It started with a conversation.
You understand, of course, that the interior of a longhouse was full of conversation. A perpetual buzz of laughter, chatter and drunken revelry: an intoxicating mix that all but drowned the whizz of the outside blizzard.
Gusts of wind fought through gaps in the walls, the grand fire flickered in response. Sparks from cracking wood struggled to rise, only for them to disperse throughout air that was heavy with smoke. Strings of dried fish hung from the rafters. Their strong, salty scent was diminished by the hanging herbs, like strings of dull emeralds.
Sitting at a corner table, I sipped my tankard of mead, and observed.
Opposite was an old woman, tapping a crooked finger against the ruts in the table. To my left sat a man with a black eye patch, his blond hair and beard braided and decorated with turquoise beads. To my right, a thirteen-year-old girl, sprawled and comatose on the table after a few pints of beer.
My own curiosity – the range of human interactions before me – spread until every man, woman and child were known to me. The old man in the corner; the pregnant lady sitting by herself; the group of young men huddling over their bread and lamb shanks. I studied their mannerisms, their appearances; the way their teeth gleamed in the orange firelight from the central hearth.
Most were fisherman, for they had homemade, intricate bait hooks hanging from their trousers: prized possessions, coveted like money. Others were blacksmiths, their faces blackened from soot and their hands calloused and scarred. The Traders were also obvious, more from their charismatic smiles than the enormous rucksacks hanging from their shoulders.
Then there were the Roamers, such as myself. Aimlessly wandering the wintry tundra, we only sought shelter when the outside world threatened to kill us.
My attention fell to the collection of antlers, dotting the walls. Huge, marvellous structures, stretching out like tributaries from a river. Many were still attached to the stuffed heads of wild beasts: elk, moose, reindeer, pronghorn… They were next to heads of bears, mountain lions, snow leopards… A whole host of dead, lifeless eyes that gazed forever at the bustling scene below.
Did they know what fate lay before them? When they were slaughtered – whether by arrow, bullet or knife – did they know they’d be hung up on the wall? Doomed for all eternity to watch cruel and idle humans eat their fellow kind?
My thoughts were squashed beneath the harsh, hoarse tone of a man at the table besides me.
“Forget it, Thorik!” Each word was a hiss through clenched teeth. “T’is no good coming out with nonsense like that!”
The second voice belonged to a man who shared my twenty-or-so years. It was a little slurred as it snapped: “But it’s odd though, innit? After all, she’s the End of Everything!”
My interest piqued, rising into a singular, moving point.
“Exactly!” the old man snapped. “Which means it’s a bloody good job he’s found her.”
“Then why hasn’t he killed her?”
“It’s none of our concern, Thorik – stay out of it!”
I suddenly found myself standing before that table. The two conversers both stopped and stared at me with questioning eyes.
Nerves choking me, I cleared my throat and placed a grubby, long-fingered hand upon the back of a spare chair.
The elderly man raised an intrigued eyebrow. Thorik’s attention started on my face and then strayed down, admiring my slim figure with a glimmer in his eye. I wished I still wore my coat – a long, tatty thing that was made of brown leather and significantly covered all parts which I deemed fit to cover before strangers, which was all of me.
Shuffling my feet, I said: “I couldn’t help but overhear. You’re talking about Alira, right?”
The old man continued to observe me with suspicion, his stained fingers playing with his grey beard. I swallowed hard, concentrating on an eye that was marred by a long scar, clouding what would have been an electric blue iris.
“Girl, eavesdropping is not a trait that is perceived highly,” he said.
“Forgive me. I’m afraid my curiosity got the better of me.”
“Why are you so curious? Can’t a father and son have a conversation in peace?”
“Of course you can. Please, feel free to tell me to bugger off.” That earned me a quick chuckle. “But, with all due respect, this is Alira we’re talking about. I have the right to know about her just as much as you do.”
