Caron looked on as Keir pushed the wooden piece the length of the board. Keir had carved it himself, fashioning the likenesses of kings and queens and knights so he could teach his boy the game, which represented so much in life.
The boy was improving. It wouldn't be long before he beat his old man.
The thought pleased Caron. She wasn't the boy's real mother, but motherhood was about more than just bringing a child into the world, wasn't it?
Keir moved his queen, placing it where it could be taken by Caleb's black knight. The boy looked up at him with a bright smile and took the piece, not suspecting for a moment that his old man was devious enough to set him up for a fall. It would be a lesson, even if it came at the cost of that wonderfully innocent smile.
Caron studied the board. Moving the knight away from its defensive position allowed Keir to push his bishop into place, which in turn would force Caleb to move his king into a position where check mate was only a couple of moves away. It was all about looking ahead, seeing the possibilities and permutations the game presented.
The boy stepped unwittingly into the trap.
Keir was merciful, ending the game in a couple of minutes.
"Lose a fight, win the battle," Keir said.
Caleb nodded. He was a quick learner and wouldn't fall into the same trap twice.
Keir rubbed one of his huge hands through the boy's mop of hair.
Caron felt the familiar prickle at the back of her neck. It was irrational, of course, but she envied them their closeness.
In the morning they would move on. There were miles left to patrol before they rested again. Then, at least she could concentrate on what she had been trained to do, instead of watching the two play and feeling maudlin for a life not lived.
∗ ∗ ∗
It was easy to see why the range was known as the World's Roof. Even here, far from their loftiest heights, the snowcapped peaks were spectacular to behold, intimidating as they clawed up at the sky. Some of the mountains, like the Mhar Massif off to the east, pierced the clouds and kept on climbing until their summits were far out of sight. There was something primal, elemental, about the mountains' presence in the world. They seemed to taunt the fleeting nature of humanity and promise that no matter what, the land would abide.
It had been a long journey skirting the Kodar Mountains along the borders of Varisia and Belkzen. On the way, the travelers had seen things that could never be unseen. But at night it had been the sounds rather than sights that would never leave Caron, especially the gentle, low moaning of the willow-'o-wisps. She knew the dancing lights were the last echoes of the great sacrifice the marsh had seen, and she had been unable to differentiate those ghostlights from the lost soldiers who had given their lives in that desperate blood ritual to deny the orc devastation so long ago. Caleb was both old enough to understand the implications of those flickering lights and impressionable enough to imagine there was some kind of glory to be won through self-sacrifice. The world would batter that out of him in time, but until then it was Keir's and her job to love, nurture, and protect the lad.
She paused, mopping the sweat from her brow, and looked up again through the thick forest lining the lower slope. The trees thinned out as the incline steepened, leaving roots exposed and clinging to the bedrock where the soil had slid away. In a month, the leaves would turn to golden brown, crumple, and fall, but for now the forest was in the last bloom of summer.
They pushed on. Gradually, the trees thinned around them, the sounds of the forest giving way to the whistle of the wind as it swept down through the mountains and the crunch of scree underfoot.
There were risks that went with any patrol, especially one that had lasted as long as this one, but there were rewards, too. One of those was contact—with the world, with the good people and glorious creatures that brought it to life.
She turned the patrol in the direction of the huddle of buildings in the distance.
Smoke rose from the main house.
She was hungry, and she knew Caleb would be, too. The boy was always hungry. He'd inherited his father's larger-than-life appetite.
"One night won't hurt," she told Keir. She knew the road weighed on him more than it did her. It had been her choice to live like this. When his world fell apart, he had fallen in love with her, slowly, one day at a time, but she was never going to be Neve, who would always be his first love. During those first days and weeks on the road, it was painfully obvious that Keir had come with Caron to escape the ghost of his departed love. Neve was everywhere in their old village, in every stone and every window. He'd see her in the river, her reflection bathing even if her memory could never be washed away. So Caron had made the offer: "Come with me. Her ghost will still be here when you return, but maybe you'll be better able to cope with it." That had been so long ago now, and more and more he'd talk to the boy about home, about teaching him skills in the forge, and the life they had waiting for them. Going home wasn't something she looked forward to in the same way. For them it was a beginning; for her it was an end. An end to this life they shared where they were the entire world to each other.
"Then we move on," he agreed, thinking she was as keen to be moving again as he was. "We don't want to be out here when winter arrives."
Sometimes ignorance was bliss.
