Cresting a low rise the taller of the two spotted a village a kilometer or so to the north nestled around a vivid blue stream like a cat just pounced on a string. Well hidden amongst the hills the settlement showed signs of life; children played, women lounged and dead fish dangled over smoking fires. The icy lands around were rich in the bizarre frost palms which had adapted to the curse of Winter and abundant in other ways. This was an ideal spot for habitation, which is why it perplexed the travelers that they hadn't found another settlement for weeks.
Suddenly dropping his leg of the giant, flightless avian, the tall man began searching his pockets. His companion, surprised by this sudden betrayal, slid half down the slope under the weight and tangle of the bird. There he laid, shale-colored hair framing his face like a halo while he pondered what he could say to his companion to which the madman would actually listen.
“Aren’t you going to say something?” asked the tall fellow in advance as he produced a sky blue marble and observed the play of the sun’s setting light through this orb of glass.
“The princess who gifted you that little bauble was a demon in disguise,” responded the swordsman sitting up to consider the dead face of his burden. A great maroon tongue lolled out of the creature’s vicious beak. “And I wouldn’t doubt that it is cursed.”
“You take that back!” gaped the taller man, truly offended. He hopped down the hill in emphasis, closing angrily on his companion. “Besides, we all know who carries the curse around here.”
It was true. At the tumbled man’s side lay a vicious icicle of nightmare ice. This blade seemed both crystalline and metallic, composed of a frozen lattice of black and indigo whorling towards a tapering point, eyes of evil crimson peeking out from boles in the matter. Dhala radiated the cold which was its namesake.
“Help me with this stinking fowl and we can consider our curses properly,” recommended the prone man, thoughts drifting towards his unsettling weapon. At times he felt the implement’s eyes upon him.
Together they righted the situation in the burnished light, the sun still half-visible on the horizon. They were in good spirits. Old troubles far behind in the south, starvation, violence and frost having threatened on many occasions, despite these things they took heart in the promise of the great feast which waited in the creature they dragged.
The thing had come upon them some time after midday in search of prey. The swordsman laughed at its vestigial wings but quickly quieted when faced with the predator's wrath. Alive and angry it stood well over three meters tall on powerfully muscled legs by which it had run down the two men while threatening with a jagged, bone-crushing beak. The taller man ran away immediately.
Hunger drove the swordsman to fell the beast. It took some doing with the creaking bow he crafted some weeks ago; his usual weapon had a tendency to befoul whatever flesh it touched. When the deed was finished he had his knife deep in the creature’s throat and a nasty gash along his left arm for the trouble. By night they were to gut and pluck the beautifully plumed thing, but the village ahead promised the ease of trade.
Each holding a leg the two men set out towards the settlement. Azure and rose glowed on the great mountain beyond, reflecting back on the polished ice of the hills. Their feet made a crunching mess and a clean smell came in on the breeze, despite the reek of their prize. Neither man looked back to notice the almost imperceptibly distant form which haunted their trail.
A quiet, empty village greeted their arrival. A rag doll here and a steaming cook pot there told of recent activity. The swordsman dropped the leg he dragged and began unfastening his sword.
“No,” demanded the taller man. “These are timid, reclining folk. Look at the leisures they indulge. The children can play, the women are indolent and the men aren’t killing each other. This isn’t like the Village of the Narwhal Hunters, all madness and conspiracy. So put down your damned sword and smile.”
The shorter man was unconvinced and proof came with a whoop as a score of braves wielding spears and colorful shields sprang from doorways and hiding places. They quickly made to encircle the trespassers, who noticed a certain plumage to the warriors, each festooned with the colorful feathers which bore a remarkable similarity to those of the bird the two travelers had dragged into town.
The swordsman ripped his blade free with a sound of disgust, the ancient cold of the weapon seeping into his arms as a familiar poison. The tall man sighed and flourished the great silver trumpet he carried, but, out of some misguided sense of possession, kept hold of the bird.
The warriors they faced were strong, healthy folk. Most stood taller than the single swordsman they encircled but were wary of the strange sword he held out with expert form. If they were to know how he gained such mastery of the blade they might not prove so eager for combat. Yet, in spite of the sorcerous weapon, the braves seemed intent on confrontation, flaring nostrils and brandishing weapons in a ritualized display of ferocity. Or maybe it was because of the magic weapon.
One woman amongst the warriors, a tall, stately noble wearing a halo of feathers, approached. She stood framed by the darkening eastern sky and the brilliance of the sea which gleamed with the last rays of the sun.
“I can say I’ve seen a devil now,” she laughed to her cohorts. “Two of them.”
“When all devils are gone you have to settle for men I supposed,” sneered the swordsman who relaxed his stance. The gesture could’ve been one of peace but his manner was more patronizing than kind. The plumed woman brought the point of her spear up a bit towards the offender.
“Only a devil would kill one of the sacred irtosks,” she challenged back.
“Or a very foolish man,” added the taller man helpfully. He was trying to become invisible, but failing utterly.
While the discussion waged the warriors' spears grew ever closer to the encircled travelers. The brilliance of sunset changed into the gloom of dusk, and alongside this transformation the smells of sea salt and cooking took on a cold reek. Winter’s dread grasp seemed suddenly loosed in the absence of the warding sun.