“Bit late, though,” Thorik said. He leant back in his chair, the orange firelight illuminating sharp features that were not dissimilar from his father. Those same electric blue irises persisted, scanning my body up and down with a carnal gleam that gave me gooseflesh. “As you say, this is Alira. Surely the End of Everything is a topic that’s on everybody’s lips, particularly now.”
I shrugged, crossing my arms high, trying to cover my breasts from his penetrating stare.
“But I’m a Roamer,” I said, as if that explained everything. “The Fjordlands are a long way from here, and you know how it is. We don’t hear the best news until six months after the fact. Remember when that train derailed in Maelstrom?” I paused, recalling the disaster that occurred on the outskirts of the New World’s capital, killing over two hundred Aristocrats and injuring countless more. “Well, I didn’t hear about that until months later.”
“Point taken,” the old man said. He nodded towards the vacant chair. “Take a seat. We’ll fill you in.”
Without a second thought, I obliged.
“So, tell us what you know about Alira,” Thorik said, his eyes still wandering. The sheathed hunting dagger weighed heavy on my thigh.
“I know that she’s the End of Everything, and that Mason’s looking for her, but other than that…” I shrugged. “I don’t really keep up to date with Mason’s vendettas.”
“Ha, I don’t blame you.”
Mason. The New World’s dictator, a mass murderer, sitting up in his grand Palace and enslaving and butchering every innocent being who didn’t bow down and accept his sadistic ways.
“But,” Thorik continued, “you know he’s been after her, right?”
“Of course I know that. The whole of the New World knows that.”
After all, Masonians were roaming the wintry tundra, questioning and torturing anyone and everyone for even a whisper of Alira’s movements. So far, all information has led down a winding, dried up riverbed. This only angered Mason, leading to the deaths of countless. Mostly Roamers, like myself.
At my somewhat snappy outburst, Thorik smiled. A cold knot of anxiety settled in my gut.
“What’s your name, girl?”
I stared at him. Hard.
“Maya.” The word rolled easily off my tongue, encompassing the space between us. “What’s it to you?”
Thorik shrugged, then took a leisurely sip of mead. “Just wondering,” was all he said.
Anger bubbled up with me, replacing the cold fear with an insatiable heat. Turning my burning amber gaze back to the old man, I said: “Sorry mate, what were you saying?”
I pushed a strand of thick, chestnut hair behind my ear, boasting an ear shell that was home to eight rings of varying size. Each of the rings spoke to onlookers. They were a golden warning that spat in the eyes of any attacker: back off!
Rings on the curling cartilage of a Roamer’s ear were a sign of defiance: one ring for each failed assault, each attempt upon my life. Over my twenty years, five unlucky men and three equally unlucky women thought they could have a go at me, only to end with bullets in their brains.
I was always a good shot.
Thorik’s wandering eyes quickly found the rings and he counted each and every one of them. Gold glinted at each lost life.
Too bad for them.
Thorik turned very pale. Then he swallowed hard and disappeared into his tankard while his father spoke.
“So, you’ve been wandering the wilds, have you?”
“That’s what us Roamers do best.”
“Indeed.” From within his pocket, he produced a long pipe. Striking a match, his wrinkled face glowed orange as his cheeks hollowed, inhaling in short, abrupt bursts. “But what about before that?”
“How d’you mean?”
“Your accent,” he said, pointing the stem of his pipe towards me. “Though your English is impeccable, you can’t hide your accent. You’re a Herder.”
I bowed my head, my teeth scraping against my lower lip. “That was a long time ago.”
“Perhaps, but the past gets in your bones, girl. You can’t escape it.”
“I’m not trying to escape my past.”
“Then why are you being evasive?”
I squeezed my eyes shut, seeing remnants of the snow and fur tents surrounded by reindeer. When I spoke, my accent reminded me of my Papa. He spoke slow and steady, almost like a melody, and rolled his ‘r’s like his very voice was wind flowing down a mountain. He once told me that his language – the language of all Herders – was carried down from the Ancestors, and our accent helped to tell the old tales to the next generation. It was my heritage, I spoke with pride.