As they neared, people emerged from their houses. One woman, draped in a thick shawl, leaned in close to a muscular man who stood head and shoulders taller than the others. Her voice didn't carry. Caron put a smile on her face. She took in the people and the surroundings. There were obvious signs of preparation for some sort of celebration, though she couldn't think of any holy days they might be observing. Perhaps it was a coming-of-age ceremony?
A big burly man stepped forward, his arms spread wide. "Welcome, welcome," he said, grinning broadly. "Come, join us. You must be hungry. Thirsty. Please, be welcome."
"Thank you," Keir said. "The promise of a decent meal is music to my ears."
"I'll have beds made up for you. Rest."
Keir took the man's outstretched hand. "There's no need to trouble yourselves."
"It's no trouble," the man said. "What's ours is yours. Today is a good day—the Festival of the Sun. Please. We may not have much to offer, but what we have we will gladly share with you."
Curious faces watched as the newcomers walked between the rundown houses. The locals' clothes were patched and poor, their skin etched with the shapes of the bones beneath. It was painfully obvious these people were living on the edge on starvation, and yet they were willing to share what little they had.
The man showed them to a tiny house that was bare save for the essentials and reeked of cold and damp. It was a small village. An empty house felt like a greater tragedy than it might have in a bigger town. Who had lived here? Why was it empty now? Caron ran her fingers across the wall, wondering what stories the stones might tell.
They were supplied with water and soap to wash themselves, and given time to change out of clothes smeared with the grit and grime of their journey. "I'll send someone to scrub them for you," the man said, and then closed the door behind him.
Caleb, exhausted, was sprawled out on the simple cot that lay in the corner of the room, his eyes closed. Caron admired his unerring warrior's talent of being able to catch a nap whenever and wherever the chance arose.
"The boy's got the right idea," Keir said, and within minutes was fast asleep himself.
For a few minutes, Caron tried to follow suit, but no matter how she tried to let her mind drift, sleep would not come. Reluctantly, she rose and went out for a walk.
"Hello again." It was the man who'd shown them into the house. "I hope you're hungry," he said with a smile.
"You really shouldn't trouble yourselves."
"It's no trouble, really. We don't see many travelers these days, and it would mean the world to us if you'd stay, enjoy the celebration." He looked down at his feet, then up at her, obviously uncomfortable. "You might have noticed when you arrived... We don't have any children of our own. We won't be here much longer. We weren't blessed. Our little community is dying." He raised his hand to fend off Caron's look of sympathy. "It's just a fact of life," he went on, "and no great tragedy to be honest. We've got a good life here. However, and feel free to say no, it just struck me that it would be a great honor if your boy could take part in the festivities?"
He smiled softly. "It has been a long time since youthful laughter filled these hills. The feast calls for a Lord of Summer... do you think he would like to be our Lord of Summer?"
"Lord of Summer. I don't think I've come across that before." Her words were not quite a question but invited an answer just the same. The question she really wanted to ask was where had all of the villagers' own children gone—or had none ever been born? An entire barren generation seemed unlikely, even in such a small community. Had the children died? Disease was always a threat. They were a long way from any help. Her mind raced with the possibilities, trying to fasten on the most obvious one that would explain the sadness she felt from the villagers. Something had happened to the children, a sweeping sickness had taken them, something like that. If so, that was a sorrow she could share, and it would explain so much.
"For generations we have celebrated the arrival of autumn," the man said, "and given thanks to the mountains for the shelter and protection they afford us. It goes back to when I was a boy, and when my father was. The Lord of Summer represents the best that the village has to offer. Even though your son is not one of ours, he would still represent so much of what we were and want to be again. All he needs to do is take his place on the Briar Throne and smile."
She'd come across plenty of towns and villages that clung onto long-held beliefs and rituals. Some were no more than explanations of natural phenomena like the rise and falls of river levels, the coming of the new moon, or the changing of the seasons. Giving thanks to the mountains was no stranger than any of those. She smiled. "I'm sure he'd love that."
"Wonderful. Wonderful. We'll need to go through the ceremony with him, of course, practice the few lines he'll need to say, but that'll take only a few minutes. First, we should see about getting you fed." He smiled and led her back to the house.
As he closed the door behind her, she realized she hadn't seen anything of the village.
∗ ∗ ∗
The sun sank lower in the sky, casting a gloom inside the room.
People came and went, bringing with them food and questions about the world outside. Everyone was so friendly. She went outside. She could see Caleb dressed in a costume of leaves and vines. He waved to her, clearly delighted to be the center of attention. So like his mother, Caron thought, and so unlike herself. But that was blood for you: it couldn't be denied.
The man who'd greeted them came over to meet her at the door. He smiled warmly. "Thank you so much for doing this. Your boy is having the time of his life."
