The birds disappear when they migrate, somehow they can find their way through the curved prison-space of the bound realm. For anyone else, walking too far one way brings you back the other. The rivers run somewhere but no-one who takes them ever comes back. The wells draw water from the dark but tunnels twist intangibly, avoiding a deeper dark that isn't there.
Small realms, but safe, where widows weave the funeral shrouds for absent knights who rarely return alive. With everyone preparing for an invisible end. Their world is as fragile as glass.
Here in the hidden Baronies, and there in the Barren Baronies, the time-scarred knight licks water from a thorn as dawns paperback-grey eye widens in slow shock at the horizons horrors once again, a ruined land like ragged pennants snapping in a random wind.
They seek each other, these Knights, they fear each others tread and watch each others sign. They suspect everything a threat, even the absence of a threat, silence itself the track of an intangible beast they would seek.
They must. It is the war of the Baronies. It is a civil war. A savage war of all against all, of kin against kin. They must defend their people, it is a sacred trust. They must defend their land and their honour and their subjects. They are the only ones who can.
They must defend them from the other Knights, for if the shield is shattered the Barony is lost, and if a Barony is lost then the pain-wracked desert of the Barren Baronies must writhe like a snake pinioned in the sun and the stone shatter and the ranges crack like freezing ice.
And, as the unrelenting logic of death requires, the surest form of defence requires offence.
And there are old wrongs and old hatreds, deep betrayals and dark imaginings.
Yes it is quite a deed to shatter a shield, and to avenge your ancestors, and many shields were shattered in the starting centuries of the war, and the land wracked with torment and homes and families and ancient lineages disappeared like drifting smoke. Those were the early contests, and birthed the roots of many hates between the Knights.
But the Baronies were young then, and the Knights were poorly trained, ill-prepared for the broken world their war had built. They are more fierce and competent now, some near-ageless out of hate, some passing hatred on from son to son.
They know their ruined land and read its marks. A scuff on stone, a shard of wood, a still breeze carrying the scent of rust and sweat. The pause before an attack.
It would go quicker if they were willing to use bows the wars might finished in a century, but a Knight is a Knight after all. Perhaps especially after all. They go at each other with blades. Spears first, if their horses can still charge, then they take it into breathing distance.
The Knights are very good by now. They take no risks and move like tense pendulums twisted together, clicking back and forth, speechless across the sand, leaving scattered drops of rusty blood. Each has killed a hundred men by now, and shattered a hundred shields, and riven the land with terrible tortures over a hundred times.
They still carry their own safe shield, their protected Barony, glowing like a polished stone, fragile, desperately, terribly fragile. A shield with all their dreams inside it, their families, their homes, their future and their past. It's us or them. Someone has to go.
Ages ago they made fires to survive in the dark, where the dew freezes hieroglyphs on the obsidian shards reflecting cracked stars from a wounded sky. They learnt, quickly, to never sleep by their own fire, but to watch it from a distance through half-closed eyes, preparing for the attack. Then in time they learnt that all the fires were traps, that all the knights were sleeping cold. Now no-one makes a fire.
In stories the Knights fight because they think the last shield will return safely to the earth, and expand like an infinite tapestry, a green growing carpet of woodlands and peace, to fill the Barren Baronies and bring back the land the way it once was. And that’s a neat and tragic tale which gives reasonable reasons for death and makes the listener sigh.
In reality, they kill not to die. The only way they can ever be safe is if all the other Baronies are smashed and there is no-one left to hate. The last knight knows his home and family will survive, even hidden in a shield of glass, a bounded life is better than none.
People go around the Barren Baronies, the Knights who haunt it are amazingly, indescribably deadly. Watchful, cunning, amoral and cold. Even to step inside that land is to be made a piece in their game. From the moment of arrival, cold, hidden eyes observe and pained thoughts balance shifting probabilities. The Knights of the Barren Baronies have no particular interest in killing travellers, and none in keeping them alive. If you are useful dead, you will be killed. If you might become a threat, you die. If you can be a lure, provide a distraction or disguise, provoke an unexpected response or herald a telling mistake, then you might live. People do cross the Barren Baronies, some of them, gloriously unobservant, say they never even saw a Knight, don't know what all the fuss is about.
Those who do meet Knights rarely forget it. They are terrifying men. Honed and worn like a keen note from a taut string before it breaks. Violent and horribly sad, with the ruins of good manners and Knightly courtesy, and each with a carefully wrapped shield they will never expose.
They move in an invisible circle in which no-one will approach and kill with a twitch. Armed men back away. Some crawl to the border with slashed Achilles tendons, telling stories of the man in rusted mail who appeared from the stone and killed every standing man in a caravan in the time it takes to tell it. Left the rest crawling in the sand and followed them, invisibly, as they crawled and screamed towards the boundary of the Barren Baronies, making them a lure to catch another Knight.