“So,” the old man continued, bringing me out of my reverie. “Obviously the ways of the reindeer are behind you and you’ve been Roaming ever since. So, I trust you know that Mason’s been looking for this Alira for…how long is it now?”
“Twenty years,” I said. My throat was dry. I missed my mead.
“Yes, twenty long, frozen years…” Another inhale of smoke. Another smirk that the firelight was able to distinguish. “She’s the End of Everything, y’know.”
“Yes, I’m aware.”
“Do you know why?”
“No one knows why.”
“But you still believe she is?”
“Yes.” I swallowed hard, fighting the thick ball of nerves in my throat. “Mason’s an intelligent man. If she wasn’t a threat to him – or to this world, the one he shaped with his bare hands – then why would he be so obsessed with finding her?”
“You make a good point.” A quick inhale of smoke into old lungs, followed by a smoke ring that floated off into the rafters. “Strange though, innit?”
“Not really. Mason sees her as a threat, so he wants her dead.”
“That’s New World mentality.”
“I don’t know any different.”
This time, the man stared with a mix of incredulity, and maybe a smidge of pity.
“You don’t know anything about the Old World, do you.” It wasn’t a question. It was a fact. A fact I didn’t deem fit to answer.
The old man shuffled in his seat, rearranging his arthritic bones.
“Can’t blame you there, girl. Ragnarök occurred over one-hundred-and-eighty years ago. I suppose young’uns like you find such a place hard to believe. To most of us, the Old World remains a mystery – other than to Mason, that is. All that’s left is the truthful barbarity of this world.”
Yes, it was barbaric. Yes, it was cruel and harsh and unyielding.
But it was also beautiful.
During Ragnarök, Mason slaughtered almost two billion people, destroying the Old World in a calamitous display of power that rendered all buildings and mountains to the ground. But when he created his New World, he did make it beautiful.
Yet, evil still clung to its wintry veins. Like a disease, Slavery infected the snowy world, poisoning its ethereal lustre with torture and blood. Those who were lucky enough to avoid Slavery had to contend with the unforgiving act of survival: starvation, disease, murder – all were prevalent.
Should one survive that, Masonians were everywhere. Why did they kill in Mason’s name? Most of the time, it was simply for fun.
“Do you agree that Alira needs to die?”
The question punched me in the stomach, knocking all essence of reply. Before me, the old man’s patience grew as thin as the tobacco in his pipe.
“Depends,” I said, carefully. “She’s the End of Everything – whatever that means. I know she’s somehow meant to destroy everything, but…”
I licked my lips, the skin cracked and rough from the cold outside air. “But she’s also a living, breathing person,” I said, carefully.
“Even if it’s said she will destroy the world, and all of us in it?” The old man took a laboured drag of his pipe.
“If we kill her, then we’re no better than Mason.”
“But you’ve killed.” He gestured to the rings on my ear. “You’ve killed plenty.”
“To protect myself,” I stated, bristling in my seat. “It was kill or be killed, or worse. Trust me, they didn’t leave me much choice.”
That seemed to settle the old man. He dug deep into the pockets of his tatty trousers and emerged with a handful of loose tobacco. Thick fibres fell to the table as he pressed them in his pipe.
“Well then, girl, seems you’re in luck.”
Luck? What was he on about?
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“Mason’s found her.”
The entire world stopped. The voices, the crackle of the fire, my own heartbeat… It had all just stopped beneath the weight of those three, impossible words. Crushed beyond recognition.
Mason’s found her.
My lips curved on their own, bewildered accord. “I don’t believe you,” I said.
“Oh, believe it, girl,” Thorik grumbled. “Whole damn Territory’s singing it.”
Words failed me. I sank back in the chair.
Thorik slammed his hand on the table, making it quake. “She’s the End of Everything and what does he do? Sod all, I tell you!”
Dazed and weary, my amber eyes slid sideways, fixing on his crooked nose. “What d’you mean he’s done nothing?”
“Well, this is where the confusion arises,” the old man said. “Word is, Alira’s alive and well and living in Mason’s Palace.”
