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If you’re a Robert E. Howard fan you’re going to love this one... Mr. Richards takes the Genre back to the future...

Wardens of Dust


Luke Everest Richards

He walks upon a shroud over history,
Scarred feet roving frommystery to mystery.
A world at his back, the sky overhead,
And under his feet, the dust of the dead.

'Here I'll wander; loveless, listless.
The white rolling hills my mistress.
This I'll ponder, now, forever:
Life is lost in hollow never,
Here and now this world is severed
And strength is all I have to give.
In darkness life still loves to live.'

He'll rove over the mountains, singing
Of all he lacks and has to give.
His voice resounds and echoes, ringing,
Of all the life he has to live.

-- Sarah's Song

White waste surrounded him in the dim starlight.  Snow speckled his face in freezing shards, and cloaked the horizon in a hoary shroud.

For what seemed eternity he'd roamed north, following the stars by night, the sun by day, or mere instinct when the storms blinded him.  He'd huddled among sparse trees or rubble as the elements raged overhead, like a mouse cowering before a giant.  He'd watched, waited, scanned the horizon where he could for any sign of life, a vestige of humanity or just an animal to hunt.  He'd found nothing, and his rations were nearly gone.

Thick furs covered his bulky frame.  His back was laden with a large pack, which now weighed heavily.  Hunger had made him recklessly continue his trek this night, where normally he would cover under his furs and let the deathly cold pass over, walking again with the light of dawn.

He couldn't see the broken towers jutting out of the snow a kilometre ahead, or the head and one arm of a great statue reaching from the frozen eastern sea, once called the Statue of Liberty, now a drowning maiden.

Not until he was surrounded by the fallen remnants of New York City did he notice his arrival.  A stone wall emerged into view close at his left.  Eyes wide, hunger filling him with an almost mad hope, he rushed toward it, stumbling.  Grunts escaped his lips, as he discovered it to be part of a greater structure.  He turned for a moment, peering through the drifting snow.  Now that his mind expected it, vision registered shadowy outlines, like the bones of dead giants; phantoms silhouetted through the falling snow and darkness.  The ruins of a great city.

Almuric groaned in relief, leaned his back against the wall.  He ached to his bones with fatigue.

There would be people here.  He'd roved long enough to know that, but there was no sense searching by night.  He would rest.

Had the journey taken another few days, he would have died alone.

His eyes shut as he allowed himself to succumb to exhaustion, slumped and awash with sweet release.

Just as he sank into sleep, instincts honed as a wanderer in barbaric times snapped him awake.  He leapt onto one knee, drew his bow and notched an arrow all in one flash of motion.  Scanning the horizon, feeling adrenaline surge in his limbs and mind, he heard the swift rush of padded feet, then saw shadows gliding towards him in murderous silence.


He loosed the arrow and one went down, then he ripped a sword, crude and sharp on one side like a giant meat cleaver, from a sheath at his back and hurled himself to the snow, underneath one who lunged for his throat with bestial abandon.

Watching a wolf fight is enough to curdle the blood in a civilised man, but Almuric was akin.  With equal ferocity he leapt and lashed his weapon at the neck of another, scoring a hit.  Another slammed into his side, and he let his body rotate with the force of the collision to keep his feet.  He felt the teeth grip his arm like nails in his flesh, and punched it in the snout as it struggled to drag him down. 

They were on him, teeth raking his legs, crushing his flesh through the thick furs.  Leaping and slashing, always dodging and striking, he hacked his way free and ran as fast as his weary legs would take him.  Blood soaked his furs from a score wounds, but he'd taken his toll as well. 

A mad chase ensued.  Almuric knew nothing of the terrain.  The wolves were quicker, and all that saved him was wheeling and swinging the blade whenever the snarling of a wolf grew too close at his back.

He sprinted over a white knoll, where the level of snow dipped into the peak of another building that made his heart sing with relief.  A crude barricade, obviously man made, blocked a slope in the corner of the white blanket, leading to a broken window.  Almuric leapt the barricade in a burst of effort that would have daunted the most consummate athlete of a more civilised age.

One wolf leapt only inches behind, and they landed in the snow together.  Almuric wrestled to his feet as the wolf groped for his throat with snarling jaws.  He shoved it to create distance, then caught it with the swing of his blade.  Other wolves were clearing the barricade as Almuric dashed to the windows and dove through, whirling again to face his pursuers.  He hacked and stabbed madly through the window.  The wolves soon gave back in the teeth of that defence. 

Almuric watched them limp away, panting for breath, and only when enough time had passed did he turn to survey his new surroundings.  He stood on a slope of snow, packed against one wall of a vast room.

He stumbled down the hill, onto a stone floor.  Blood streamed from a score wounds.  Where he not so wounded he would search for the carcasses of the wolves he'd slain, but he feared another ambush.  He'd have to find them by scent in the morning, as the snow would bury them.  There was nought left now but to find a safe place to rest and mend his wounds.  He was lucky to still have his pack.

Assuming the building harboured human life, it would be unwise to meet them in his condition.  The clamour of battle had echoed through the building.  If the place were inhabited, they'd soon investigate.  Only this thought kept Almuric on his feet as he limped from the room.

He moved as quickly as he could, feeling the bite of his wounds now the fire of adrenaline had passed.  Out through the archway at one end of the great room, he found himself in a corridor with a low ceiling.  The stone walls were covered in icy condensation.  The end of that corridor seemed to lead into another great hall, and along it several other corridors led off deeper into the building.  He moved silently, peering around every corner, until he found an empty room.

Closing the door behind, careful not to let it creak, he turned to face the room.  Metal scrap lay heaped in one corner.  Almuric had heard of electrical equipment, but had never seen it in working order.  This looked like the scraps of some such tools.  Shelves were carved into the stone, but only the occasional ornament lay upon them.  All wooden objects had long since been scrapped for firewood.

He fell in a slump against one wall, tired hands groping at his pack.  He was just withdrawing the medical supplies when outside the door the silence was rent by yelling men and rushing feet.

Spurned to action, teeth gritted against the pain, Almuric kicked the pack away, drew a long knife from his belt and leapt against the wall beside the door.  It was not long before it flew wide and men rushed in.

They paid for their lack of caution.  Almuric wrapped one arm around the throat of the first man and leapt back to the wall, holding him hostage with the long knife jabbing his side.

