A soft white dome held the wind at bay and for a moment he welcomed those crystalline folds. Then the thing hissed and he struggled back into the cold of Winter, fumbling for a sword left behind when he went on his sleepwalking tour. The feathered beast spread its wings and ducked its head low and eager, welcoming him back while whipping its pointed beak about eagerly.Lew had heard stories of great white birds, of swans frozen solid in flight which spoke of the sudden coming of Winter. Old stories those, while this was here and now and all too real.
From tip to tip the wings measured some eight meters, with the length of the long, sinuous body something less. It was all of white except a band of black where the beak joined the face. This vicious pecking device tapered to a narrow point and looked something like a diamond head-on. This it clacked together several times as it lunged for him once more, the long snaky neck darting in for the kill. As the mass of hissing fury attacked Lew realized it had no eyes. He wished he was still dreaming.
With those massive wings it sent up a buffeting tempest of loosened ice and concussive air. He was lifted up and thrown several meters back. Barely had he time to gain his senses before a large talon descended on his prostrate form.
Rolling aside he heard the crunch of aged ice but could see nothing as the world wheeled above him in flaps and tatters. Only when he could see sunlight did he scramble to his feet. The bird pressed its attentions.
Again it charged and he braced for another thunderclap of air but now the wings folded back and the creature gained speed. It raced up with head coiled. It flicked and warm liquid pain screamed along Lew's arm. Now the pristine beak was speckled with red and it loomed over him.
There was something delicate about the swan, pure, as if it was a thing cared for and nurtured, a rarity on harsh Winter. Only through dedication and attention did nuance and art live on through the cold. The ice bent all creatures towards survival in a natural progression of barbarism, the outcome of which was a reducing of the all into a final absolute zero.
Lew thought of his boys back at the inn and beyond, to the fires of faith burning on the high road those years ago. There were ruins built of good intentions and frail peoples left to change or die.
The beak stove downwards as a thunderbolt but Lew wasn’t to be taken by the same trick twice. Falling aside at just the right moment the swan’s beak met with the hard-packed ice. A shower of crystal rose up into the air sparkling.
Taking no time to admire the glitter Lew scrambled after the impact point. Searching through the ice he closed his hands around what he was after. Above the creature shook the pain from its head, obviously unused to the sensation.
Lew split its breast open, marring the virgin white with hot, steaming blood. Leaning his weight against the blade he cut downward, eviscerating the creature. He had only a second of victory before one last mighty sweep of wing sent him hurtling. In the tumult he lost his grip on the bloody ice shard which served as his weapon.
He landed on his bad shoulder and pain danced in his eyes. The universe was suddenly far away, his sight darkened. Distantly something huge rumbled. Focusing on it took every ounce of energy he had, the sensation that of fighting through a hundred layers of water-soaked blankets.
Through vision clearing he watched the swan sway about, as if it was unsure if it should die. Then it tensed and he was certain it would attack once more. But the motion which came next instead made him wonder if he had passed on into dream once more.
The swan reared up and spread its wings while more red gore pulsed from its chest. Raising a head to the heavens it let out an eerie call, a tone which pierced the wind and rang through Winter. The cry went out and with the song finished the beast collapsed, steaming with blood.
Lew realized the blood on his hands, the murderous swan a rare thing of beauty. With a sigh he got to his feet, failing once on account of his shoulder, first dislocated and now this. Tying a piece of his cloak about the wound was the best he could do to staunch the bleeding.
He left to wander east again and feel guilty. Afternoon wore on and the sky changed its blue demeanor in gradual tones. Thoughts brought with them an unwelcome education. It wasn’t long before he saw more.
Careening through the sky a fleet of swans swept across the plains. Lew picked up his pace to follow them, uncaring if they brought their attentions his way. It would be a solution to the guilt. Some sort of luck left him unscathed and he soon discovered why.
The sunlight made the horizon an uncertain thing, full of glare and bright imaginings. A shadow pooled up like any other mirage but it was to this that the birds stretched their wings. Lew stumbled after.
A great flapping shadow battle ensued. The large figures met the small in a conflagration of silhouettes. Lew would’ve kept watching but just then the first corpse made itself known.
Half-frozen Duhg lay pecked to death, a good number of them too. Their heads were split, their bones broken, yet still their eyes showed with the gleam of strange dreams. Their rictus hands held obscene bouquets of feathers, huge, white and speckled with blood. There were no dead swans about but Lew was sure he knew who had killed these ape-men.
Quickening his pace he raced towards the shadow battle. Dancing forms grew clear and the fluttering topography he had seen from afar became a tangle of feathered wings. The smell of death blew about with the northern wind.
The Fencer was the cause. He stood amongst a fleet of dead feathers, blood frozen in strange sculptures by virtue of the nightmare blade’s chill. Two more hissing birds circled around the man. He had no care in his eyes.