The old man bobbed his bushy grey eyebrows.
“But,” I began, my mind fogging with unsavoury possibilities. “Why? Is he waiting to kill her or –”
“Far from it. She’s living the high life, going to all his dinner parties, socialising and just generally being a fucking Aristocrat.”
Aristocrats. Descendants of those who profited exceptionally well from Ragnarök.
“But she’s meant to destroy him, to destroy the world and all of us in it!” Now it was my turn to laugh – a horrible, feeble sound that could barely be called a laugh at all. “Why keep her alive?”
“Only Odin Allfather knows that.”
My chest expanded on a deep inhale, my lungs burning with smoke. The more I considered this strange and incredulous tale, the more ludicrous it seemed to become.
“Wait,” I said, slamming my own hand upon the table, donned with cheap rings and bangles. “Are you absolutely sure this girl is Alira? Like, the Alira?”
A thick cloud of pipe smoke covered the old man’s features, yet I could still sense his scowl.
“Maya, don’t doubt the truth we tell.”
“I’m not doubting,” I said, exasperated. “I’m just…confused.”
Huffing, the old man delved crooked fingers into his nest of a beard. “You know the stories of Mason, don’t you? The way he can shape the land with a flick of his wrist, or change the weather with a wink of an eye?”
I scoffed quietly beneath my breath. “Of course,” I said.
“Well then, I suppose you’ve also heard about his eyes.”
“Of course I’ve heard about his eyes.” Gooseflesh ran across my skin. “His eyes are the most infamous things about him.”
“Yes…” His stare fell to his knuckles, disfigured from arthritis. “I suppose having eyes that look like diamonds are infamous indeed.”
“Even more infamous knowing they can kill with a single stare,” Thorik mumbled.
All children heard these stories. It was a barbaric truth carved into the brains of all young’uns: don’t look Mason in the eye.
No one knew exactly what Mason was. He resembled a normal man, after all. He slept in the same beds as we did, he ate and drank to merry fulfilment with the rest of the Aristocrats. And yet, he didn’t bleed, he didn’t age. It was said he could pull entire mountains from the ground with little more than a grimace, and that his deadly eyes sparkled with the lustre of a thousand diamonds.
“What’s your point?” I asked, with a mild scowl.
“My point is that Alira also has eyes made of diamond.”
“Yes, yes – I know that.”
“Well then.” The old man sat back in his chair, which creaked ominously. “There you have it. Mason knows that he’s found Alira, because she has the same diamond-coloured eyes. If she was not Alira, then she would have eyes like you or me or Thorik, wouldn’t she?”
I forced a nervous smile.
“So what happens now?” I asked, some moments later. My voice was small, my accent prominent.
The old man simply shrugged, then boasted his yellowed, cracked teeth.
“We pray he kills her,” he grinned.
I jumped at the sharp slap on my shoulder. “Come on, girl. Storm’s passed.”
I accepted my long tatty coat from a hairy hand. At over six-foot-three, Campbell Anders was a broad-shouldered machine who had seen his fair share of violence. Thick scars decorated his cheeks, yet his smile shone bright and proud through a layer of dense stubble. “I’m not dead just yet, so stop looking like you’ve seen a ghost,” he joked.
“Well, look’ee what we have here then,” Thorik laughed low and menacing, and more than a little slurred. “Another bloody Aristocrat!”
Indeed, Campbell’s posh accent and straight spine did little to prove his rough living. Not that his prized sword and revolver did anything to help, that is. Though covered with oxidized grime, they shone against his faded black leather jacket like the expensive relics they were.
“I stopped being an Aristocrat a long time ago,” Campbell said. The smile was gone, his blue eyes carved directly from glacial ice. He wrapped long fingers around his revolver, just peeking from its sheath on his right hip.
The old man, obviously sensing Campbell’s agitation, leant forward and whacked his son over his head. Thorik yelped like a puppy and sank back into his hole.
“S’cuze my son, Sir. Boy’s got no manners.”
