Ice and snow across a long plain. The noontime sun sent long shadows cascading from its perch in the north where distant mountains dug dark tooth-marks into the sky. Wind and the hollow echo of empty tundra were the only sounds which came to the men.
The going was easier now that they had left the southern foothills, but the caravan’s burden had a troublesome gravity. There were over two dozen men dragging the cargo along, with one man behind to scream if trouble snuck upon them, and the Driver, as he liked to be called, walking ahead with the purpose of looking important and heaping unhelpful abuse on those in the middle, all flea-touched, dull-eyed laborers. They pulled the great chains to drag the massive sledge across the infinite ice. With each pull they sucked in the frigid air. Progress was only a few meters at a time. Not much else could be hoped for on the thankless plains of Winter.
They came from Ahgren, the city at the southernmost point of what passed for civilization and were the worst offspring of their barbaric age. They had set out with almost forty strong backs to drag their cargo to the steam city of Nock but after visitations of frost, sickness and brawls their numbers were sufficiently dwindled. Greater shares for the survivors. Spirits were high.
“It will be a great thing when I have the silver from this hellish enterprise in my hand,” sneered Yogo as he rested. Despite the Driver’s histrionics the men had declared it noon and broke off into small groups to gnaw upon their half-frozen rations and huddle where the biting wind couldn’t find them. “I will go bathing in a sea of silken women!”
Yogo had the dark complexion of one used to hard labor under the merciless southern sun and took great pride in claiming this made him resistant to the cold. He wore only a single layer of woolen rags and went bare footed. Sitting across from a handful of fellow toilers, rubbing heat back into his calluses, he continued describing in great detail the number, shapes, colors and temperaments of the women which his silver would buy on the streets of Nock.
Two men he didn’t trust sat across from him, while others, some more loyal, some not, fanned around in a circle. Of the two strangers one wore even less than he, some liar in seal skin and his mad manservant in the long coat and scarf. They called themselves the Trumpeter and the Fencer and Yogo’s eyes would frequently drop to look at the items of their station they carried. One a silvery instrument which would certainly fetch several weeks of a whore’s attentions and the other some nasty looking piece of black ice he wore as a sword.
Most of the varied rabble sat in dazed exhaustion just trying to gather enough strength to finish the day’s work. The Trumpeter busied himself with a rumpled bit of vellum and worked his mouth around odd-sounding words like a lunatic sunning himself with his own magnificence. The Fencer just stared ahead at Yogo, an expression of intense control in his grey eyes.
“Something the matter?” Yogo spat out, glaring back.
“No,” replied the Fencer smoothly, “no, keep rhapsodizing about what you’re going to do with all those women who aren’t your wife.”
Yogo laughed heartily, catching some of the midday sun in the sound and glancing to another huddle of freezing men.
“I want to hear more about how you’ll feed the uglier prostitutes to the more attractive ones as a form of payment and how grateful the recipients of your largesse will be. The acts with which you’ll be rewarded and particularly the diseases you’ll be giving them for free.”
The be-scarffed musician laughed something Yogo didn’t quite catch.
“What was that?” he demanded of the fool.
“I said,” began the Trumpeter with whimsy in his voice, “oh no.”
“You’re not from Ahgren,” said Yogo, shifting his attentions back to the one with the weapon. “Because if you were from Ahgren you’d know that I’m Yogo. My blood is so cold that even Winter fears to touch my veins and I wield a certain kind of practical magic.”
Here he flourished the collection of blades he kept along his sides; crude metal implements which spoke of frequent use. He grinned with satisfaction.
“So tell me Fencer, where do you come from?”
“The Village of the Narwhal Hunters,” he replied. “It lay far to the south of that stinking pile of bricks known as Ahgren. There I held the position of Keeper of Reason; an office of great import and little respect. Now the Village is gone so I believe all disused titles have fallen to me, including Chieftain and Master Whalesman.”
Yogo developed a long grin as the Fencer continued his telling.
“No places south of Ahgren,” he countered dryly. “Nothing but ice demons, frozen cadavers hungry for the warm breath of children and the star things which creep in during the endless dark of the winter months. Nothing else.”
The Fencer grew increasingly bored as Yogo spoke, as if he had heard it all before. A few of the other men in their circle eyed the brigand curiously.
“With so many titles I wonder why your magnificence is out here lugging that sledge with the rest of us.” Yogo pulled a particularly long and filthy blade from his brace and began cleaning his teeth of the hard tack he had inhaled for lunch.
The Fencer seemed on the edge of a violent reply when his companion, the Trumpeter, broke into the conversation.
“Troubles with certain self-aggrandizing armed men,” said the tall musician with as much diplomacy as he could manage, “back in that Ahgren place.”
“I had taken up with a fine lady of easy devotion and an unusually low bride-price,” frowned the Fencer sadly. “Matters were complicated. These northern dialects made communication uncertain for those first few weeks we stayed in the city. Sadly, the man I presumed to be her father was something more like an employer. There were issues of bride-price recurrence. Also the Trumpeter didn’t help matters.”
“So we sought warmer climes,” interjected the Trumpeter once more. “Nock is a bit of Summer from what I hear.”
The other laborers cursed and made warding signs at the mention of the taboo word, though Yogo seemed too much of a heretic himself to care.
“Oh really,” he said absently as he looked around the various camps and played with his knife.
The driver called the break over with shouts of reduced pay, pointing at the sun, dancing with excitement while the rest of the crew moved their chilled limbs to pull the chains once more.
