Druan sat on his black throne, old before his time. Years since the last battle and his wounds still tormented him. He walked slowly, with a limp from his broken leg. He was blind in one eye, and now nearly blind in the other. His hands were curled into claws by the old burns, and he could do little with them save grip his staff. He went masked among his people, hiding the face made into a mask of its own by the black blood of the night, the blood of winter itself. It had burned into him, and now he could never feel warm, not completely.
Now the city once called Ember was a place of stone and iron, filled with fires that never died and warriors who never ceased. They rode forth in black columns jagged with spearpoints, and they rode forth to conquer and enslave. They went west, and they went east, and all the peoples of the cold, dark lands they found they subjugated and then brought them under the sway of their emperor. Once they bowed to him as their master, they were given swords and spears and undying fire and sent forth as warriors in their own right.
So the lands of the north swelled with war, and when it was time, that war was loosed on the lands to the south. The mountains there loomed mysterious and forbidding. The stories were told, of how the sun shone every day in those warm lands beyond. Men said the sun rose above the horizon into the sky, and did not simply haunt the edges of the world. They said there were places where no snow ever fell, and ice never covered the waters.
Into those lands the armies of the north poured like a black tide. With cold iron and deathless flame they coursed from the mountain passes, and they crushed all that came before them. No army of soft men from warm lands could stand against their fury. With the hunger of winter they crushed armies and shattered walls, and they plundered whatever there was to take.
Then a river of tribute flowed into the north, and the pillaged wealth of a dozen kingdoms was laid before Druan on his black throne. They brought him gold and silver, heaped high in iron coffers. They brought him jewels and arm-rings and cups and strings of pearls, which he had never seen. They brought slaves to work the forges and the fields, and they brought him girls to please him, but the lord of the north thought only on death.
He walked the halls of his palace in the dark, with no light to mark his way, and he walked with heavy tread, dragging his crippled leg. He never tired, and some said he never slept. He went often down from his high halls, through the grand palace that had been raised with blood gold, and into the mean, narrow passageways where the foundation stones were laid. He went down to where the star burned, hidden from sight, and the priestesses of fire tended the flames that never died.
He brooded before the endless fire, and he prayed to his goddess, the mother of all fire who had so gifted him when he was young, and when he had need of her power. Perhaps he asked for wisdom, and perhaps he only wished for an end.
Nothing pleased him. Not blood nor gold, nor stories or songs. He took women, and they bore him children, and he cared for them no more and no less than he cared for the dogs that fought for scraps beside the feasting table. Only his seer-woman Ashra could speak to him in his black moods, and he heeded her words above all others.
So he called her to his private chambers, and she bowed to him, but she did not prostrate herself, for she was no slave. She looked at him, leaning hard on his staff as he looked out into the night. The stars were high and shining, and the sun was hidden behind the southern mountains, only a glow beyond the ridgeline.
“I remember when we were young,” he said. “You were the fire, and I was the iron. I was forged in war, and emerged cold, and hard.” He looked at her, his blind eye glimmering. “I did what had to be done, and there was no question of it. If we did not fight, we would die. Our people would die.” He looked away, to the south. “Now there is no enemy worth the name. Now we fight for gold, and rivers of shiny trinkets that mean less than nothing to me. Now they say I rule over far lands, but I have never seen them, and I never will. My bones ache in the night, and my flesh is eaten up with pain.”
“You were the chosen of Ajahe,” she said. “She gifted you with her star fire. But though the fire may burn forever, flesh may not. Her blessing is a fire, and a fire consumes what it touches.” She lifted the braids of her hair, turned white with years. “We are all of us consumed, and so are you. It is time to give way, and lay down the burdens you took upon your shoulders. It is time to die.”
“Yes,” he said. “I chose to die long ago, when the darkness first came. I chose death, but it was not given that I might die so soon. So I fought and bled and killed and now I have forgotten what life was. Once I was young. I hunted to feed my family, I lived free under the stars, I did not think on the future. Now every thought is of my grave, and I wish it. I will not wait any longer. You are right. It is time for me to end.” He leaned on his staff. “Let the fires come, and consume what has been given.”
He sent forth a great force of slaves and warriors, and they marched to the valley where he had been born, where his family had lived, and where they had died. Time had long ago wiped away all remnants of the lives of men, and it was as it had once been, before ever human hands touched it. So close to the once-cursed vale, no one had ever wished to come again and dwell there, and it was empty. Over the years, Druan had seen to it no one trespassed in that place.