“I’m not a Sir,” Campbell snapped, then dulled his snarky tone with a heavy sigh. “But I appreciate the apology.”
He turned to me, blue eyes sparkling. “Come on, girl. We’ve got a long walk ahead of us.”
And just like that, we left the smoke of the longhouse and escaped into the icy wilderness.
* * *
To say it was cold would be an insult to my aching bones.
The entire world was enveloped with snow. A thick, untouched layer of white, smothering all but the most persistent logs, rendering everything else to a snowy grave. The trees could not even escape: their woody skeletons were encased in winter, their frosty skin the only clue to the blizzard’s breath. But, despite the cold and a chill that would seep into your very bones, the world was strangely beautiful.
Following Campbell through the snow, my mind kept drifting. Like a snow flurry rolling down the mountain before us, all thoughts I had raced back to that longhouse, and a curious conversation between father and son.
Mason’s found Alira. Why were those words so hard to comprehend?
“Ah, here will do.” Campbell’s words were muffled by the thick black fabric over his mouth. Quickening my pace and carving deep gutters in the snow, I caught a glimpse of his affections.
A cave. A dark, dank cave framed with snow and icicles. Its aura was plagued with foreboding malice.
“Campbell, there’s probably a bear in there,” I sighed. My own mask trapped my breath, warming my cheeks with moist heat before the cold set in, chapping cracked lips.
Campbell’s glacial blue eyes stared at me from behind his goggles. Made from brown leather and glass, they were impractical things that always fogged up or frosted over. I disliked them. No, it was far better to let your own natural warmth thaw your eyeballs.
Although, sometimes that was easier said than done. My amber contact lenses made such things difficult.
“I highly doubt there’s a bear.” He pointed a gloved finger to the ground. “Look, no droppings.”
“Hibernation though, innit?”
“Doesn’t bloody feel like it.”
“Well it is, and you know as well as I do that hibernation season ended weeks ago. If there was a bear, there would be signs.”
With a sarcastic spread of my arms, I bowed low, curtaining my face with frozen chestnut curls. “Then after you, my good Sir…”
“Piss off,” he snapped, plucking out his revolver and marching into the cave.
Sure enough, the cave was empty. No bears, no deer, no people.
The entrance of the cave formed a narrow passage that erosion had long since crafted, eventually opening out into a cavern that was sealed from the elements. That was not to say it was any less cold, for the very walls sparkled with frost. A frozen stream crisscrossed the base of the cave, creating a line of white against an otherwise black background.
A fire soon fixed that. Soon enough, the slow trickle of water filled the silence between Campbell and I, both wrapped in our fur bedrolls with the soft glow of the fire illuminating our features. I remained staring into that fire, watching as each flame raced up to the rocky ceiling, at each crackle of wood or the sparks that floated aimlessly above. Fire was strangely beautiful against a white world.
“Something on your mind, girl?” Campbell asked. Leaning against the wall and half encased in fur, Campbell was cleaning his revolver. It was a large black thing that had certainly seen is fair share of violence, just like Campbell himself.
I just shrugged, transfixed by the fire.
“Go on,” he pressed.
A small smile tickled his lips. “Y’know, for a girl of your limitless talents, lying is something you’ve never quite grasped.”
“Well what if I don’t want to tell you?”
The weight of that curious conversation eventually got the better of me. Sighing, I heaved myself up, leaning against the wall with my knees pressed into my chest. Opposite me, Campbell continued cleaning his gun, only observing me with the occasional glimpse from those glacial blue eyes.
“Have you heard about the rumours?” I asked.
“No.” He spat on his revolver, working the saliva into the grooves with his thumb. “What rumours?”
“Well, it’s not even a rumour. More fact.”
Campbell remained quiet, waiting for me. My stomach twisted inside itself, dread curling around every muscle.
“People are saying that Mason’s found Alira.”
Campbell stopped. He remained staring at his gun, his limbs stilled and his eyes unmoving. He was a statue, frozen by the fearful chill embedded in my voice.
Eventually, as my words absorbed into his black leather jacket, those eyes flicked up to mine. “That’s impossible.”