'Don't move!' he rasped.  It was months since he'd spoken.  'I'll kill him!'

The other men slowly drew their swords, but didn't approach.  Almuric's eyes gleamed like a caged tiger's behind matted locks of hair.  His body was a mass of tattered furs and blood.  His face was covered in a wild beard.  He made a daunting figure:  the archetypal savage, ready to take his toll before death.

'Kill him and we kill you,' one spoke.

Almuric glared at him defiantly, bared his teeth in a bestial snarl and was about to skewer his captive when another spoke.

'Wait, stranger!  We have no quarrel with you,' said a gaunt man with tawny hair and green eyes.

'He's one of those damn wolves,' said the first speaker.  Almuric's gaze shot from one face to another.  He felt agitated by uncertainty.

'And when was the last time you saw one of those ghouls travelling alone?' the other said.  'No, this isn't one of them, don't be paranoid.  Stranger, where are you from?'

'I'm not a member of any gang,' Almuric snarled.  'I come from the south.  I've been wandering in search of a city.'

'Let's check his belongings,' said a third man, reaching for Almuric's pack.

'Touch that and he dies!' Almuric yelled, and noted that his captive remained calm even as the blade began to dig into his flesh.

'Wait!'  The green eyed man spread his arms, glancing at the red flow starting down Almuric's blade.  'You've found a city, stranger.  If you'll allow us, we welcome you to our home.  Please forgive our violent greeting.  We've had trouble recently and thought you an enemy.  Be calm.  We'll dress your wounds.'

'Drop your weapons and kick them over here, then I'll let him go.'

'I can not do that until I check your pack.'

Almuric tensed.

'I will steal nothing!  Our enemies carry a piece of mirror marked by a symbol.  If you are a wanderer and not an assassin, you will not possess it.  I will be gentle with your possessions.

Almuric growled, but nodded.  The green eyed stranger untied the rope of Almuric's pack, and rummaged for a time.  He pulled out a piece of mirror, but it was unadorned.

Satisfied, he said, 'Lower your weapons.  Do as he says.'  Then to Almuric, 'There is more to you than meets the eye, stranger.'

The men obeyed, but a female voice spoke.

'Father, I've got a clean shot.'

Almuric turned and saw a young woman standing with a drawn bow aimed at his head.  He cursed his fatigue.  He should have heard her approach.

'Put down your weapon, Sarah!' yelled the green eyed speaker.

'I can take him down, trust me.'

'Obey your father, whelp!' snarled the man in Almuric's grasp, speaking for the first time.  He seemed more angry at the woman than afraid of Almuric.

'Sarah, lower your bow and toss it to the stranger's feet.  I order you not as your father, but as leader of the tribe,' said the green eyed man.

Almuric watched the girl reluctantly acquiesce.  With their weapons under his feet Almuric shoved his captive towards the leader.

'You've proven yourselves not to be violent.  A traveller must be cautious.'

'So must we,' said the leader.  'My name is Andrew Wilson.'  He held up a hand.  'None will hurt you unless I order it.'

'My name is Almuric.'  The light in his eyes dimmed, broad shoulders asway.  He collapsed with a groan, falling to the floor in a slump, unconscious.




Almuric woke on a leather divan the like of which he'd never seen.  Bandages wrapped his wounds.  A fire crackled nearby.  His furs were heaped on the floor beside his weapons and pack, and he was clad only in leather trousers.

The room stood in stark contrast to the simplicity he was used to.  Furnishings cluttered the square space, but it was a strange, comfortable clutter.  Feeling his face, he was surprised that his beard and hair had been washed and combed.

He was not alone for long.  As he stood, the door creaked open.  Andrew Wilson entered with his daughter and a man Almuric recognised as the one he'd held captive.

'It is good to see you awake,' Wilson said with a smile.  His daughter watched Almuric darkly from the doorway, while the other man walked to a far wall, leaned against it.

The leader continued.

'I'd like to introduce you to my daughter, Sarah, and my right hand man, Cormac.'

'Thank you for dressing my wounds,' Almuric said, looking down at the white bandage that wrapped his forearm.  There was no need to apologize to Cormac.  Almuric remembered his calm resolve, his scorn for the impetuous girl.  Cormac was a warrior.  He would understand.

'Thank Sarah for it.'

'I don't like the look of him, father,' she said abruptly, eyeing his large frame, iron thewes and battle scarred limbs.  'He looks like a barbaric thief.  Why should we spare him?'

'Spare me?' Almuric growled at her.  'I could have killed the lot of you, little girl, were I not so injured.'

'Enough,' Wilson commanded.  'Almuric, please forgive Sarah.  There's fire in her, but underneath it she is kind.'

Just for an instant, Sarah looked abashed before her face hardened proudly once again.

'It is our way never to refuse a traveller in need,' she said.

'Well, I thank you.  I owe your people a blood debt,' Almuric said.  'You've spoken of raids.  I offer my services in the matter before I go.'

Wilson seemed to harbour mixed emotions. 

Cormac spoke for the first time.  He was a well muscled man in his prime, with long blond hair tangled in knots and pulled back off his face.

'What brings you here?  What could have possessed you to roam over the waste?'

'I'll show you,' Almuric said, lifting his pack.  From it he pulled a tome, bound in burgundy leather.  He walked to a table and gingerly opened it.

'An atlas!' Sarah gasped, forgetting herself.

Almuric looked at her before speaking.  'My father could read,' he said.  'He once told me that this page is a map of this land.  He figured it out by the star charts in the back of the book.  I can't tell you where or how he found it, because he never told me, but I can tell you that I walked from here,' he said, pointing to an outcropping of land on the eastern coast, far to the south. 

'Mexico,' Sarah whispered.

'Is this where I am?'  Almuric pointed to a large circle with "New York City" written next to it.

'It is,' said the leader, poring over the atlas with Almuric and Cormac.  Sarah had turned away.

'Good,' Almuric said distantly, hand to his chin.

'Come,' Wilson said to the others.  'Almuric needs rest.'  Then to Almuric, 'Sarah will return with food.'




The next day, Almuric sat sharpening his blade in his room when a knock echoed from the door.

'Come in.'

It was Wilson.

'Hello, Almuric.  May I sit with you?'

'Of course.  This is your home, not mine.'

