He was riding through the Vale of Galdrin on the back of Firesong. He had no idea where he’d come up with that name, but it fit her as well as any other and better than Corvallen, despite what the bloody bards said. She was his fifth horse. Corvallen had been his second. Red Runner, Corvallen, True Wind, Far Fighter, Firesong. The only decision the bards ever made that pleased him was forgetting the name Red Runner. But Firesong ought to be in the legend of the Wolf Knight. She had served him longer than the others put together.
She flicked her ears as if she knew he was thinking about her and he smoothed her mane. Her steel shoes echoed off the remnants of a cobbled road, stones broken up by trees spreading their roots unchecked under the earth. He was getting closer to Veregund, closer to his destination.
Jorem watched the trees on either side in distrust. He hated coming to Veregund, it always set him on edge. He lived his life more or less in the saddle, never staying anywhere for too long. Someone had told him once that he wasn’t wandering, he was always running away. He forgot who it was but it seemed true enough. Except for this time of year, when the land was dying and he made the trip through the Forest of Erisk, along the Vale of Galdrin and into Veregund. Once a year, a pilgrimage of sorts.
The Vale of Galdrin was best remembered in the summertime, when the trees put forth white flowers among their bright green leaves and wild flowers grew up along the side of the road, which had been maintained by its own team of masons. The white stone for which Veregund had become famous lined the street all the way to the Keep, shining like a beacon in the moonlight. This wintered version, smelling of leaf mould and corruption, was a pale imitation of its former glory.
He rode on, uneasy in Firesong’s saddle, and unable to do anything about the wind cutting at his exposed face, pressing the damp hood to his head until his hair was soaked and he shivered. He never shivered in the songs and stories. He was the Wolf Knight, barely human. The cold in his bones made him feel less than human, but not in a way that spoke of strength. It had been a hard ride this year. Erisk grew more wild every time he passed through it. There were too many ghosts on this path.
They were not visible now. Only the moonlight showed them, almost like spider’s webs in the rain. Faces he had known. Names he had forgotten. They did not speak, did not raise hand in acknowledgment. They merely followed him from the outer borders of Erisk, through the forest and down the vale all the way to the Keep.
The white stone walls of Veregund loomed before him. Towers, crumbling now to dust, once stood strong. The walls had never been scaled, never been breached. They still looked defensible and he knew they were defended. No one came to Veregund anymore. Just him and his pilgrimage. The ghosts kept it the rest of the year.
The wooden gates rattled in the wind, straining at rusty clasps that held them open. They wanted to close, wanted to shut forever and never let anyone else pass. But he had survived and lived on. The Wolf Knight, the forgotten son of Veregund. That was not in the tales either; one more thing that Jorem was thankful that the bards hadn’t got right.
He passed the gates and steered Firesong through deserted streets, where empty houses stood in mockery of life. Curtains billowed in windows left open by their last inhabitants, dancing with the wind. The rain slicked cobbles shone like silver. He had to reach the Keep before night.
It was high on the hill above him, through seven sets of walls, each one designed to hold out an army. They had done that until Veregund had died unconquered. Not a single wall breached in five hundred years. That had to count for something. It was not in the stories. No one believed in Veregund anymore. No one remembered except him.
He climbed down from Firesong’s back and tied her to a hitching post in front of the Keep. He couldn’t take her inside, even if she wanted to go. Unlike all the others, Corvallen included, she never protested about being in Veregund, never became mad with fear or whickered nervously. She saw and she accepted. It was good to have her as company. But the Keep was for him alone.
He rapped on the mighty doors, the sound echoing off the white walls and cobbled streets, too loudly and too thinly. There was no answer, of course, but he always knocked. Pushing the door open, he steeled himself for what lay beyond. He entered and the door slammed shut behind him, leaving Firesong alone in the deserted city.
A spectacular sunset turned all the houses to molten gold, then to fire, and finally to an orange glow that seemed almost to bring life back to the streets. Night fell all at once. The sky clouded, the moon occasionally piercing the veil to send a shaft of silver shining off the stone. A faint wind stirred the dust, but nothing else moved, save for the rise and fall of the horse’s chest in sleep.
Dawn broke palely. The distant sky was purple on the horizon and birds soared and swooped as faraway specks. The Wolf Knight stepped from the Keep, legs shaking and eyes red with tiredness. His skin was pale and stretched too tight across his bones.
Mounting, Jorem felt the better, but only because he was no longer using every ounce of energy to keep from falling down. It had been a trying night, the worst yet. They had all come this year. He hadn’t expected that. But it was done again. He steered Firesong out of Veregund into Galdrin. They galloped along the Vale, the wind and light rain breathing life back into them both and he laughed. It was warm in this place, warm and needed. The Keep faded behind him, twisting in mist, as the Wolf Knight rode once more to war.