Where cold is the only constant there are many faces of ice, facets which vary from settlement to settlement. Where Winter breathed dry and sandy there were frost kinds and grain kinds, kinds which would melt at daybreak and pool up if the diligent prepared and kinds that encased those who died of thirst upon the way. For as many forms and faces of ice there are many more and varied kinds of death.
The village of the narwhal hunters was far, far south of the arctic deserts. So far down that many believed the inhabitants to be demons, which is a common affliction placed upon the unknown and the distant. The ices which surrounded them were those of ancient snows compacted by the ages and clear blue shards formed by the cyclical freezing of the great bay which provided both bounty and horror, in unequal amounts. They measured the days and months by the movement of the ice and they metered their fears by its color.
The Wondering Mountains, possessed by the lost, damned and insane, were home to a strange, tinted kind of ice more ancient than the rest. The respectable hunters shunned that circular range of peaks. It was home to those strange mountain folk anyhow. The ice on those slopes, often hidden behind dusting snows of common white, began at the foothills as a pale shade of blue and then evolved darker, towards indigo and unwholesome black. Within the stygian depths of the most ancient precipitation, clusters of deep crimson watched, like eyes. The mountain people avoided these; they brought unwanted dreams.
The Fencer drifted in warmth and with a jerk he lunged awake. It was warmer in the great basin than any place he had ever been; the ice was wet near the tree, wet and dark. Red eyes stared up at him as he stood. Torn between the uncomfortable warmth and exhaustion the young man sat dissolute and anxious. He hadn’t eaten for days.
There was the blue-haired man at the base of his tree, just standing. Their meeting had yielded nothing but dumb stares from the mute, spoiled by occasional knowing smiles that lead nowhere. The creature wandered off and the Fencer, not having anything better to do, followed. Distantly a trumpet played.
His host’s slow shamble of a walk gave the Fencer ample time to take stock of the shrouded land he had toiled to reach and where he would most likely die of thirst, hunger, or rage. They stood on what could be described as a frozen lake of well-carved jet frosted with snow. Here the ice was most black, and crystalline, the growth lines of the glass tessellated and fractal. Colonies of scarlet eyes seemed to watch their progress. Occasional structures rose up from the surface of the lake; waves frozen at the moment of some ancient violence.
After an hour of walking the mute found the deeply cut line in the ice the two travelers had crossed the previous day, as far as time had any meeting in this place. For several more hours the creature stalked this line, the slow arc of which described a circle. With deft hands he mended the break the weary two had gouged with their passing. In the face of such industry the Fencer could only stagger along as deepening pangs of hunger and thirst trilled through his stomach.
Above them the roiling clouds of azure loomed. That boundless presence the Fencer had felt back when he was still the Outcast, hanging from the icy cliff, at the mercy of the Lemur-men, was ever everywhere. Again, and more acutely, he encountered the disassociation he first felt upon entering the hazy barrier on the descent. It was as if all the parts of him separated and began drifting away and all the laws which made up the world were undone, which was a far more pleasant experience than dying of thirst. It was, in a way, enlightening, to objectively view himself outside himself. A pang of hunger brought him back together; the mute was watching him.
Gesturing for the Fencer to follow, the ancient man walked off into the gloom of the basin. Baffled, pained and confused, the traveler stalled a minute before chasing after. It was all becoming too much for his reason to handle. The old, rabid fury that had followed him all his life boiled with the clouds. When he did end up following, it wasn’t before he pulled out his nightmare blade to savagely break the careful circle his host was so intent on keeping whole.
He smiled to the half-naked idiot he found stooped over a basin in the ice. The idiot smiled back with broken teeth and then the Fencer’s eyes saw the glimmer of water. It was warm indeed in this place and though the ancient and cursed ice never melted frost and light snows did, according to some slight variation in the air. Here the melt pooled up in a secret well, only a few inches deep. The thirsty man drained it completely.
At the bottom, through meters of black ice, more red eyes stared. The Fencer had drunk down some exhaustion with the water and was bent panting over the dry well. The eyes move and tumble away. He could see the swish of dark currents through the cold glass. The lattice of ice itself seemed to bend and flow. Then the eyes were gone. The mute failed to notice this as he was once again staring back towards the tree.
“I’m troubled,” stated the Fencer when some hours had passed and the three men sat under the fluttering boughs at the center of the basin. They had found many more secret wells which had only kindled the Trumpeter’s curiosity as it satisfied his thirst.