'Well, quite,' he looked down for a second, then came and sat on the red couch.  'I thought to learn more about you, traveller.'

'What would you like to know?'  Almuric was still sharpening his blade, and the conversation was given a background noise of scraping metal.

'You never answered Cormac's question, yesterday.  You carry a pack with you always, and you seem to guard the contents with your life.  And there are not many who wander the wastes alone.'

'So you think I travel for some reason that has something to do with my past.  And you think I carry a relic of my past in my pack.  Is that correct?'

Wilson couldn't help but chuckle.  'Yes,' he admitted.

'I spoke truth before.  I travel simply because I can, and because I wish to.'

'Everyone has reason for their actions, no matter how cleverly masked.  Tell me about your home.'

Almuric sighed.  Wilson would never understand the will of a rover.  Living within the ancient walls had left the touch of the old world upon him.  That was what Almuric told himself.  Perhaps there was more, but he didn't like to think of it.

'I have no secrets,' Almuric said abruptly.  'I grew up far to the south, where it's not so cold the crops won't grow.  Eventually I started travelling.  That is all.'

'Almuric is a strange name.'

Almuric carefully lay his weapon on the floor, and walked to his pack.  He removed a small book as though it were a delicate treasure.

'My father often read this to me as a boy.  I was named after it.'  He held the book aloft for the other man to see.  'It's a story about a warrior who's will changes a whole world.  I'm proud to carry the name.  It's a good story.  I remember it well,' he said, handing the slim novel to the older man.

'Can you read?' Wilson asked, turning the book over in his hands with unfeigned rapture.


'If you like books, there is something you should see,' he said, handing back the novel.  'Follow me.'

Almuric was lead from the room, down frozen corridors, until they reached a vast chamber.  The hum of conversation met him as he entered.  It had been long since he'd met a civilised tribe, and he felt out of place.

Wilson pointed at the walls, and Almuric was stunned.  He'd always been fascinated by books.  His father had been a kind of Shaman, a wise man as the only member of the tribe who could read.  He had died when Almuric was very young, before he'd graduated from letters to books.  Here, lining the walls, were shelves stacked with more books than Almuric could have imagined.  He picked one at random, staring at the well kept pages, jaundiced by time, the leather binding slightly frayed.

'What is this place?' he breathed.

'The old Library.  Here is documented the past age, our mistakes and our triumphs, now all but forgotten.  We guard the past.  Do you know what it is to live for a purpose, Almuric?'

Almuric stood awe-struck, scanning the multi-storied hall, where tier upon tier, shelves held the wisdom of an age.  On the white waste was grim reality.  Here was a world for the mind.  Wilson spoke again.

'By fortune's grace, history was preserved.  Much fiction was lost, as were scientific journals.  One of the first survivors here kept a journal.  Books were burned for warmth.  First science, as it was blamed for the apocalypse.  Then fiction, though they were selective in their burning.  It is tragic, but through travesty, hope was preserved.'  Wilson sighed.  'I ramble.  You offered your sword.  I offer something in turn.'

'What?' Almuric asked, gaze locked on the shelves.

'An education.'

'You're going to teach me how to read?' Almuric whispered.

'Yes.  And if you will allow me, I'll show you what to read.'

'It would be an honour,' he said, impassioned.




Nine weeks passed without event.  None attacked during the long blizzard, and Almuric lived for knowledge.  Each day, he would sit with the tribe's few children, and listen as Wilson recounted tales of the waxing and waning of empires when the world was hot, and valour amidst the tragedy at civilisation's end.  He read what Wilson gave him, and was surprised at how quickly he remembered his letters, and some words.  Soon he was reading rudimentary books again.

Almuric was obsessed with learning the reason for mankind's downfall, and Wilson was a good teacher.

He pored over a small paperback, an adolescent's history of Napoleon.  He was awed by the ingenuity of strategy, but appalled that men could fight a war without so much as seeing the whites of each other's eyes.

Today was calm, so Almuric's sword rested close, and he wore his leather armour.  He was not surprised when a cry rang out.  The enemy were upon them.

He dropped the book, gripped his sword and bolted for the Library's only entrance, where forty men and women were locked in combat with young warriors, who leapt down the snow pile into the fray with savage cries. 

Almuric wasted no time, eager to repay his debt.  He ran for where the combat was thickest, past Sarah who fired arrows into the teeth of the enemy. 

He ducked as a blade whirred overhead, his own hacking the legs of the attacker.  Springing upright, his blade came in an upwards arc, knocking away the guard of another warrior.  His kick battered the man's sternum, and he felt the snap of bone under his heel. 

Battle glee overcame him. 

He was a wolf among dogs, ferocious, strong.  His strikes were deadly and accurate, his blocks cunning, and his mad laughter resounded as his sword sang a song of death, and the battle cries of the enemy became screams. 

Almuric lived for combat.

His blade smashed into a shield that was held inexpertly, and ruined the limb underneath.  He turned a thrust and rammed his sword through his enemy just as the combat began to give back.  Seven bloody corpses surrounded his feet, but it was too early for elation.  He charged the retreating enemy with berserk fury, splitting a skull with his sword and breaking a knee with a kick, sending the wounded man tumbling down the hill before the others had escaped through the window.  He leapt down, intent on the kill, but Cormac interceded.

He rammed Almuric aside and whirled, swinging his sword at his own people who pressed upon the wounded enemy.

'Wilson!  Wilson!' he cried. 

Finally the leader emerged from the throng, shouting 'Back!'

The throng reluctantly obeyed, all save Almuric who stood with heaving chest and a blood drenched sword, his limbs and torso cut, soul afire, teeth bared.

Cormac watched him.  'Wilson,' he said, 'this captive is a blessing.

'I know.'  Wilson nodded.  'Almuric, we do not know where the enemy hide, but soon we will,' he added with a savage grin, which seemed unlike him.

Almuric was left with the satisfaction of killing the man a month later, when he had told them everything.  Torture is an appalling necessity of war, and the stomach of a true warrior is not fit to witness it.  Several times he had to be forced from the room, crying in pity of the enemy, who wailed like a wraith.  Only when promised release in death did the captive speak, and Almuric shed tears as his sword fell, an act of mercy to his savage mind.