The Trumpeter contemplated the cargo; a huge boulder-shaped thing, tethered by chains and covered in a tightly bound tarp. The Fencer took this opportunity to shove his companion to the side.
Just as the loon went sprawling into the silver carpet of snow Yogo turned and with him a good half of the crew suddenly threw down their chains. Grinning traitors fell upon their surprised brothers with their hands and knives. Shouts and the dull glint of a wary sun on dirty metal. Something flashed towards the Fencer.
Yogo’s blade sank into the swordsman’s shoulder. Wincing with another layer of pain upon the ache of the labor and the harsh cold, the Fencer loosed his blade from its wrappings. The black crystal of the weapon seemed to drink in the light of the sun. The attacker drew a few more choice knives and did his best to keep the Fencer’s attention. The knife-fighter laughed. The Fencer charged.
Snow packed to ice by the passage of the massive sledge proved to be difficult ground for the man with the sword. He skid and slipped but never lost his footing. Yogo danced about shoeless, darting in to nick the Fencer’s throat and pull out the narrow blade from his victim’s shoulder.
“Quit playing and just kill him,” shouted a voice. Half fallen, the Fencer looked over his shoulder. Another traitor was moving to dispatch the Trumpeter from behind, the musician now upright and dusting himself off.
The Fencer shouted to his friend but the lunatic simply continued his inane preening. A cold jab of pain in his back brought the swordsman around.
“That blade of yours is gonna fetch a lot of affection from the ladies of Nock, your friend’s thing too,” hissed Yogo in the Fencer’s ear before he pushed his victim face-first into the snow, blade freeing from the back of the man with a show of red.
A cry rang out.
Sputtering from the ground, desperate to see the tableaux of the Trumpeter’s demise, the Fencer cleared his eyes, coughing. The would-be assassin stood shocked and then crumpled; the surreal image of an arm the color of dead stone sticking from a massive wound in his chest. Yogo gaped amazed.
It fell like black rain. The lead traitor’s instincts pitched him backwards with the canny grace of a lifetime spent fighting men as cruel and quick as himself. Against an ordinary weapon the knife he raised along his arm would’ve been sufficient defense, but here the nightmare thing in the Fencer’s hands sheared the dagger in half and went on through the upper part of the forearm.
“Do you want me to kill him first, or all of you?” The Fencer’s voice was raspy and harsh, a voice unused to being raised. It wasn’t this call that stopped the coup, but instead the unsettling realization that a monster such as Yogo was now weeping blood and tears on the ground in front the foreign swordsman that stopped the fighting.
“Him first!” declared a wind-worn traitor who was waiting with a stone in his hand to finish off a laborer. The Fencer smiled, short grayish hair tossing in the wind.
He pulled Yogo to the edge of the icy path which amounted to a road and then pushed the maimed man with his foot, sending him tumbling gently down the slight decline.
“If he is as tough as he claims to be he should last until we make it to Nock, though the thought that all you northern devils are liars and there is no such city now crosses my mind,” reasoned the Fencer. “Still, he should have enough vivacity to last until we reach our destination. Whether we are safely in the city by the time or still traveling will depend on your backs. If we don’t make the City of Steam by nightfall you’ll all become better acquainted with my weapon, which many of you have jealously gazed upon.”
Silence, and then the survivors of both factions began hastily pushing the few dead and dying out of sledge’s way. The Driver leaped down from the top of the bundled cargo on his stubby legs and was all smiles.
“A thousand thanks!” he said through his bearded grin. “You are more than welcome to take the most coveted rear-guard position as we push to Nock. With some luck and your...encouraging presence we should make it to the City of Steam shortly, just as the Great Eye sets.”
“What was all that about?” asked the Fencer binding his wound.
The Driver glanced to the mysterious cargo before replying, “I’ll tell you when and if we reach the city. I sense a conspiracy but I’d bet the one-armed man over there was the only one who knew enough to be dangerous.”
“I happily accept the rear guard position on behalf of my friend here,” said the Trumpeter interrupting graciously. The madman stalked back to his attacker and retrieved his spare hand. The Fencer sighed but the Driver was already back to berating the laborers, all of whom were suddenly traitors.
“I didn’t think anyone would keep something like that,” said the Fencer to the Trumpeter as the second man pulled the petrified limb from the aspiring assassin.
“I needed something to protect me from you at the very least,” said the Trumpeter matter-of-factly while trying to clean the already freezing blood off the jagged, sharp edge where the limb had been snapped off its original host.
Already mad, the Fencer felt an argument boil up inside him but the Trumpeter’s cool blue eyes caught the swordsman’s. The mountain man then looked upon Dhala, the raw bit of frozen nightmare that the Fencer kept at his side. It too seemed to watch them from the numerous whorls and jewels of crimson which peeked out of the strange crystalline matter of the blade. He still had it in his hand, ready, waiting with a cold reason, to cut life into death. Again there was that smothering sensation, as in a dream that was not his. He put the thing away.
“I always knew you were a reasonable fellow,” smiled the Trumpeter.
The men took up their chains again and the great sledge pulled forward on the strength of desperation. The loyal and the traitorous heaved their way towards the distant cloud which was the City of Steam. With their goal in sight the Trumpeter flourished his instrument and without the Fencer to stop him emitted a blast of ear-piercing triumph across the lifeless plains.
A man laid dying, hungry snows already building upon his gnarled frame like sand into dunes. Then along came the peal of the trumpet and his eyes shot open into the glare of a billion mirrors shrieking light, into the driving cold brilliance of the sun on Winter.