The pines whispered. The old oaks groaned. Ravines thin as razors screamed high in the shattered hills.
The tempest had come.
At the border of the farmlands, ancient family trees writhed, tugging at their own roots in such a way that the very earth seemed to breathe. Fencing stones, fixed to their places since time immemorial, turned and slid along the rain-slick clay. Pelting hail flew sidelong, falling for leagues before coming to rest on the storm-tormented plain. Young farmers, heeding the warnings of older bones and wiser minds, abandoned their plows and left their doors unlatched. The grey-heads knew the truth: when storm came to Elbereth, there was naught to do but retreat to the old stone church and pray the gods would be merciful.
And in the midst of ice and mist and wind, a single knight rode forth.
None saw him enter the village, though they knew he would come. The market square was a battered desert, stalls and goods thrown carelessly aside by the rampaging wind. Heavy-set clouds drove down the lane in an unbroken line, moving faster than a horse could gallop, and through them came a single rider, marching against the wind. His face was lean and sharp as a knife, and nearly as long. His ragged robes were strapped to his weather-beaten body, attached here and there to odd bits of armor older than the village. There was a scabbard at his belt, but it held no sword – rather, he carried a sturdy wand of rowan wood, long and stout as his fleshless forearm. It, too, was older than the village, as was its owner. The horse, however, was young – just old enough to know and appreciate his own power, but not yet old enough to fear the winds of the world. The knight had chosen him well.
Horse and rider wound wordlessly through the wreckage, keeping any thoughts they had about the little town to themselves. In the sun, both might’ve spoken freely, but beneath the lash of wind and grey and cloud, both were silent. It was a grim day – not just for the companions or the village, but for the world.
The tempest had come.
Few gave credence to the dire prophecies of the knight’s order. There were many winds within the world, and many more between them, but few believed the watchtower seers when they warned of a final wind – one that would grind the world down to the foundations and sweep aside all living things. As ever, the order’s mission were ridiculed by all but those who saw too keenly for this age – the ones the rich and powerful called mad.
But now those mighty men huddled in their storm-cellars, listening as all their works came crumbling down beneath the blast. From the greatest to the least, none could deny – the tempest had come.
Such thoughts might’ve brightened the knight’s countenance, or even brought a rare laugh (bitter though it would be) to his lips. It had been so long since the knight laughed that even he had forgotten what it sounded like. But no. He couldn’t laugh today. In an age long past, before prophecies and knights and endless watching seized his youth and sacrificed it on the altar of time, he knew joy and light and laughter. Before. Long ago, before he even knew what an anemometer was, he thought the wind and weather his friends. But this morning, when he woke to see the device on his balcony turning so quickly that it became a blur, he knew the truth.
His horse was saddled, his ancient armor fitted, and before an hour had passed the old man rode out, following the path of the rusted weathervane. His wand was heavier in its sheath than he knew it to be, and his bones ached with the rapid shifts in air pressure as he leaned into the headwind. Another knight – a younger knight – would have been a better choice than he. But no – there were no other knights. Not anymore.
And so he rode against the hurricane blasts, wide brimmed hat pulled low over his eyes and tied off beneath his chin. At his age, he barely felt the buffeting of the world anymore, but he knew he was too close to blindness to risk getting grit in his old, grey eyes, and he had a long march to make against the wind if he was to find its source – and slay it.
The village had passed them by, like so many before it. Beyond the borders of the sharecroppers, the farmland still breathed, and the path began to wind up into the mountains called the walls of the world. Loose shale, scatted by the ever-growing winds, covered the trail at every turning, and the horse’s shoes clattered and slipped as they went. He whinnied quietly but went on, driven by his master’s will and his own simple understanding of their task. Even he knew that the winds of the north had grown more terrible in the age of man’s ambition, angered by their feckless conquests and heedless magics. He didn’t know what his master intended to do when he reached the source of that wind, but he knew they must reach it, or fall in the attempt.
What would he do, I wonder, if he realized his master didn’t know either?
They came at last upon a narrow gully high in the mountain wall – a pass so narrow two could not walk abreast, yet so tall it cut the summit of the mountain in twain. The wind bore down like a river through the fearful pass, sending stones the size of human heads flying like loose sand. Standing to one side, the knight felt the storm abate at last, quieting to a gentle springtime gust. Still he did not smile. The knight recognized the place as soon as sight. Here, fearful and dark, was the long-fabled gate of the worlds.
The old man had wondered at the storms of the world for years uncountable. He’d given lives and loves to his study of the winds. He’d chased the breath of the mountains to its final source, and now, he’d found it. He knew without question: this was whence the tempest came.