Almuric sat cross legged atop a wooden table in his room, a book resting open in his lap.  Two idle weeks had passed since Almuric killed their captive.  He stared at the book, but his mind was elsewhere, thinking it was obvious that Wilson wanted to keep him to add new blood to the clan, when he heard a knock at the door.

'Come in!'

Cormac took two steps into the room.

'Almuric.  It's time we take the fight to our enemy.'

Almuric stood slowly, deliberately, feeling for the strength in his thewes.  'I'll don my armour.'

'Come to the entrance hall when you are ready.'

Almuric clenched and unclenched his fists, grinning.   He'd yearned for the feel of his weapon in his hands.  The books kept his mind off the urge to go roving, but the journey would have to continue soon.  He could not linger, or his leaving would cause tension, and he could not go until his promise to Wilson was fulfilled.  Wilson knew this, and knew that the books fascinated Almuric, but his true purpose lay north.

Soon Almuric strolled to the entrance hall, clad in leather armour underneath furs light enough for fighting.  His weapons were with him, and the feel of them pressing against his frame lent him confidence. 

Cormac stood in the midst of five other warriors:  four men and one woman.  There was neither the population nor the social infrastructure required for sexism after the apocalypse.  As such, female warriors were rare, but respected just as any fighter would be, and Sarah was a demoness with knife and bow.

'Almuric!'  Cormac hailed him.  'Come, I'll lead the way.'

Almuric simply nodded.

Outside, the sun beat fiercely from a vacant sky, as if struggling to reclaim the temperate climate that would have existed there two centuries ago.

Cormac jogged fleetly over the snow.  The others followed his every step, to minimize tracks. 

In all his time here, Almuric had not left the Library, and this was the second time he'd seen New York.  Now he gaped in wonder.  Buildings jutted from the snow like a mountain range.  Most were broken mounds of rock, but some stood proud, defying time and neglect, their once unblemished walls now scarred by wind and sleet.  Plants grew sparsely, stalwart against the biting cold, growing where the hoary fen dipped close to the earth. 

A bird cried from the rooftops, as the warriors hurried in silence.  Almuric was at the back, watching for movement among the buildings with the untrusting instincts of the wild.

The enemy's stronghold faced west, towards the Library.  They planned to find a vantage point and watch, to glean something of their numbers, and to verify much of what their captive had claimed, though those tortured to the point of madness had little whit left for a lie.  Almuric knew this mission was more to settle Wilson's doubts.

Cormac turned and ran east, through alleyways that belonged to a dead world.  They were marvellously clean.  What nature ravaged, it renewed.  The snow was an angelic blanket, covering the folly of the past age, the shadow behind civility:  power and subduction; filth under the walls of Babylon.  Almuric had learned much from Andrew Wilson, and he saw now what once he would not have noticed:  the ghost of the past, behind everything like a shadow.

Finally Cormac slowed to a walk, sidestepped along a the wall to their left.  The others followed, leaning against the cold concrete as Cormac glared ahead.  He pointed.

'Their stronghold is almost in sight.  Two buildings down.  On the left.  We'll watch from the adjacent building.  Keep under cover.  Stay close.'

As he stalked along the icy concrete, his feet didn't make a sound.  They were seven stealthy figures, crouched, until reaching the alleyway between buildings. 

Their entrance was a rusted fire escape.  Before Cormac could speak, Almuric walked under the ladder, which was just out of reach, and cupped his hands, indicating for Cormac to use him as a step.

Cormac nodded, placed his foot in Almuric's hands.  He leapt and gripped the edge of the grate, pulling himself up, then pressing on the ladder.  The others strained their faces in sympathy.  Every fibre of Cormac's muscles strained against the rusted, frozen mechanism until finally, with a loud creak, it gave, and rattled to the ground.

'Curse it!' Cormac hissed under his breath.

The party whirled, blades whispering from their sheathes.  There was no sign they'd been heard, and Cormac's hiss snapped them to action.  They bolted up the ladder.  Almuric offered for Sarah to go first, then insisted when she refused.  He smiled, knowing that such a show of unreasoning dislike could only engender an opposite truth.

As the others entered the building Almuric paused to kick the ladder away, knowing it might satisfy the suspicions of the enemy, and that they would be heard struggling to enter if not. 

Light fought through frosty windows, casting the building in dim haze.  They stalked silently through the empty office, where cubicles and desks stood untouched for centuries.  Again Almuric saw the ghosts.  This was once a hub of activity, where people lived half their days.  Now it belonged to the roaches and rats.

The stairwell was lit, which was lucky.  Once they reached the highest storey still intact, they kept close to the windowed walls, far enough not to be seen but careful to keep the pitch darkness along their side.  Vermin amassed in the dark places of the dead city. 

They pressed on, trying to ignore the sense of a myriad tiny eyes watching, starving, waiting. 

Finally they came near the row of windows they sought, and crawled on their bellies towards them, to gaze through where the glass had been smashed, their bodies hidden in shadow, eyes locked on the stronghold of their enemy.




The party slept in shifts.  Few left the building, but those who did were hunters, and they returned with sacks of dead rats, not an uncommon fare for the denizens of New York City.  Their captive had told the truth.  Judging by the amount of food they ate, the tribe numbered roughly sixty.

On the evening of the second day, Almuric whirled, glared into the darkness of the building.  He shifted into a crouch.

'What do you hear?' Cormac murmured.

'A whisper.  I'd swear it.'

The others were roused by this, and they had turned as well.

'I don't hear a thing,' Sarah spoke.  'Your ears are playing tricks on you, superstitious barbarian.'

'Don't be a fool, girl.'

Another low rustle, and Almuric darted away, beckoning the others to follow.  Cormac gestured for them to obey.  Almuric led them to the depths of the building.

They crawled in silence, concealed by perfect darkness.  They could hear nothing, see nothing, but Almuric lead them, linked hand in hand, by instinct keeping them clear from where he felt the pursuers to be.  There were no Gods in this age to whom to pray, but Almuric hoped the enemy had not seen them flee.  He took the party wide, avoiding the centre but staying to the depths.  It was a maze of rooms and hallways, and he saw by his groping hand alone.  Finally he glimpsed ghostly strands of moonlight, and pushed on cautiously, knowing the light would only bring them closer to danger. 

Their weapons glittered in the half-light when they drew them silently, but the stairwell was empty.  Soon they reached the fire escape, and stepped into the cold air.