The swordsman tensed. The taller man looked on disapprovingly.
“They’re just simple folk,” he pleaded with his more violent cohort.
“Coming from simple folk, I understand the ignorance of such a life.”
Then the man with the nightmare sword was amongst the braves in a blink, side-stepping the warrior woman’s spear and splitting another man’s lacquered shield like so much rotten wood. The glee of violence was in him and he had plenty to share.
He came from a village far off and long gone. It was a place of home and family, as well as bad blood and violent superstition. Life was precarious and it benefited a neighbor greatly for an accident to befall his peers, with whom he competed in many things. There was a paradox in this existence, since it was only through coordinated effort that the villagers hunted the great narwhals which haunted their far polar sound, providing both their livelihoods and their namesake.
The swordsman’s violence reasoned out from this past, from a people who had eventually branded him an outcast for his possessing demon of ill temper. The village was gone now. So it was with the strength of misplaced vengeance towards enemies long dead that he fell into the thronging spears.
He shouldered the woman through the wall of a white straw hut and sidestepped the lunge of another man. Letting the momentum of the attack bring the offender to him he let the flat of his blade rest against the exposed muscle of the man's shoulder. The brave shrieked and fell back, the rest falling with him. Where Dhala touched skin it left black frostbite; tonight the man would have uneasy dreams. Some regained their hearts and leapt in for more.
The braves were a canny lot, well made by the balmy acceptance of the frozen tropics. Their long spears kept the swordsman at bay but most of the warriors were left with shorn hafts wood, eyes wavering in the face of this outlander.
With expert grace the swordsman tapped away another attack and with a liquid motion moved in for a kill. It came as a surprise to all involved when the fearsome sword stopped short of splitting a warrior's skull.
Eyes of defiance and acceptance raged from a face darkened, empowered by long summers and healthy living. At a glance it was clear the man was willing to die in defense of his people. It would’ve been poetic to take this as the reason for the swordsman’s hesitation, but stranger sentiments were at work.
If he were to bring his blade up, up through that defiant chin, shear through the set mouth, regal nose and feathered brow, the assailant realized he would be cutting himself down in the past; another man in another village, yet in parallel so close. The swordsman would like to know that he would’ve had the same iron will and stern countenance, but he was uncertain and would be damned if he allowed another man such a spiritual victory.
The mad southern swordsman stood back into the spears of the village braves. Astonishment played across their faces as they looked to each other for guidance. He returned his weapon to its place and sighed as night brought the nostalgic cold back to him in breezy gusts.
“It’s a trick,” contended the warrior woman as she freed herself from the straw interior of the hut she had been cast into. Even her conviction wavered as she spoke.
“Go ahead, prove how ignorant and isolated you are,” said the swordsman glumly. “Declare us devils or foul spirits and treat us as such. I’m sure you have customs to match our evils. Perhaps you draw and quarter such monsters and set each piece at a cardinal point around the settlement to ward off others? Or maybe you have some ancient totem, long lost with the uplifting of the magicians, yet to which you still make sacrifice. Whatever the case, get to it, I’m tired.”
As he said the words the fel warrior slumped, the past and its accomplices, pulling him down. With a sullen look on his face he sat down.
For his part the tall man still looked for some means of escape. Despite his companion’s antics the warriors encircling him kept the musician hemmed in with spears. A silence doused the scene as cold night descended.
“We have many definitions for devils,” began the warrior woman, whose clear voice cut through the gloom. “One of which is any who slay the sacred irtosk, as you have done.”
“Is there a cure for such a label?” requested the taller man when it was clear that the other was deep in struggle with demons all his own.
“There are two,” she replied. “One your friend has already intimated. The other is an act of penance. This is rarely approached because it is a cure which in a way is far worse than the affliction.”
“What could be worse than an unspecified execution?” cringed the musician.
“You must seek out the frozen dead of high Haga Ephos, which even now glimmers with the last motes of the sun.”
She gestured towards the tall spire which had guided the travelers this far. Its heights still glowed red and crystalline in the high sunset, despite the darkness enshrouding the rest of the land. It seemed made of strange architecture, columns of cylinders and pipes of stone and ice. There was a liquid quality to the thing, like a great fountain frozen in splendor and left for the ages to defile. The challenge tickled the tall man’s mind even as he weighed the possible dangers, all the while absently playing with the silvered trumpet in his hands.
“We shall do this thing,” said the swordsman without looking up. He wasn’t clear of his inner turmoil, though it was doubtful he would ever be.
“What are your names, so we can add them to the songs we tell of the foolish who venture to that accursed place?” said the woman with strange energy in her voice.
“I am the Fencer and my friend is the Trumpeter,” responded the cobalt-haired fighter getting up and leveling his pale eyes towards their far off goal. “Though that might change in time.”
It was a curious thing to say, but then again these were curious times. The old witches and magicians were dead, the monsters of the past were slain or sealed away, and it was up to a few rogues and adventurers traveling the frozen wastes of Winter to keep alive the strange and unusual as they chased after the lost fantasies of an icebound world.