Molten brass clung to the horizon as the equatorial night descended upon the lands sprawling about Haga Ephos, whose face regarded the descending day long after night had come to the furtive men below. The Fencer and the Trumpeter, creatures born from the polar south, were well versed in eternal day and never ending night, and didn’t think much of the frantic dusk and the dreamy twilight. They wouldn’t be facing the strange things in the dark though, that would be a matter for Omya as she fled.
The brave crashed through a frigid stream, the sharp pang of the mountain waters barely registered against the cold in her hands. She slopped to shore and made for the far hills which dwindled with the light. In her haste she churned up some of the new growth along the banks. From the coal black earth a rich living smell arose, contrasting with the ubiquitous scent of snow, along with nightmare memory.
Omya had held the horrid weapon in her hands. She had to; it was the only way to enforce her duty. On the bank she tried to work feeling back into her hands which were bloody and stripped of skin where she had held the sword. A heady, perfumed smell took her, that of a garden, but she had little knowledge of it. Mind-altering incense too. A woman with golden eyes and amethyst hair. Omya ran from the visions.
A deep blue took hold of the sky, starless with the humidity. The west showed a fire which was then doused by the turn towards night. A sequence from orange, to rose, to purple, played out across the heavens, a few clouds alit with the receding sun. It wasn’t until she was thoroughly lost, huddled on a blanket of snow hidden in the shadow of a tall hill, that Omya came to her senses and regained her composure.
The trek to Phos had shaken her faith in the customs of her people. She didn’t want to be in that cursed town for long, but neither did she have a place back in her own village, having failed in their duty. No, that wasn’t so much it. Doubt troubled her faith in a life lived under the shelter of taboo. It just wasn’t fun anymore. So she clambered to the top of the hill under the indigo night, and quickly flattened herself against the crest.
A camp of men lay not far off. These were cunning travelers who hid their fire in the lean of a well-chosen ravine. Guards watched the countryside but Omya was at home in the middle lands and they did not see her.
More strangers, she thought, and an odd smile crept onto her face. She receded back down her hill and sought out the materials needed to craft a new spear. When she was properly armed for her station she would sneak up on these unknowns in hopes of listening in on their plots and schemes. She now had schemes of her own and so Winter’s Riddle continued its play.
While Haga Ephos still blared gold and ruby in the closing light the Fencer regarded the slopes. A wayward thought had brought him here. There really was no plan, other than getting away from the petty ruins of civilization down south. In a way he felt better the further he removed himself from the lands of his vanished people. And then there was the Riddle.
Inside one of the homes the Trumpeter celebrated with the Phosians. There was no particular cause, but little inducement was necessary to earn the painted decadents’ hospitality. Loud stories were being told and the Fencer’s ears burned at what was certainly his own good name besmirched by his traveling companion’s untrustworthy narration. He decided a course of action and entered the nearest home; a wide collection of stone cylinders clustered together in yet another example of eccentric local architecture. Riddles swam in the noise between people.
There seemed to be no particular purpose to any of the Phosian dwellings. All were strange, unique, just as their dwellers desired, but none held to any specific design, or least not one which the Fencer could determine. There was no central lodge, such as in his lost village of the narwhal hunters, or the dichotomous hovels and mansions found throughout what passed for civilization. It seemed that the bounty of the land or the mildness of the environment equalized Phos. The swordsman felt little inclination to attribute any egalitarianism to the residents themselves.
He was greeted at the door with a drinking flask of colored glass by a green-haired woman. Shuddering past this ghost he worked his way towards the Trumpeter who sat amongst a gathering of eager ears.
Within the main cylinder the air was hazy with the smoke of many pipes. The euphoric cloud made a mystery of the building’s insides. The Fencer found himself stumbling over cushions and half-mad Phosians, couches and their altered inhabitants. Glimpses into other rooms showed hints of pools and sculpture. The crowd pulled at him to stay and tell of his travels, but he wanted to be sure his good friend wasn’t telling anything he shouldn’t. Besides, he had need of answers himself.
“It was a simple thing to addle the Slavemaster of Tualaut,” explained the Trumpeter magnanimously. “He wasn’t a great lover of music, so with a cunning note I dazed him long enough for his thralls to turn against him. It would’ve all been so much easier if I had had my proper instrument.”