They leapt to the ground, and Cormac made to take the lead, but Almuric went rigid, straining his ears.  Men appeared at both ends of the alley, walking softly, unhurried, assured of their catch. 

Almuric wasted no time.

'Attack this way.  I'll cover the rear!'

Cormac and the others charged, and Sarah had strung and fired her bow before Almuric had finished his sentence.  Of the five he faced, one fell as Almuric bellowed a war cry, and ripped his great sword from its sheath.  They approached cautiously, and Almuric grinned, knowing they had heard of the barbarian who fought for the Library.  Their hesitation bought valuable seconds.

The others crashed into the throng opposite.  Breaking through in a blur of steel, by fury and superior numbers.

Almuric gave a bark of laughter and fled, chasing after the others with four bewildered warriors on his tail. 

They fled in reckless haste, sprinting towards home.  Almuric watched from a few metres behind as another cluster of warriors crashed into the fleeing party from the mouth of an alleyway at their side. 

One comrade fell before Almuric reached the fray.  He fought with the reckless fury of desperation.  Life balanced on a hair as behind them pursuers caught up.  Cormac took a blow to the face, staggered and fled, screaming to follow him.  Sarah was knocked to the snow and trampled under foot. 

Almuric lunged, barging men away from Sarah's prone body.  He hacked wildly to create distance, and caught Sarah's arm, heaving her up and lunging for a gap, ignoring the bite of steel in his side as he charged over some ruins and through a doorway.

In the darkness, he lay Sarah down.  She'd taken a blow to the head.  He turned.  Three men approached, silhouettes against the dim light.  Almuric knew they could not see him.  He hoped they would pass, but they came too close, so Almuric struck, splitting the skull of one and the knee of another.  The third caught his arms and grappled him to the floor.  Almuric dropped his blade, useless at close quarters.  The man who's leg had been split was still fighting, and he smashed a fist into Almuric's face, offering the other the chance to mount him from the top.  Blows pummelled Almuric's arms, which covered his head.  One good blow would end Almuric's life, he knew, and in a desperate burst he pulled the attacker's head down, closing the distance and nulling the effect of his strikes.  With his free hand Almuric crushed the man's testicles.  The enemy screamed and tried to pull away, so Almuric threw him into the other and lunged on them both, lashing out with his fists, striking for either man's head until both went limp.  Then he pulled the knife from his boot and slit their throats.

He felt his wounds, now, and he pressed against the steady flow of blood from his side.  Sarah stirred.  Almuric heard her leap to her feet, surprised to find herself in the pitch darkness.  She stumbled into him.  Instinct alone blocked a knife striking for his midsection.

'Sarah, it's me,' he groaned.  'Keep quiet or they'll find us.'

'My ankle's broken.'

'I saw you take a blow and fall, they trampled you before I could aid.'

Sarah said nothing.  Almuric knew she was thankful.

'You see,' he said, 'we barbarians are not so bad.'  She did not resist as he audaciously pulled her close, enjoying her soft warmth before consciousness slipped away.




Almuric lurched awake, hands searching for his weapons.  Pain seared like a hot knife in his side.  He gritted his teeth and fell back, feeling a slender hand on his forehead.

'Don't move, foolish man.  You're safe now.'  It was Sarah's voice.  He turned his head to look at her, noting the bandages wrapped about her leg, the wooden crutch close by her side, the kindness in her eyes.

'So you no longer despise me,' he said.

She smiled. 'I've been foolish.  You risked yourself to save me, I owe it to you to be more...'


'Yes,' she said with a laugh.

'But how did we get here?'

'That's a tale for someone else to tell.'  She rose with one hand on her crutch, hobbled out of the room.  Soon she returned with a man Almuric was glad to see.

'Almuric!  Good to see you awake,' Cormac said.

'Cormac!  It seems I owe you my life.'

'Nonsense.  You would have been safe had it not been for your service to us.'  He gestured at Sarah, who smiled.

'Did the others survive?'

'No.'  Cormac's gaze became distant.  'When I broke from the combat, I turned and watched them die.  Your furious defence of Sarah distracted the enemy.  I ducked behind a garbage bin, in perfect shadow.  They searched for me, but gave up after what felt like an age.

'They searched for you, too.  I heard them discussing it.  One thing our captive didn't say:  our enemy are highly organised.  They act like an army of old, with commanders and seconds. 

'Anyway, they couldn't find you.  The one who stabbed you reported it to a superior, and he seemed satisfied you were dead.  I thought you would be, too.  It was long after the enemy departed before I dared leave my hiding place.

'I entered the building where you did.  I didn't have much hope, but I thought to find you by scenting the reek of blood.  I walked in the darkness, sniffing.  Blood was not the only foul thing to greet my nose.  I don't know how I found you.  All I know is I came upon the strong odour, and with fear clawing at my spine I whispered your name.  Sarah whispered back.  I don't know how I managed to carry you home, either, yet here we are.'

Almuric bowed his head.  'I thank you,' he said.  He could imagine that were it not for Cormac, the Library would have been overrun long ago.




It would be a month before Almuric recovered.

He read by the glow of a candle flame when Wilson entered. 

'It's good to see you alive,' he said.

'Thank you, Wilson.  Your man Cormac is a treasure.  What has been happening outside?'

'Before I say, you must promise to rest until you are fully recovered.'

Worry rose in him as he said, 'You have my word.'

'We are under siege.  They have made no move to attack, but we are surrounded.'

'Have you lost any?'

'Only one.  A young man, John, left to scout without orders.  He was angry, because his uncle was on the spy mission.  His head was thrown through our entrance shortly after we noticed him missing.'

Almuric's eyes went dark.  'You plan to wait until I've recovered before fighting back.'

'Yes.  I thought I'd better tell you before anyone else does.  We have enough food to last a year.  At least refrigeration isn't a problem for us,' he said with morose laughter.

As he paused Almuric saw the shadows under Wilson's eyes, the weary frown, aged beyond the face's years.

'You feel responsible for guarding our history,' he said as he realised it.

Wilson met his gaze.  Almuric continued.

'Your people live inside this great monument of a dead age, the fossil of a behemoth.  You are wardens of dust.'