"I'm sure he is." Caron looked across at Caleb as he was fussed over by half a dozen women old enough to be his grandmother. By the time they were finished with him he'd be every inch the young, virile Lord of Summer they needed. Looking at him there she didn't see the boy; she saw his father the day she'd lost her heart to him. The boy was his double. She couldn't help but smile, remembering the man who'd stolen her heart. But of course that meant remembering everything else, too: the naming ceremony, and the fact Keir hadn't chosen her no matter how desperately she'd wanted him to just say her name and take her hand and dance together into the sunset.
They followed the man between the houses, to the green in front of the main communal house. The entire village had gathered. She could feel them holding their collective breath as a Caleb stepped forward, dressed in the lush colors of summer. His costume was completed with a crown of leaves that had been picked that morning and were already beginning to brown and curl. The crown was a reminder that summer couldn't last forever, no matter what rituals or ceremonies you performed.
The boy walked slowly, his footsteps caught in the rhythm of a softly beating drum. She hadn't noticed the drummer. The sound seemed to be emanating from within the huddled buildings.
At the edge of the settlement, a path lit by fiery brands led the way up into the mountains. With the sun lowering in the sky, the brands created a path of light. Caleb led the procession, walking slowly up the mountainside.
He didn't look back at them once.
∗ ∗ ∗
The villagers began a slow, rhythmic chant. Their voices rolled across the mountainside. They weren't raised in joy. This was a dirge. Mournful, melancholy, like the mountain itself was grieving.
"This isn't right," she whispered fiercely.
Keir said nothing.
They walked side by side up the path of light, leaving the village far behind on the lower slopes. The path wound up through scree and loose rock toward the bare face of the mountain. She could see dark black scars in the face, deep crevices eroded into the mountainside by centuries of harsh weather. Some of the scars rose high above their heads, but were so narrow it would have been hard for a rat to squeeze through.
The path of light opened out into a broad, flat expanse high above the valley below. In the center, surrounded by more blazing torches and a circle of scuffed footprints, was a wooden throne fashioned from intertwined branches and living vines. This time Caleb did look back for approval before he climbed into the chair. He took his place center stage and waited while the others chanted. The pounding of the drum increased, in volume and tempo, counterpoint to the melancholic song.
And then suddenly it stopped.
There was movement within the cracks of the mountain face.
She stared at the dark fissures in the rock as slowly shadows began to detach from the blackness. There was something wrong about the way they moved—too fluid, too supple, hunched and scuttling almost like spiders rather than walking proudly down the hillside like actors—that twisted her gut.
Only they weren't shadows at all.
They looked almost human in the way they moved; their skin was sickly, almost translucent in the faltering light of the path's torches. She could see the bright, bloody colors of the organs beneath the surface and the hard ridges of ivory bone. In its hand she saw a hideous double-bladed sword that gleamed sickly in the moonlight. The shadow man saw her staring at him, and turned to stare back at her, his wide mouth stretching ear to ear as he bared razor-sharp teeth.
This wasn't a ceremony. It was a sacrifice.
Caleb sat proudly on his throne, the Lord of Summer's crown of leaves firmly in place on his head, the daemon spawn closing in on him, hungry to take the villagers' offering.
"Caleb!" she screamed, reaching for her sword and trying to push and shove her way through the crowd of onlookers. But as fast as she moved, they were faster. The shadow men spilled out of the cracks in the mountain and rushed down the slope.
The entire mountainside was locked in eerie silence.
She felt arms grab at her and hold her tight, then saw the same smiling man who'd gone out of his way to make them feel welcome pull Keir down.
They fought desperately, but it didn't matter. There was no way they could fend off an entire village long enough to reach the boy on his briar throne.
Caron screamed and twisted, bucking and thrashing against the hands holding her, but it didn't matter. The sheer weight of bodies overwhelmed her. Something slammed into the side of her face repeatedly—fist or rock, it made little difference—until she stopped fighting and her entire world grew dark.
Coming Next Week: Into the darkness in Chapter Two of Steven Savile's "Queen Sacrifice."
Steven Savile is the internationally best-selling author of almost twenty novels and many more short stories, set in both original worlds and those of Primeval, Stargate SG-1, Warhammer, Torchwood, Dr. Who, and more. He won Writers of the Future in 2002, has been a runner-up for the British Fantasy Award and shortlisted for the Scribe Award for Best Adapted Novel, and won the Scribe Award for Best Young Adult Original Novel. For more information, visit his website at stevensavile.com.
Illustration by Dion Harris.