting a golden cage, a surge of horses flailing in a sparkling flood, a dance of tattered lovers daring courtly musicians to play on and on. Watching it, Tvarn felt young and Kverna old, and even the march of the Perfection seemed to pause a breath.
But Sythre tired, and now he erred. Rolling beyond a warrior’s grasp, he cried out at some pained muscle and lacked the speed to evade a rainbow tiger.
The stuff of Sythre whipped into insubstantiality; filled the darkness of the tiger like a fine glittering mist that shimmered for a heartbeat and went dark. His green raiments fell to black stone.
Nala did not scream. Her spins and lunges were a scream. Her kicks and blocks were a scream. Her scream could have slain dozens of mortal foes. It took two of the Perfection’s warriors grasping at once to split her essence in twain, leaving the sword of Nala clinking upon the black.
The Perfection paused as though in cryptic respect. At some silent signal they turned and resumed their slow march.
Just as slowly, the trembling Tvarn and Kverna looked away.
The Wicker Knight had not moved.
Kverna voiced the scream Nala had not.
Tvarn held her against him. When she was done he said, “I have one last trick. I suspect, Kverna, that Fayne was correct after all and that a willing sacrifice, a life freely given to the Knight, is what is required.”
“I will do it.”
“No. You will not. Nor will I ask you to kill. You will go now, and I will use my last wind.”
“You have none.”
“A wind-tamer’s secret, Kverna. We may, just once, use the breath of our own bodies.”
“Master. Do not. Do not waste anything more on this horrid thing. I believe it was placed here to mock us. Or its power has ebbed over the centuries. Whatever, it can do us no good.”
“Kverna, I have lived a good life—”
“Shut up!” She began hitting him. “Shut up!”
“Kverna!” His voice made her cease. He was still her teacher. “The Perfection will come. Who can attempt this thing afterward?”
“There are other heroes in the world, other powers....”
“Yes. It’s given to none of us to understand all possibilities. But it is given to us to assay the Wicker Knight. To not attempt this last thing would be to betray all life in the world. Do you understand?”
Kverna said nothing.
“Go, Kverna. Take my knowledge and my love.”
He regarded her. “Then give me your word you will depart this place at once when the deed is done.”
“Your word! I command it!”
“You have my word, Tvarn.”
He embraced her. She stood like a statue. He broke away.
Tvarn walked to the Wicker Knight and climbed to take his place beside Fayne. He wasted no time, save only to feel the play of breezes upon his old skin once more.
“Tvarn,” he said.
A shock of wind rushed from that place and seized a boulder near the Arch. The vast stone groaned at the imposition upon its inertia, and it rolled until it entirely plugged the opening.
Tvarn collapsed. Kverna rushed to his side. All breath was gone from her teacher.
But not from her. Kverna’s rage howled through marsh and forest and gorge, and her fists punished Tvarn, Fayne, the Wicker Knight. None of them moved.
When she had no more screams to give the world that had taken everything, she sat cross-legged before the boulder. She could no more obey her promise to Tvarn than a dropped rock could promise not to fall. There was nowhere to go. They had left her alone. All she could do was save herself, and if she did so, the being alone would go on and on and never stop. The Perfection could end all that. She wished it could have come after the grassfire, when her whole steppeland world had become char. That was her heart now.
She heard a crackle behind her, like a chuckle.
But it was only Sythre’s campfire, still burning. She stared at the play of the flames.
There was something she could do, after all.
The boulder began crumbling as the Perfection ate into it from beyond. But by then Kverna had found a branch in the twisted forest, wrapped it in cloth, and lit it in the fire. As cracks threaded the boulder like grey spiders’ webs, Keverna strode with her makeshift torch toward the Wicker Knight.
She shoved the burning brand into the Knight’s foot.
The Wicker Knight was thoroughly ablaze when the boulder finally collapsed and the Perfection marched through.
At the Wicker Knight’s feet Kverna faced the foe. “I do not hate you,” she said to them. “You are as you are. Maybe Perfection has no choices. It is this thing behind me I hate. Leeching our hope, and returning nothing. At least without it we will meet our fates as human beings.”
She stepped forward as the Wicker Knight crackled and flamed. “Destroy me if you wish. Perfect me. I have had my revenge.”
They raised blades, lifted claws, opened mouths.
She stood before the glowing figures, shorn of fear or hope.
The Wicker Knight moved.
As the flames claimed him, he snapped and collapsed as though embracing the world he was made to defend. His sword split.
Yet smoke rose from the ruin and, gathering itself like an awakened beast, billowed toward the Arch of Endings. In between it met Kverna and the vanguard of the Perfection.
Ye are the one, the smoke seemed to whisper, who surrendered all hope in me, yet surrendered no ground.
The miasma flowed around Kverna, but as it passed she smelled within it terrified sweat and pus-filled wounds and tears of betrayal and aged incontinence and vomited blood and the flesh of burned heretics and much else she would not have expected of the scent of holy earth.
The noisome smoke of humanity engulfed the Perfection.
It filled the emptiness within the beautiful frameworks and was not consumed. Sword-arms slowed, legs froze, heads quivered as they filled up with the billowing black essence of the thing they had deigned to conquer.
The ranks who were as yet unmarred turned as one and stepped back through the Arch of Endings. Their corrupted brethren tried to follow, but there came a hammering and scraping from the far side as the Perfection rained blows upon the Arch, such that fragments of strange stone spilled through the opening.
Presently the scene of the Other Place ceased to be. Only fractured grey gorge could be seen, within the Arch or without.
The corrupted ones began hacking at each other, splintering their glorious meshes and thereby ending their imperfection. Strange fragments tumbled like firewood; black smoke rose to the sky.
Of the Wicker Knight there was ash and embers; of Fayne and Tvarn charred bones; of Nala and Sythre nothing at all.
Of Kverna there was blood and muscle and breath but no tears; and she knew that although her world was safe her spirit was not, and she must leave this place. Yet before she departed she clutched a fragment of stone struck from the Arch and with it chipped away at the inscription where the Knight had stood.
heroes worthy ye
And though a hundred years have passed, yesterday I saw that message in the vine-shrouded place by marsh and forest where Kverna my great-granddam once forbade me go, and where my own grandchildren scrambled laughing about a nameless arch. “Heroes worthy ye,” I whispered to them, imperfect all, and then it was time to invent a fairy story with a happy ending. And so my old bones moved.