'It must be done, Almuric!'  Unexpressed emotions seemed to explode from Wilson.  'He who fails to comprehend history is doomed to repeat every folly!  And we can't lose our past completely!  No one really knows what happened when the world fell.  After the storms, plenty of people remained, especially in the south.  No one knows why it all fell, but we can't let everything die.  All that effort, all that genius poured into these old books, if we let it be forgotten, then everything, all that suffering, becomes meaningless.'

Almuric could see the fierce conviction in Wilson's eyes.  He was leader of a dying breed, clinging to civility.  He hoped Wilson would win his war against time and decay.

'In the south, we tell stories,' he said.  Wilson's gaze grew intent, and his hand tightened on the divan.  'For now, suffice to know that it was violence that destroyed civilisation, not the wrath of nature.  I can tell you some of the stories, if you wish.  I might even try writing a few before I go.'

'Before you go...' Wilson trailed off.

Almuric watched him closely.  A realisation dawned.  That was why Sarah had despised him from the beginning.  Her father wanted her to breed with the newcomer.  The tribe was too small to sustain itself.  They needed fresh blood.  Sarah was the strongest female.  Wilson no doubt wanted him to stay not only for a child, but so that his daughter could have a husband.  Her desire to kill him on first meeting now made sense.

'I cannot stay, Wilson,' he said, and he watched the leader become downcast.  'This was only my first destination.' 

'What do you want out of life, Almuric?'

'I don't know.  That, friend, is why I roam.'




Almuric crouched in the shadow of a wall by the Library.  The night was clear, and the moon bright, so the open spaces were a death sentence, but the shadows were deep. 

He knew the enemy was near, and they would be watching, but he also knew their guard would be down.  No one had exited the Library for over a month.  He kept silent, listening.  Finally he heard many footsteps crunching in the snow.

He crept from the wall.  Adrenaline surged as he passed out of the shadow.  He darted silently for a ridge and lay prone, peering over the edge.  A clear night held one other advantage.  When using stealth, just as important as being unseen is the ability to see your enemy.

He let out a slow breath of relief when he saw four men walking parallel to the ridge, one hundred paces in the distance.  He crawled away, keeping the ridge between him and the guards, breathing into his furs to avoid creating wisps of vapour.  Finally he'd made adequate distance, and he jogged in a crouch toward his goal.

Hoary expanse lay open to the east.  It was intoxicating.  He turned back to face the city.  He would not return to the Library, but he would do them a service.  If he did nothing, they would die, and he couldn't allow that, now.

None knew he'd left, but Sarah would understand.  They would all understand, if he survived.

One week ago, Sarah had come to his door, as he read Almuric by Robert E. Howard, the book he was named after.  She'd entered without knocking, and strode to the divan where he lay.

'Don't go,' she said, voice commanding, eyes imploring.

They had grown close over the past month, laughing together and talking at length, but the physical between them remained unexpressed.  That night, he saw his own desire mirrored in her eyes.

'You know I must,' he said. 

The words stung her visibly.  Her eyes winced shut and she released a strained breath, then threw herself into his arms, kissing him hard.  Almuric returned it.  They caressed each other wildly.  Her hands moved slowly down, down.  They melted into each other like the joining of two flames, and made love.

He would never forget that night.  He had had sex before.  In the south, people bred as though humanity depended on it.  It did.  But with Sarah it was different.  He had never made love.

Last night, he'd kissed her on the forehead, and they embraced, saying nothing.  They lay awake together.  Words were unnecessary.  She knew that he had to leave.  Only Sarah knew of his true purpose:  to travel north to the root of the Ice.

She spoke only once.  'Come back to me.'  She nuzzled her head against his chest.

'One day,' he said.  'I will.'

He would save her, though.  He would protect her, even from afar.  The leader of the enemy would die, tonight, if it cost Almuric his life.




The shadow was perfect, thick.  The cold was a cloak of ice.  Almuric watched the enemy stronghold from behind a rusty dumpster.  Only wisps of vapour betrayed the location of the entrance, by the presence of two guards.

Making no more noise than wind brushing the snow, he crept through the alleys, circumnavigating the building to reach a closer vantage point.  Soon he was near an unguarded side of the building, for it harboured no entrance.  The stronghold was tall, forbidding, with few windows.  It was an old stone building, made before the glass sky scrapers, now shattered and leaning, or fallen to their sides, too fragile to withstand the storms of Armageddon.

He stilled, listening for sentries.  There were none.  The enemy was arrogant in their assumption of victory.  They didn't suspect an assassin.

Almuric darted to the stronghold's wall, crept along it to the side with the entrance, then remained low, white furs he'd taken from Cormac camouflaging him.

He was close.  And lucky.  He could see the enemy play a game he didn't recognise with sticks and rocks.

'Ah!' one cried.  Almuric stiffened.  'I win again!'

He waited for them to begin another game.  When they started speaking, he pulled the long knife from his belt, crept forwards, forcing his breathing to remain calm.

He drew as close as he dared.  The guards continued the game, oblivious.

Almuric lunged.

Before the guards knew what was happening, one fell sideways, blood gurgling from a slit throat, and Almuric was on the other, one hand gripping the larynx to stifle a scream, the other ramming the knife again and again into the belly and chest, as he ignored the enemy punching and clawing in desperation at his face.

He rushed the bodies into the shadows of the building, then piled fresh snow over the blood.

Lanterns flickered along the walls, casting much of the hallway in dim orange light.  The leader was almost certainly at the top, so he sought a way up.  Keeping to the shadows where possible, silent, ears straining.

Voices echoed along the walls.  Almuric ducked into a dark room, angry, blood pounding.  There were two voices.  The guards were changing shifts.  

His teeth clenched as he cursed his luck.  But no, he realised.  He was lucky to get this far.  Escape was now unlikely, but the leader would still die.

Almuric saw with his hands and feet, seeking another hallway through the pitch dark room.  His foot bumped against stone.  He'd found a pile of rubble, and a cool breeze from above told him it lead to another storey.  He climbed.  Anything was better than inaction. 

A cry rang out from the entrance behind.

Almuric hastened, groping in the dark up a slope of rubble.  Finally he reached a flat area, crawled until he touched a wall, and moved along that until luck prevailed again, and his hands met a door. 