“Well, that’s what people are saying. Word is, he’s found her and she’s living life as an Aristocrat.”
Campbell did not bat an eye. Becoming impatient, I added: “She’s the End of Everything – or so we’re meant to believe – and he hasn’t killed her. Don’t you think that’s a bit strange?”
Shaking away his stupor, Campbell puffed up his shoulders. “I’m still having trouble comprehending that he’s found her at all. Girl, you know how ludicrous that is.”
“Then why are people saying it?” My voice echoed in the small space, only drowned by the crackling of the fire. “Look,” I continued, a little more gently, “I know how crazy all of this sounds, but people wouldn’t be saying it if it wasn’t true! Something like that is just so big… Campbell, people just wouldn’t make shit like this up.”
Campbell ran two hairy hands down his face. They came to rest vertically against his lips, only framed by the thick black stubble of his jaw.
He did not say a word.
“Is it…I mean…” I cleared my throat. “Is it possible that Mason’s just got it wrong?”
Campbell just looked at me. “She has diamond eyes, girl. As well you know, they’re pretty damn hard to miss.”
I groaned beneath my breath, my head falling to my knees. My heart raced past my ears, each deafening thump intensified by my own trepidation. Fear shook my bones like a blizzard.
Alira was the End of Everything. That was a fact, plain and simple, and although the exact reason why or how she was meant to destroy the New World remained a mystery, Mason had been exceptionally eager to find her. To put an end to her destiny, once and for all. But now, Mason’s apparent agenda had been turned on its head, encircling an entire mountain of uncertainty.
“It mustn’t be true,” Campbell said, after some time. “There’s only one of you.”
Yes, there was only one of me. Only one Alira. Only one with diamond eyes.
Only one End of Everything.
“So, who do you think Mason’s found? Since it’s clearly not me.”
My diamond eyes glittered in the light of the fire. It was such a contrast from my amber contact lenses that I almost didn’t look like the girl who called herself Maya. The girl who has been running from Mason since that fateful winter’s night twenty years ago, when she was pulled from her dying mother’s womb.
Each iris resembled a flawless diamond and sparkled just as brightly. Like he often did, Campbell watched in awe.
“I don’t know who he’s found, but you’re Alira and –”
“Don’t call me that,” I snapped. Alira wasn’t my name. It wasn’t the name my Papa called me or the name chosen by a dying mother for her baby girl.
My name was Maya.
Campbell formed a heavy sigh. “Look,” he said, treading on eggshells as lightly as he was able. “I know you’re scared, but you have to look at the bright side.”
“Pfft, what bright side?”
“If Mason’s found her, he’s stopped looking for you. Think about it.”
I did think about it. It only made me angrier. “But he’s not found her, has he? He’s found someone pretending to be me.”
Neither one of us, of course, had mentioned the possibility of this Pretender, but it was still present. Like some deformed mammoth lingering in the corner of the cave.
Campbell deflated, sinking into his thoughts. His stare fell to the gun cradled within his fingers.
“And when he kills this Pretender,” – I lent forwards – “and he will kill her, he’ll start looking for me again.”
“You don’t know that –”
“Yes I do, Campbell. How many girls with diamond eyes have been born since Ragnarök, hm? A hundred? Twohundred?” I huffed bitterly to the fire. “You know that if an Alira dies by any hand other than Mason’s, she’s just reborn anew, in a different body, then left to be hunted or killed, and then she’s reborn again and again until Mason finally kills her and breaks this cycle of rebirth. I’m the last of them, the only one who’s made it into adulthood, and he’s been sensing my heartbeat for twenty goddamn years.”
A bitter laugh escaped me. “When he kills this Pretender, he’ll know she’s not me because he’ll sense that I’m still alive. And then they’ll start coming after me again. So, Campbell – please tell me, in all of this shit, how am I supposed to see the bright side?”
“Because,” he said, before spitting into the grooves of his gun. “I’m here to protect you. I won’t let him get you, girl. I promise.”