Now the slaves began to hew the earth. They took picks and spades to the hard ground, frozen for as long as men remembered, and they began to dig. Under cold stars and a waxing moon they hacked a great hollow out of the earth, deep into the permafrost. The cold air steamed on their breath and on their skin. The warriors drove them hard, lashing them when they faltered, and they killed more and more of them as they dug deeper.
In the center of the pit they raised a dolmen of stones, standing them up in a circle, then more of them, packing them more tightly until there was a chamber of cold stone in the frozen earth. They piled the bodies of those who died from exhaustion around it and buried them, heaping the earth and corpses until the stone chamber was only open to the sky.
They drove spears into the earth in a great ring about the dolmen, and that marked the boundaries of the great tomb they then began to raise over it. The slaves worked in the dark, under jeweled stars, to pile stone on stone. They marked out funerary chambers and built them with fitted stones, filling the space around them with the excavated earth. Under lash and sword, the great tomb took shape.
At the last they roofed the chambers over with great slabs of stone, and then the priestesses came and kindled sacred fires within the rooms, and they etched signs of power on the walls. Shards of the star were brought and fed the flames within, so that they would never die. By the firelight the priestesses danced naked and scrawled the walls with the marks of war and strength.
Slaves were brought and sacrificed, and their blood was used to consecrate the chambers, to stain the walls and the stone floors. They adorned the walls with fresh bones and tanned the skins to drape over the final altar.
Ashra led the sacred rites, and she wailed the songs of the fire goddess. She led the slaves into the great burial chamber, and there she had them raise a stone bier, and upon it they laid the flayed skins of the sacrificial victims. When it was done she slew nine slaves with her own hands and spilled their blood on the stones.
The call went forth, and then Sultai led forth an army. They marched from the fortress called Ember, a dark host on their dark horses, spears uplifted. Hooves pounded the earth, and at the heart of the army they dragged seven great wagons filled with the plunder of kingdoms. They guarded it day and night, until they reached the place of the tomb.
The slaves raised the great mound over the buried chambers, and then the army fell on them and slew each one, down to the last man, and they watered the earth with their blood. Then each warrior took a stone and piled it upon the mound, side by side, until it was covered and protected. They drove their bloodied spears into the earth in a great ring around the mound, making a forest of iron points with only one way through them.
Sultai gave his command, and then his warriors carried armfuls of treasure into the great mound, through the forest of spears and down into the new-made tunnels. By the light of the undying fires they bore chests of gold and silver into the earth and heaped the chambers with coins and jewels and cups and arm-rings. Golden platters and necklaces studded with ruby and chalcedony, hung with amber and green pearls. They made piles of fine armor and jewel-hilted swords, and they hung the bloody walls with the skulls of slaughtered kings.
They heaped the tomb with plunder, until the halls shone with gold and the screams of blind skulls rang in the silence. They circled the mound and guarded it with drawn swords, and then Druan came, riding on his black horse, surrounded by his bodyguard. He looked tall in the saddle, black in his heavy cloak and iron scaled armor. In his hand he bore the shard of fire that was the sword from the star, and they looked on it with reverence, for they knew they would not see it drawn again.
He rode to the great wall of spears, and then his men helped him down from his horse. He moved with great pain, and he gripped the red sword in one hand and leaned upon his staff with the other, and he looked up at the great mound built for him, and he saw his breath plume in the cold air like smoke from an inner fire. He looked on the host of his army, and the forest of spears gleaming in the starlight, and he nodded. This would be a good enough place to rest. Let it be done.
His warriors formed ranks and he walked between them, moving slow and hard, his pains seeming to grow with every step. He went to the door of the tomb and he stopped there, cast down his staff, and with a stroke of the red sword he hewed it in two pieces.
“Sultai, take one piece, and Arun, take the other.” His closest servants came and each of them took part of his staff. Sultai the giant, and Arun the hunter. “When I am done, each of you take that piece and ride. One of you will go east, the other west, and at the end of a single day plant the pieces in the earth. There you will make camp, and those camps will become fortresses.”