As it closed silently behind, the spell of courage wrought from necessity was broken.  Human beings instinctively fear the dark above all else.  Here it was complete, as if it were its own entity, entire of itself.  No one knew what horrors dwelt in the hollows of the ruins, and now Almuric groped, eyes ablaze and useless, where no foot had tread, nor lamp nor sun had shed a mote of light for over two centuries.

Only instinct guided him.  Only the desire to kill before being killed kept him moving.  He tried desperately to force his mind from the fear, that he might wander in the dark aimlessly, walking in circles, unaware, until madness took him.  Or worse.  The deep places of the ruins harboured nests of rats and roaches, animals driven mad, or things Almuric could not imagine.  Ancient fear gripped him.  Each time he placed a hand before him he cringed and hoped not to touch anything but stone. 

His hand met something, and just as horror began to take him, realisation dawned, and a sense of salvation surged in every fibre of his being.

A footstep.  Such a trifling thing, taken for granted by more people in the centuries since its making than Almuric could begin to imagine.  It was now loved with all of a man's heart.

He climbed cautiously.  The darkness was still perfect, but now he had a clear path to the upper reaches, and his goal.  The stairs were broken by the elements and neglect.  At any moment he might plummet through them to his death.  More than once, he climbed with hands alone where the steps had crumbled away, but the metal railing remained intact.

He climbed for what felt like an age, until weak rays of light pierced the darkness above like the swords of Angels.  Almuric forced himself to keep a slow pace, knowing that one careless moment could spell death.  At last he reached the source, the crack under a doorway.

As he nudged it slightly open, light seared his eyes, filling them with tears both of pain and joy.  When finally he could see, he was awed.

Tapestries lined the walls.  Between them hung paintings and the heads of great extinct beasts mounted to wooden frames.  Candles of the old world, made of scentless wax and rare as gold dust, encased in crystal frames rarer still, bathed the hall in ethereal light.

It was unreal, like stepping from Hell into Heaven.  He scrambled to his feet, unsteady, dumbfounded.  The boom of a voice called back his senses.

He ripped his sword free, turned and saw a giant of a man, even larger than Almuric, rushing him with a labrys, of a quality that Almuric hadn't thought still existed, hefted for the death swing.

Almuric barely dodged a downward hack.  Lurching sideways and kicking the enemy in the knee.  The labrys was heavy, and as the giant attempted to lift it to strike again, Almuric's blade rammed into his chest.

He heard others approaching from around the corner.

Thinking fast, he pressed against the near wall, and as the guards rounded the corner, he hacked his blade like a meat cleaver into one's legs.

Almuric leapt back, leaving his sword and drawing his long knife, better for combat in a confined space.  The guard he faced held a great labrys as well.  He dodged another hack and moved close, but this guard was ready.  He too was a giant, and he caught Almuric's knife arm, twisted it and threw him to the floor.  As Almuric landed hard on his back, he saw two more giant guards rushing in, and the one on top hoped to pin him with one arm and pummel him with the other.  Almuric was too fast.  He grabbed the handle of the knife in his boot, and with a roar stabbed the guard in the throat, then threw him off and reclaimed his knife just in time to avoid another attack.

He leapt back, gripping the axe of the first he'd slain and hurtling it at the charging enemy in one deft motion.  Both guards threw themselves to the floor, and the labrys whirled past to embed itself in the mounted head of a bull, but Almuric had bought the moment he needed.  Before they could stand, his long knife skewered one. 

As he tried to pull the knife free, the other guard kicked him hard in the side, and tackled him to the floor.  He grappled the giant, taking heavy blows as he fought desperately to get a grip on the man's head and pull it close.  The guard became ambitious, and as he reached for a knife, Almuric was given his chance.  With a furious cry he reached up and caught the man's neck, wrenched it down and heaved.  Screaming with the effort, he arched his back and lifted the giant, throwing his weight to the side, and Almuric was on top.

The guard still tried to use the knife when he should have grappled, for it allowed Almuric to lean forwards.  He caught the wrist of the knife hand, slammed fist after fist into the guard's face, until the knife fell away, and he was pushed back by the guard's legs.  Each fighter came to their feet.

The guard swayed drunkenly.  Almuric was tired, but not wounded.  He dodged a wild blow, and as the guard stumbled, Almuric grabbed the knife from the floor and slashed the tendons at the back of the knee.  As the guard went down, the knife found his throat.

Almuric finished the others who lived, but were too wounded to fight.  He could not risk leaving them alive.  Almuric found his greatsword, and pulled his long knife from one of the guards.  No others would come, or they would have already done so.

He was exhausted, but his blood boiled with elation.  Only the leader would be so well guarded, or surrounded by such finery.

Now he had a moment to think, he inspected the guards.  Each wore a cloak of black velvet over their furs, and a golden circlet about their heads.  Almuric was amazed to see such decadence among savage people, yet their finery matched the strange magnificence of the hallway perfectly.

Down the hall was a doorway flanked by two mounted wolf heads.  Beyond the door was an impossible sight.  Had it not been for his time in the Library, he would not know what he saw.  Two full suits of armour stood on racks; European plate, and Japanese leather.  Weaponry of the finest quality lined the walls amid masks and hangings that depicted warriors and battles from lost ages, and forgotten civilisations.

The weapons were sharp. 

If he was going to die, he'd die owning such things, Almuric thought.  He discarded his own crude weapons and armour, taking a Scottish claymore to replace his greatsword, a short Japanese sword called a wakizashi to replace his long knife.  The metal armour would be a death sentence on the frozen waste, so he tried the leather.  It didn't fit, but he took it anyway.  He could adjust it later, if he lived.  Satisfied that he'd donned the finest weaponry he'd ever seen, Almuric stepped through the doorway at the other end, claymore in hand.

The room beyond was dark.  Almuric replaced the claymore for the wakizashi, and walked cautiously, ears open.  He sensed an ambush.

Light exploded into the room and he roared a challenge.  Men surrounded him.  None moved.  He shook his head.  It was his own reflection, bouncing to infinity in an arrangement of mirrors. 

A voice boomed inhumanly from the walls.

'Who dares enter un-summoned?'

A blinding flash, and the mirrors filled with raging volcanoes and hellfire.

'Who dares!?' demanded the voice, and the din of war exploded into the room, with the image of rushing troops. 

'Cower, mortal, and flee!' the voice resounded, and Almuric bellowed with all the fury of a caged tiger.  He was not some superstitious savage.  He could read.  He could write.  He knew this "magic" for what it was, and the thought of such manipulation filled him with blinding rage. 