A long while he stood watching. Too long, he knew. After all, he was old – too old for any ordinary man to live. Life had lost its savor with every passing age, as he stretched the final years of his life again and again to preserve his order. He feared not to die in the cold reach between the worlds – yet to tread the great stone hallway of the outworld’s unknown gods? That took more than the resigned courage of the joyless. That took foolhardy bravery – and the knight had never been a fool.
But he had chosen his horse well. The young stallion turned a sharp, inquiring eye back to his master. Seeing the trouble on his long, lined face, he spoke. “What’s wrong?” he asked, his words thick with the homely accent of the northern old-stock, “Is something the matter?”
“Nay,” the knight replied, voice thin as onion paper, “Naught is the matter.”
“Then…” began the horse, before he paused to shake the dust from his mane. “Then shall we go on?”
The knight stared at the dark opening in the mountain, like the maw of some terrible creature, open and waiting for any foolish enough to step within. “Aye,” he answered after a long and searching pause.
The horse was moving almost before he said it. The cavern loomed up before them a moment before it swallowed them whole. The terrible din of the tempest returned without warning, louder than ever before, and the knight drew his threadbare scare around his mouth and nose. The horse stumbled once or twice when a particularly strong gust rode down the passage against them, but he never lost his footing. The knight felt a sudden shame. With more to lose and less to drive him, the horse was less fearful and doubtful than he.
The thought steeled him, and he fixed that resolve like an anchor in his soul. Rising higher in the saddle against the wind, he drew the rowan wand from his scabbard with deliberate slowness. The branch thrummed in his hand with the pulse of the old world’s magic. It, too, knew that this was the task it had been carved for – it knew that the runes scored with patience and care along its length read storm-foe, and it bore the name with pride. Its confidence filled the old man’s hollow chest anew, and even the frozen winds could not chill his hammering heart.
And then without warning, they three – horse, rider, and living wand – came upon the tempest.
The knight blinked. After so long in the howling darkness, the bright stillness was blinding and deafening. With no wind the resist them the horse stumbled forward, barely catching his footing in the infinite light before he could fall.
“What… what is this place?” the horse asked, awestruck and terrified. Once, long before he became a horse of the order, he’d seen the faerie lights coursing along the ley-lines of the plains – the last gasp of the world’s fast-dying magic. He knew, without question that it was the same light that surrounded them now, in the limitless expanse beyond the borders of their reality.
His master wished he had an answer to give. For all the time he’d spent imagining what he’d find at the back of the north wind, he never considered that he might find nothing. There was no height, nor depth, nor distance that his eyes could sound, and when he stared out into the void he felt a dizziness and nausea rising in his mind. It wasn’t even truly white, he realized as he sealed his eyes against the pain – when he turned to look around, streaks of every color played in the corners of his vision, splitting and dancing in a half-glimpsed pattern. His eyes, like imperfect prisms, were trying to make the multitude one.
“Master?” his horse asked, his own eyes half-sealed as he turned back towards his rider. The knight, feeling somewhat foolish but more than a little afraid, grimaced.
“I don’t know,” he answered. It was the honest truth. There were many rumors, of course, about what lay beyond the walls of the world – people and animals went missing in the mountains all the time. Some said it was the realm of monsters, the home of the ancient drakes and leviathans that plagued the world of old. Others said it was the place of final rest (or torment) for the immortal dead. The most popular idea (in this cynical age, at least) was that there was nothing but a precipitous drop into the eternity beyond the sky. The knight didn’t know what lay outside the edge of the world, but after all the years and powers he’d expended trying to avert the tempest in vain, he knew the answer had to lie there.
But now, he stood in an empty, silent place with no monsters to slay, no dark lords to bargain with, and not so much as a hill to throw himself off of in despair. Of all the ends he’d imagined for his quest, finding nothing was the one he hadn’t dared to imagine.
Even so, he had to try something. The wand of rowan sat still in his hand, its magic pulse still and slow. With narrow hope, the knight raised it high. “By charge of the mage-knights of Galloglade!” he called into the silence, “I bid the great tempest present itself to stand trial for its assault on the world beyond!”
His voice was strong, even for the shake in it, but it did not carry. The endless white stillness seemed to consume his words as soon as they were spoken. Only then did the knight realize that the silence was not silent, in the same way the whiteness was not white. The very air vibrated with living sound, like every voice that had ever spoken was speaking at once, over and above one another until what remained was a senseless hum so even and hypnotic that he didn’t even notice it at first. All sound, all colors, all shades of light…
The knight’s grip on the wand slipped, and storm-foe fell from his hand. As it did, the knight opened his eyes to see it shift and change in the empty, un-empty air. First it seemed to age a decade in an instant, the wood rotting and crumbling away like wet earth – then the process reversed, the carvings along the branch vanishing as bark reappeared until finally, it folded itself into a single small, red berry.
