And it is a story about a fox, because every story worth the telling has a fox in it.
There are things about the Wasting everyone knows even though they have never been: that the trees are bleached bone, that the sky is not a sky, that the dead are drawn there to die. That it grows when dreams die is also known, and that lies make it strong, and a truth told to hurt makes it stronger still. It is north of everything, as near as despair and as far as hope. Anyone can reach the Wasting, and the holes in our hearts can draw it to us. It is all that is wrong with the worlds and no one who enters can leave.
These are known things and believed things and, with one exception, all are true.
There is a stream that separates the Wasting from everything, a trail scoured into the skin of the world; water once the colour of tears long since mixed with mud and sediments. A brave man could cross it, but no brave man would for it is not bravery that brings one to the Wasting but emptiness and darker things beside. The desperate cross it at times to find loved ones, to make amends, for forgiveness. Each gesture is as hollow as the last.
The Wasting only takes.
A forest borders the wasting, though to call it that is to insult even weeds: the trees are plague-grey twisted things, corpse-thin branches grown sideways rather than up, for the Sun cannot bear to shine down on such a place. Ruins can be found, if one looks: scattered rock and wood, echoes from ae past when men would built castles before the Wasting and roar defiance at it.
It was a long time ago. Now men seek battles with other men, the Wasting a nightmare's dream left to stories and the quiet tales told long after the taverns have closed and the press of the night draws out such stories from tellers who should know better than to give voice to such tales.
Because there are trees, the forest has insects. Because there are insects, small animals live even here, eating and being eaten, hunting and being hunted. There is an order to the chaos of things that not even the Wasting can wholly blight. The small animals that scurry about the forest are thin things, fur dull and matted and eyes duller still. There were few of them in any age, and in this one fewer still as a fox roamed the edge of the Wasting, and had done so for long enough to leave tracings of his passing even in such a place as this.
The fox's fur was as deep and red as any fox who had had ever been, the legs of his feet as black as night, his chest white as mountain snow and the bushiest tail that was the envy of all other foxes and many other animals beside. His steps were light on the cold ground and he paced the brook that lined the Wasting without pause. If dwelling that close a land the colour of a widow's heartache touched the fox, he showed nothing of it in a smile almost as sharp and bright as his eyes, for he was the first of all foxes and coyote and raven mere echoes of his tales. Days passed as he walked the edges of the worlds. Cold followed warmth and cold again, the changing of the seasons barely real in the deep north of the world. The fox heard men and avoided them since even his desire for tricks and games was blunted by the Wasting.
The fox, whose name was Reynard in all the worlds that were, waited.
Even more time passed.
Other men came, and other species beside: an army even, once, that flew through the air on the chants of magicians. The fox avoided them, and mourned them not at all. He moved south, slow but sure, as the Wasting crept deeper into the world, and still the fox waited with a sureness hinting at hope that can outlast even despair. One could have asked what the fox was waiting for, and perhaps he would have said – for there is no fox born that will not spin a tale for the asking – but the truth is a tale too precious for any fox to tell.
This is all the truth we need to know: Reynard Fox waited until he waited no longer.