He looked at them. “You will bring with you your men, your warriors, and their families, down to the last child. You will dwell here, for all time, and you will become a race apart.” Druan held up the sword of fire. “This sacred land shall be my resting place, and you will guard it, forever. None who do not bear your blessings may set foot upon this ground, save death be the answer for their trespass. This shall be the land of my resting place, and nothing else. You who live here shall be my Karkhad – my guardians.”
They bowed low to him, and he went into the great mound, followed by Ashra and her priestesses. He lit the way in the darkness with the sword of fire, and moved slowly on his weak leg, shouldering through the passageways until they came, at last, to the crypt itself.
Here was the great sarcophagus made from silver and adorned with black diamonds. Druan put his hand on it and seemed to falter, sagging against it, but no hand moved to aid him. He shrugged off his wolfskins and placed himself within the tomb. Ashra came and placed his horned helm upon his head, and he lay the red sword across his breast and clasped his hands on the hilt. Soon he would no more feel the heat of it. He felt himself growing slow and heavy, as though he were transforming to stone, or to wood. He lay embraced by the rocks and the roots of his home, and he did not care for treasures or gold.
The priestesses paced around him, singing songs of the fire goddess, and they lifted their torches and moved them through the air, making signs in the darkness. Ashra gave a sign, and they took hold of the doors of the sarcophagus. She reached in once more, and touched his hard, seared hand, and then she gave way and they closed the lid. There were seven locks, and they snapped them shut one after the other, until it was done.
The lesser priestesses slipped away, and only Ashra remained, holding her own small flame. She leaned close to the crypt and put her hand on the metal, feeling the silver warm and alive. She kissed it softly. “Rest, my lord. You have labored long and now is come the time for you to return to the earth. May Ajahe take you up into her flames.”
Druan breathed in a long, slow breath, tasting everything there was in the air. He smelled the hot metal, smelled the burning of the sword, and beyond that he smelled the earth, and the blood of the sacrificed, and the iron of his armor and his helm. Good smells, the smells of a life of war on the soil of his home. “I go to my rest now,” he said. “I am done with life, and these are my last words. Let no man or woman disturb my tomb. If I am brought forth into light again, I shall be a curse upon all lands, and all men. I have done what must be done, and I would do no more.”
In the dark of the sarcophagus he closed his eyes, and he breathed deep, and then he let his breath go, let it all fade away, and he saw a last fire within, behind his eyes, before he was gone, and all was quiet in the womb of the earth.
Ashra left the silent halls of the tomb. She was alone, and she passed by the flickering lamps that would never fade. She walked among the heaped treasures that would lie in the earth until the skies broke and shattered, and knew she was the last one who would ever see the gleam of gold and silver, the flicker of jeweled light. She left it, and then she emerged into the open air, beneath the sky of diamond stars.
She nodded, and the slaves were put to work. Three of them were sacrificed upon the threshold, leaving their blood and their heads there, and then the passage was filled with earth and stones. At last, a great stone door was fitted in place, too heavy for any one man to move, and when it lay there the work was done, and the tomb of Druan was completed.
“Let no man think he will return,” she said, her voice carrying as it had when she was young. “He has gone to the earth that he was born from, and his spirit has become fire. The sword of the stars will sleep with him, and never be raised again. He was our king called forth by darkness, and now he goes to his rest. If he is ever disturbed, great shall be his wrath.”
They took the rest of the slaves in their hundreds and slew them, and they mounted them on the forest of spears all around the grave. The blood flowed into the earth, and Ashra led them three times around the great mound, walking slow with fire in their hands, singing songs of the great goddess and her son, Druan, the dark king with his sword of flame.
Sultai and Arun mounted their horses, their men gathering behind them, and they nodded one to the other. With the broken staff in their hands, they turned and rode away, Sultai to the west, Arun to the East, and the hooves of the horses thundered as armies flowed across the earth. They knew now they would never leave this land, that it would be their home and their trust, and they were content. Each of them had been born under a dark sky in a land without a summer, and though they had seen bright lands and conquered warm kingdoms, their hearts lay here in the eternal night.
Ashra sang a last song, and then she turned to go. She did not see the young priestess who bent down. A gleam of red shimmered on the soil, and the girl found a single ruby, heavy and cold, caged in a net of golden wire. It had been dropped when the warriors bore the treasure within, unseen, and now she closed her hand over it, and kept it. The priestesses took to their horses, and like a serpent of fire they coiled away from the great tomb. Ashra led them away, and they left behind the grave where the first king lay hidden beneath the earth, like an ember.