The collection of reclining Phosians cooed in appreciation. They had no idea of the reeking mess of the slave pits the two had been forced to trudge through, or the plot which led them to Tualaut, or the actual manner in which the Slavemaster had been toppled. The Fencer was angry at their ignorance, at how they laughed and drank when those had been terse days soaked with death and blood. It angered the cobalt-haired swordsman that to them this was just simple entertainment.
“What next, what next...” pondered the Trumpeter. He wasn’t smoking, but his head was light on the heady air of attention given by his colorful audience. “Oh, there was a time when we killed a mountain.”
The Fencer broke the circle of listeners and stopped the telling there.
“It is past time for good sense in what is said and what isn’t,” admonished the Fencer as he advanced on the Trumpeter. The tall musician melted away from his companion into a mound of cushions, at which point the swordsman turned on the assorted listeners. “And for the rest of you soft-brained, warmth-addled, sybarites, the Slavemaster would make easy cattle of you all.”
The reaction to this statement, made to feed some proportional need in the Fencer’s heart, was not what he had hoped. They laughed in the sentiment like smoke from a pipe and applauded with a hungry enthusiasm, asking for more. In anger he almost kept on with the speech, but better sense set him down on a cushion where he downed the strong spirit held within his colored flask.
Now that it was safe the Trumpeter emerged from hiding in order to continue telling stories. Most were lies based on half-truths, at best, and never captured the terrible wonder of the actual events, or the emotions which so often fought at the Fencer’s soul in the remembering. Maybe it was the bizarre liquor or his own troubles which began turning his stomach, but the man with the nightmare blade suddenly stood up, silencing the storyteller.
“Tell me about your damned mountain,” he demanded of the crowd, though the only replies were giggles and disinterest. These were a people who were not well versed in giving. A different tactic was in order.
“I’m sure none of you are so confident in your own knowledge as to be able to answer questions concerning matters outside the fat lands which surround you,” he began sourly.
“Why need we know anything?” responded a purple-haired creature. “We have the Jhem to know things, to remember for us, and the Tellers in order to speak with the Jhem.”
“Then which of you are Tellers?” smiled the Fencer, which soon fled from his face as all those present declared themselves to have that title, with various degrees of volume.
“Which of you,” began the swordsman, now armed with an idea, “is the greatest Teller. The most unique Teller?”
All as one they pointed out of the throng of listeners, into the hazy depths of the room, toward a figure sitting just at the edge of sight near the place where the host kept his colored glass and potent alcohol.
Leaving the Trumpeter to his stories the Fencer went to sit down by the smoke-bound figure. Up close the man proved to be as fantastical as his peers. He was short, bald, and lean, as if cut from soft stone, and by the color of his flesh this would seem to be some deep ochre, an earthen shade tinted with an undertone of red. His only garb was a simple loincloth, common enough in this warm land. He didn’t lounge on his cushion, or drink, but sat as an ascetic would, watching the newcomer with enigmatic eyes.
“They tell me you’re the best for the Telling,” explained the Fencer as he prepared himself for more Phosian histrionics. “What is your name?”
The local indulged a smile and responded with, “Akul. Inethis alu set.”
“That’s quite a long name,” blinked the Fencer.
“Umqa rele budhi cysam, weregant hox kalamanaut.” Akul, or whoever the ochre man was, took an easy breath of drugged air.
A grimace and a sigh were the swordsman’s only responses. He had travelled near half the world in the past year or so, and many strange tongues had landed on his ear in that time. It was difficult enough to learn the Lyft, the core speech which most men of most civilized lands spoke, but it had served the travelers well. Even here the backwards superstitionists and decadent Phosians used an approachable dialect. Not this man.
“This is Eluax,” explained Hue as he sat down next to them. The Fencer hadn’t seen the crimson man since entering the dwelling, the haze in the air obscuring many things.
“Why is it that the more north I travel the more insane men become?” pondered the Fencer angrily.
“I couldn’t tell you since my only excursion from this town and its surrounds landed me in that seclusion hut with you and the others,” Hue said thoughtfully. “It’s a bit like a riddle.”
The Fencer glared at the young man. If Eluax had comment he kept it to himself.
“Or like a joke,” added Hue quickly. “Eluax here is our greatest Teller. He ascends the highest, stays out the longest, listens the closest and remembers the most. When I was a child he brought back the secret to making the blue ceramic which takes ten years to bake but which can cut through the toughest stone. Just a few years ago he returned from the heights with a story of the ancient conflict which gave the continents their shape.”