He pulled the claymore free and used it as a club to smash each mirror, screaming as he unleashed his fury.

'Who dares!?' he challenged back.  'Who dares play God with the superstitions of men!?'  

The illusion lay shattered on the floor.  Sounds of rushing battle still echoed through the room, but they only added fuel to the fire in Almuric's blood.  The broken image played on, fragmented, and the path through the maze of mirrors became clear. 

He didn't know what to expect, but what he saw beyond shocked him.  Perhaps he'd expected a large man, an obvious leader, and a small company of guards who knew the secret.

A slender figure huddled by electrical equipment.  A projector sat on a table, casting it's image onto a broken mirror at the back of the room.  The leader cowered.  Almuric had never seen such naked fear.

In his rage he kicked the projector into the little man's stomach.  While he lurched and fell to his knees, retching, Almuric ran forward, gripped the leader by the neck and lifted him off his feet.

'Please!' he choked.  'I'll do anything!'  His voice was deep, powerful.  Almuric threw him to the floor.

'You control the tribe with this?' he asked, the calmness in his voice belying the fury in his soul.  'You rule them with fear and let them believe you are a God?'

'I found this projector and made it work.  Please, I'll give you anything.  Riches beyond your dreams.  Money, women, power.  I'll give you anything!'

'I want nothing from you,' then he paused, as the false God began to weep.  'No, you can do something for me.  You, the worm masquerading as a God.  I have one task for you.'


'You are assaulting the Library tribe for books and rarities, true?'

The leader nodded. 

'Tell your men to make peace.  Order them to swear allegiance to Andrew Wilson.  Tell them to apologise for past crimes.  Tell them you will smite them from this world if they should ever break that allegiance.'

The man nodded, swallowing thickly.  Almuric could imagine the his past.  He was abnormally thin for these days of bitter strength.  He must have found the speaker equipment before the deification, and through ingenuity that would have impressed Almuric had he not been seething, restored it to working condition. 

The false God reached for a microphone, flicked a switch.  As he listened to the voice boom into the night from a set of loudspeakers, Almuric could imagine the process:  calling into the empty days, or whenever he saw someone pass, until finally acquiring the attention of a tribe, and through patience and craft convincing them of his status as a God.

'Now we wait,' he said.  His back seemed more straight, his jaw more set.  There was pride there, Almuric thought.  Pride at his innovation.  So there should be.

After a long silence, footsteps could be heard walking towards the door.  The man turned on another microphone.

'Do not enter!'

The footsteps were replaced by the sound of a man dropping to his knees.

'I have one command before leaving this world!'  He looked at Almuric, who nodded.

'Make peace with the people of the Library.  Swear allegiance to their chief, Andrew Wilson.  Apologise for the war I unleashed, for I tire of it.  Go now, lay down your weapons and beg forgiveness.  You shall be welcomed there as brothers.  Break fealty and I will return, and you will know my wrath.'

There was a pause, then a man's uncertain voice.  'But, Lord--'

The false God cut him off.  'Do not presume to know the twists of fate, or comprehend the will of the Gods!  Do you dare defy me!?'

'No, Lord!  Forgive me!'  Footsteps swiftly retreated.  The false God stood with his neck slumped, sorrow drowned.

These are cruel times, Almuric thought.  One cannot hate a man for having the strength and intelligence to rise to leadership.  But he had no misconceptions about what must be done.

They gazed out of the window together.  The tribe emerged from their stronghold, man-shaped specks from the heights where Almuric watched them trudge west, towards the Library. 

'What is your name?' Almuric asked.

'Stephen.  Stephen Costigan.'  He sat in his chair.  'What's yours?'

'Almuric,' he said, and he smiled grimly for an instant before turning sombre.  'I apologise for what I must do.'

'No.  Dreams don't last forever.'  Stephen shuddered with a deep sigh, looked Almuric in the eyes, his demeanour was now one of intense pride.  'It was a lonely life.'

Almuric nodded, and lifted his sword, but Stephen Costigan bolted for the window and jumped into the frozen night.  Almuric watched him fall, slowly spinning, arms outspread in a gesture of resignation, until he hit the snow and his dream was over.  He kept his gaze on Stephen, wishing his spirit peace. 

Leaving, he paused only to destroy the electrical equipment, and when the night air met his face, he breathed deeply and walked north, towards the root of mankind's downfall.  His father's dying words echoed in his mind, as they had always done.  'Man's destruction is his salvation.  Know the root of the Ice.




Sarah waited by the Library's exit, watching as a smoke cloud drew near.  Men carrying torches emerged from the gloom, around fifty men, and they knelt, as if waiting. 

'Father, come here, look at this,' she said, and Wilson appeared just in time to see each figure un-strapping his or her weapons and placing them in the snow.  They stood and walked ten paces forward, knelt again, their weapons long behind.

'Is it a ruse?' Sarah asked.  Her father looked thoughtful, but just as he was about to speak, one figure stood and slowly approached.  He was tall, powerfully built, and as he drew nearer Sarah could see his face was riddled with scars.  The man fell to his knees well within earshot. 

Wilson signalled, and ten warriors left the Library, drawing their bows, arrows aimed for the obvious leader. 

Wilson and Sarah stepped outside.  Cormac joined them.

'People of the Library, I wish to extend the hand of peace, and I must speak with Andrew Wilson,' the man said, his voice sombre.

'I am he,' Wilson said.

'My name is Jonas Wakefield, I was leader of the tribe that has been fighting you.  I apologise on behalf of my people and...'

But Sarah was no longer listening.  Her gaze travelled over the horizon, far into the north, knowing that somehow this was Almuric's doing, knowing now beyond any doubt that he was still alive, wondering if he would ever return.

'He's walking out there,' she said, though no one heard.  'He's travelling north, to the root of the Ice.'  A tear streamed down her cheek, and she touched her belly, where she could already feel, in her spirit, the child growing. 

A sad smile lighted her face as she watched her lover, the father of her child, in her mind's eye, oblivious to the shaking of hands and words of peace spoken around her, arms length and light years away.  She could see Almuric walking, his cloak flapping violently in a blizzard as he trekked inexorably on, until his image faded into the gathering distance, and she was alone.