It seemed that way, at least. The knight could not swear he saw which happened first, or that it didn’t all happen at once in the time it took the wand to fall from his hand to where the ground should’ve been. But the wand didn’t stop falling there. The rowan seed (which was also a wand and also a rotten, splintered branch) kept going, glowing in the blinding not-white light until it was too far away to be seen.
The truth crashed in on the knight all at once. He’d been too distracted to notice before, but the air was heavy, saturated with every taste, smell, and sensation he’d ever known – so many that his mind had substituted a vacuum to shield him from the cacophony. The knight knew there was one last theory of what lay beyond the sky – one few people understand and thus, few held. But with nothing but time in his dark tower of watch, the knight had read every scrap and tittle ever written about the way beyond the world, and he knew with a sudden, crushing certainty which one was true.
“We need to get out,” the knight hissed, the ache between his eyes growing as he heard his words meet their echo before he said them. “Now,” he added, twisting the reigns to pull his horse around. The beast complied quickly – he had little understanding of the danger they were in, but he felt his master’s fear.
The mouth of the cave still lay behind them, floating in the infinite un-empty void – the only real, solid thing in the place beyond the world. And yet it was fading as the knight watched, turning opaque as it slowly rose up and out of reach. No, he realized, cursing his stupidity – it was not rising. He and his horse were sinking.
With a cry and a snap of the reigns, he charged for the stone doorway, the only remining link to the world he’d left behind. It ceased fading, yet continued to rise. In moments, the way would be lost forever.
“Jump!” the knight cried, “Jump now, storms damn ye!”
The horse might’ve smiled, had his heart not hammered so fiercely in his skull. Ever since he was a foal, he’d loved to jump – he was bred for it, born for it, and knew only too well his own skill. With a powerful spring, horse and rider were aloft, soaring through the fog of sight and sound and senseless sensation. In the vastness beyond reason, it was impossible to say how high they flew. The only thing I can say for certain? That it was high enough.
The terrible brightness around them faded like a snuffed candle, and the real, solid echo of horseshoes on stone was a salve to both their ears. The knight drew the cool, clean air of the homely mountains deep into his lungs, only then realizing he’d been holding his breath. Ahead, the brilliance of late summer sun shone from the mouth of the cave – a welcome reprieve from the terrifying glory of the outworld glare. So welcome was the sight that the knight failed to realize the truth of it.
Of all the stories that imagined the world beyond the world, only one ever came close to the truth. It spoke of a farmer’s boy – a goatherd tending his flock high in the mountains beyond his village. There, he found a cave, and through that cave, a place where all time was one – past, present, and future. He heard things there, saw and felt things no mortal mind could know, and when he returned to the living world at last, he could remember none of it. He simply spoke of a realm free from the turning of the sun and the slavery of the seasons.
It was a story few knew, and fewer believed. No one would have believed such an outlandish tale from the boy at all, much less written it down – if not for the fact that he told it the grandchildren of his younger brothers and sisters, now fifty years older than he.
Perhaps it might’ve been well if the knight had stopped in the little nameless village at the foot of the mountains – that boy had still lived there, though the years had turned him old and senile. He was still cackling about “the great eternity” down in the church’s storm-cellar when the weather-beaten rider passed the chapel by. And even if the knight had not listened to his warnings, he still might’ve enjoyed one last taste of human kindness and friendship while the storm raged unstoppable across the land above. Now…
Now there was nothing.
From the top of the world’s walls, the knight could see that the little village was gone. A young, wild forest was already sprouting in the empty land where once grew grain. Nothing moved in the plain below for leagues and leagues, and though the morn was chill and damp, he could see not see the smoke of a single hearthfire. He fought down panic as he looked further. The air was perfectly still and clear – clearer than he’d ever seen it, save for a few days in his almost-forgotten youth. Though his eyes were dim with cataracts, he could see clear to the far end of the world. But there was nothing to be seen. If anything had survived the tempest – if anyone had outlasted the winds in their dank, leaky storm-cellars and emerged alive in this new, clean world – the knight felt sure they had not lasted long.
Knight and horse stood silent on the slope a long while. Their minds tumbled, grappling with impossibility within impossibility. There are no words for the end of all things, dear readers – for the loss of all goodness and the failure of all hopes. There are cries and screams for such moments, yes, but the knight’s throat felt raw and bone-dry, and the horse could not seem to catch his breath no matter what he did. So both sat, and watched, and prayed their eyes were lying to them.
Time was still uncertain, but it felt like ages before the knight pulled at the reigns. The horse obliged without question, cantering away from the mountain path already obscured by slides and rockfalls and the passing of many years. Without a word the pair turned to face the fearful, silent passage. Slowly, horse and rider marched out of the dead world behind and into the utter unknown.