“And you can understand him?” asked the Fencer.
“No, not anymore,” frowned the young man. “Some time last year he returned from another outing unharmed physically, but incapable of speech, or incapable of any speech which we could understand. He still goes up, but if he’s speaking to any of the Jhem there is no way for us to know.”
Eluax regarded the conversation with the cool approbation of one who is being spoken about. The Fencer had the sense that the man could comprehend only the feel of their words. Somehow he had lost even the understanding of his native tongue.
“What are these Jhem?” asked the Fencer, already constructing plans.
“They tell us stories,” began Hue. “One of the stories they tell is that they were an order of monks which flourished in the time before the coming of Winter. When the ice came they anticipated our current era of barbarism and sought to save their knowledge for future generations by freezing themselves on the slopes of Haga Ephos. Another story...”
“So you go up and talk to these frozen dead men?” interrupted the Fencer, trying to cut to the heart of the matter.
“We have half a conversation.”
The Fencer was already up and heading towards the door. His old stubborn demon had flared back into life and demanded the secrets which rested on the slopes of the looming spire above. He batted away a hand which grasped his shoulder and turned angrily into the even face of Eluax.
“Don’t go out now,” said Hue, who had also followed him to the heavy door. “Things prowl the lands and even venture down into Phos. Day is safe enough, I’ll take you up then.”
It wasn’t the words which cooled the Fencer’s heart and made him sit down pondering into the night. There was something intense about the look in Eluax’s eyes. Some quality of warning, beyond the hazards intimated by Hue, played across the incomprehensible man’s face. As the hours passed and sleep came in with the drowsy opiate smoke, imagined horrors crept about in the night.
Sputtering from lost dreams the Trumpeter awoke and clutched at his face. A wrinkled visage sought his attention. They had fallen asleep on the cushions and couches in mid-revel, drunk on spirits and the heavy smoke of the Apra leaf. Visions threatened.
“Now’s our chance,” intoned the harsh whisper of the old priest Aglyss who had drank and dozed as much as anyone. No light entered through the tall, narrow window slits. Night still held.
“A chance?” pondered the Trumpeter, searching for his trumpet.
“Haven’t you heard of the Jhem?” began the old man with religious enthusiasm. “All the wisdom of the ages lies frozen up on the slopes of Haga Ephos, secrets of the gods and magicians alike. How can anyone sleep with such knowledge resting above their heads?”
The Trumpeter considered the argument. The old priest made a fair bid for the musician’s attention, not so much for the knowledge itself but the scope of the challenge. They had been warned not to go out in the dark. Still, the value of the things on the slopes was legend, the province of a people who lay sprawled around him in the throes of decadence, and so was equally dubious. More than half of him was tempted to venture out.
He rolled over and found the Fencer, propped up against the curving stone wall, as close to sleeping as the man ever managed. At his side Dhala drank in the darkness.
“You go without me,” said the Trumpeter, who closed his eyes, and knew not whether the old man argued with him more because sleep came fast on the chemical laden air.
It was a simple business to find a copse of tall nyreph trees, and only a slightly more difficult task to break the blade of her dagger free from its hilt. It was dark by the time Omya had finished her heavy-bladed spear, but the project was good for her; it kept wayward thoughts at bay. Finished, fatigued, hands burning, soul aching, she moved invisibly through the hills back to the foreigner’s camp, where she hid herself amongst some klee bushes and munched silently on the bittersweet berries the plant provided.
Down below, cunningly hidden from casual view in the space between hills, the men slept, with one of their number keeping watch. They were a mismatched lot, but a certain cohesion bound them to each other, something like she felt between the damned Fencer and the damned Trumpeter.
The wind had been gusting, the sky coldly lit by a yawning moon. A sudden change tumbled in on the air, the smell of damp fur, old blood, and rotten meat. With a hoot terrible things seemed to bleed from the darkness and assault the men, who sprang up from sleep with steel in their hands.
While the foreigners were fewer, they were coordinated and skilled fighters. Still the surprised was devastating, and the defenders bled for their troubles onto the half-frozen earth.
Omya watched in horror for a few seconds which seemed more like hours, not from the violence, which was something she was hardened against, but in the growing determination within her to help these strangers. A great weight pushed her forward, into battle.