“Deeply,” replied the tattered musician as he joined in the mute’s meditations. “But I perceive that there are other matters that you speak of, the magic circle, or the health of the water, the curse of this tree, the clouds of insanity, or maybe horrors unknown. It could be any of these things.”
“The eyes in the dark ice; I saw them move,” pondered the Fencer. The Trumpeter began coughing immediately.
With a sigh the Fencer dragged the dramatist a ways off, trumpet scraping out discord on the ice.
“That was unnecessary,” said the Fencer when he had gotten his companion to stop his hysterics. “Do you know something?”
“Of course I don’t!” declared the Trumpeter. “Yet I dare you to conspire any process of thought or delusion of wit which allows for the movement of crimson eyes in a bed of ice older than time to be anything but a bad thing.”
This satisfied the Fencer but, like his hollow belly, the complications implied rumbled around in his mind. Perhaps it was the diluting effects of the endless clouds above but piecing together a coherent thought in that place seemed as impossible as solving the riddle of Winter.
“You say the circle is magic?” the Fencer asked.
“Well, protection, or so the old wisdom goes. He must follow its passage in order to ward off evil, to mend any breaks; a broken circle affords no protection.”
Concealing his alarm with a thick layer of rancor the Fencer brought the Trumpeter back to the tree and tried to change the subject.
“One of your people?” The Fencer gestured at the mute who smiled once more. “He has signs of the gift, perhaps he is a survivor of your quaint mountain ways.”
“It is possible that some grace or knack has kept him alive so long in such a forlorn place, but even I have difficulty fathoming those chances. In addition you have fallen into a paradox; while the Uplifting and therefore the origin of the practice of exposure occurred no more than fifteen seasons ago, that man is certainly older than fifteen. Too tall, also,” finished the Trumpeter, once more gazing up at the tree or perhaps the struggling things in the cages.
The Fencer hadn’t noticed the stature of the creature, bent and humble as it was. Indeed, their blue-haired friend stood a good head taller than even the lanky Trumpeter.
“Perhaps that is another aspect of the gift as well,” he said as he stood up.
It was a good thing that he was in the company of fools because the Fencer’s exit was without grace or excuse. Turning his head back in the hazy air he heard and saw no sign that either man followed him. He was careful not to lose his way, despite his desperation, as he followed his own tracks from hours before. So much walking on an empty stomach was tiring in a way he found surprising. Every man has his limits.
It would’ve been simple enough to find the damaged point on the circle and fix it. In mind he could envision the simplicity of his little indiscretion; nobody need know. This was a comfort, but it was not to be as what he found turned hope into fear of an alien sort.
Familiar tracks slithered over the break in the circle. Was it a day ago when the he first saw the same ropey markings? Was it ten? Time was all disrupted and confused, split apart by the cursed clouds above which extended to the ground as a haze. For the first time he could taste the heady scent of magic for what it was.
Wasting no time with idle meditations the Fencer quickly fixed the break in the circle, with special care taken to smooth out the undulating ruts on the inner portion. He used his blade for the circle itself and worked the superficial top of the ice so that his body heat ironed out the wrinkles of the unknown creature’s passage, the tracks of which vanished soon after entering the inner portion. He felt unsatisfied, but he had no energy left with which he could worry.
Back at the tree he fell asleep to the sound of snowflies of all shapes and colors struggling against gilded cages, which chimed in the still, warm air. Under the ice deep things moved and he fell towards them in slumber.
Dreams had never troubled the Trumpeter before, but in the ever-dusk of the basin he awoke, awash with cloying, heavy things crouching over him. These paralyzing shadows vanished only reluctantly as wakefulness took hold. He trembled and not from the cold. Lights gleamed crimson through the misty realm.
Walking over to his traveling companion, the red eyes in the black ice glowed and thronged about the Fencer. The Trumpeter let out a little scream, something he would never admit to. In his heart, he wished he still dreamed, though in truth it was more of a nightmare and in a further truth he was awake. He kicked the Fencer.
“You damned simpleton, I was trying to die down there,” blustered the Fencer, fighting his way from sleep to violence. The red eyes in the depths faded with his waking. He grabbed his sword, standing like a drunken man holding his tender belly. “Get out of the way, Trumpeter.”
“There’s something you should know,” began the fidgeting musician.
“I said get out of the way!” Now the Fencer leveled the strangely whorled weapon at his friend, that old mad fever in his eyes.
“It is broken,” stated the low, dry voice from behind the Trumpeter, who turned and stared in disbelief at the form of the mute. The worn down ancient stood blinking, addled, changed from his normal, jovial silence, a pained look on his face. “We fail now.”
“What are you talking about?” asked the Fencer, advancing.
“I don’t know,” he responded, and there was joy in the words. “I know nothing. I understand nothing. I contest nothing. I create nothing. I destroy nothing. A wide open plain and it is green. There is a hill covered in green feathers which ripple in a warm Summer breeze...”
“Summer!?” The Fencer’s exclamation sounded across the hazy basin. Startled snowflies in the ancient tree doubled their efforts to escape and their music filled the air. In all the noise and motion the mute’s happiness melted. He sunk down to the ice to sit stooped and vacant.
“What do you know of Summer?” demanded the Fencer, whose blade added incentive a few inches away from the broken face. But the man only smiled with broken teeth.
“He doesn’t know anything,” admonished the Trumpeter to which the strange, blue-haired man beamed as if he had just received the greatest of compliments.
“Just now he mentioned it, the taboo word, he must know something.” But to the Fencer’s urgency and passion the mute only smiled more and gestured back to the tree and the strange, caged creatures fluttering.
“I saw something when you were sleeping,” said the Trumpeter trying to change the subject. His stomach was too squeamish to stand the sight of blood right then and he quietly regretted the drink of water which had robbed him of the right to die quickly of thirst. “Those crimson eyes in the nightmare glass, I saw them glow around you and stare intently.”
“They were outside; now one is within,” rasped the ancient. “I’m so sorry.”
All three men felt the presence of another. Not so much the presence of a man, though, and not like the thing in the alien thing in the azure cloud. This thing they felt was formed differently for each of them. Yet the menace was no match for exhaustion.
The Fencer knew the tracks the thing left and so drifted off to troubled sleep imagining a tentacled mass of cold descend seeping across the land. He ran. This cold was Dhala, absolute and everywhere. Eventually there was no where left to run and he was forced to return home. The villagers all glared at him when he tried to warn them of the coming doom. It ate the sun. He suffocated into stillness, once more in the village which cast him out.
To the Trumpeter the fourth presence was a particularly large and hungry Lemur-man. This creature, standing over four meters tall and possessed of a deep hatred of music, would descend from the petrified tree in his dreams and wrest the trumpet away from the terrified musician. It would then proceed to play the worst possible sounds on the instrument in a grand solo which would climax with tearing the ancient device asunder.
But to the mute the fourth presence was something else, something known, and this was most fearsome. He truly didn’t know much of anything at all, and this was by intent, a gift to himself, a secret. He knew only to tend the cages, and the circle, and to live, through endless and thoughtless eons. What frightened him so greatly was neither the end of his life, nor loss of any kind, but in regaining what was lost, in remembering, and in doing so a great nightmare would be loosed. The mute never slept.
Like a somnambulist the Fencer awakes from his icy slumber. Taking no notice of the glimmering crimson eyes following his movements he moves past the Trumpeter murmuring to his bad dreams. The mute is nowhere to be found. By now the cloudy mist in the air has progressed to a fog. The Fencer doesn’t need to see what he was after as he moves towards the fluttering sounds of the great old tree.
His hunger swings the sword, cutting down a low hanging cage, and with desperation he frees the strange, ruby creature inside. The innocent thing struggles terrified, or exuberant, in the scarred hands of its benefactor. Scarlet dust turns the Fencer’s fingers blood red. It is all motion and flapping and frond-like antennae and large gem-like eyes staring up and out, above the clouds to mysteries lost. He holds beauty for a moment.
A man in normal circumstances might have felt mercy or sadness towards the helpless creature, but the ice is cold and harsh lives breed rapacious thoughts, starvation, all sorts of hunger. It was a specific set of circumstances with brought the young man known as the Fencer, and sometimes the Outcast, to a lost and forlorn corner of the Winter world, starved, half-mad, desperate for all too much.
When at last he slept, the broken remains of his meal hidden down the fissures following the petrified growth of the ancient tree’s roots, the Fencer’s dreams had changed. They were dreams of another time and place, where wondrous characters acted in incomprehensible ways. All made more alien by the character whose life he lead in that outré land of green ground and blue sky, while he slept with a full stomach on the ancient ice.