“Fencer!” called Lew the moment he grew close enough to be heard.
With a vicious arching swing the swordsman lopped off one swan’s neck, leaving the body to thrash and flap. Then he turned and Lew knew his mistake.
The eyes, they were different. Faint glimmers of lustrous white, cold blue and crystalline yellow showed in the man’s gaze. A madness too, like that of the amazons.
“More assassins?” growled the Fencer.
This close Lew saw other differences in the way the man carried himself. Each step had a floating, buoyant quality, uncertain on the ground. There was also a hunger for violence in the way he flicked the sword around in search of blood.
“Grey!” realized the Fencer. “Now you betray my silence as well? Can I not have an empire of dust to myself?”
The other swan’s impatience allowed Lew no time to answer. Seizing this moment of distraction the avian swooped down on the swordsman’s back. In a blink he had turned, catching the whipcord neck with his right hand, the razor sharp beak mere centimeters away from his head. With his left he plunged the icy blade into the thing’s heart and it died without even a gasp.
Here was harsh Winter’s avatar, the old word for the earthly form of a god coming back to Lew through the years. The Fencer was mad and powerful, with a bit of cruel magic in one hand and a will to destroy infusing his being. Whatever had brought him to join with this madman now escaped the innkeep.
Fear drove the poetry from his mind. The Fencer approached, blade held high. Then, like a cloud vaulting over the sky, he bound upon the hapless man.
Just before the blade fell Lew closed his eyes. He had seen many die by the sword and feared such a fate. Quickly was best, though infection was a far more common victor. The world went into shadow, but the blow never came.
He opened his eyes just as the Fencer finished rubbing his own. The world was darker. Looking up, he could see that a cloud had just passed in front of the sun. Now the swordsman’s irises were cold and grey, normal for his people Lew presumed.
“Where did the moon go?” asked the bewildered savage inspecting the ground beneath his feet.
“I can’t be sure but I think both rest in their usual place in the sky,” said Lew once he had gained the courage to do so.
“No, I was on the moon,” said the Fencer, not sure of which. “I had gone there to be away, but my troubles followed me. There were ruined cities built from crystal and a thousand billion people lying about as grains of dust. The cold that should’ve been was replaced a numbness all over, as if the only reason I survived was some kind of sorcery...are these giant dead swans?”
It was as if he only just now realized the things he had killed, a dozen of them lying in pieces. He grew thoughtful.
“They were things of shadow,” he murmured to himself, but became wary of Lew’s interest.
“Whatever you say they are doesn’t take the feathers away,” noted the innkeep. “I think something invaded our dreams last night, making us both into somnambulists. I can only imagine that the Trumpeter has suffered the same fate.”
“‘Suffered,’” smirked the Fencer. “My friend would certainly enjoy this mad play.”
“The light takes our minds,” continued Lew, disinterested in the private joke.
The Fencer had no answer. Instead he marched up a small rise to survey the land around them. It seemed that one direction was the equal of the next.
“Have you heard any notes?” he asked at last, avoiding even thinking of the controlling light.
“No sounds but wind and those vicious birds.”
“Pampered things, too fair for Winter,” noted the Fencer, concerned about the lack of noise. “We should continue east, that’s where trouble is and there we’ll find the Trumpeter. Watch for distractions, as he is an eager fool for them.”
Correcting the course bent by their waking dreams the two men went east and south, into an afternoon shimmering with light and obscure goals. The flats extended in long sweeps of ice rarely interrupted by boulders or skeletons. Then a structure broke the horizon.
From the mirage-laden edge of their vision something glared back from atop a number of spires. Quickly these resolved into tall, narrow evergreens, a copse set adrift on the sea of ice. With the sun at their backs something amongst the boughs gleamed brightly and to this they approached.
As they neared something moved furtively within the trees. The Fencer drew his weapon.
“Wait,” whispered Lew. “How did you keep your weapon through sleep?”
The Fencer gave a bitter smile.
“Do you think I could rid myself of this thing so easily?”
With this he left to stalk whatever moved about the little forest. The island of trees was some hundred meters across and very regular, describing a circle. The glaring thing of light dove down from the upper branches all the way to the ground where its glory was diminished but still bright. Lew went for his weapon only to remember his was lost with their camp.
By the time he entered the grove the Fencer was disappeared. Alone with whatever haunted the trees he could feel his bravery wane, but there was nowhere else to go.
A tall figure bundled with all manner of scarf and feather stooped in the clearing. The trees described a ring of sorts, with an open space sprawling across the middle. This willowy figure seemed enrapt by the snowy ground, pawing through the ice for some buried treasure. Its outfit was outlandish, like a woolen mummified bird. Beside it lay a silver instrument.
“Trumpeter?” asked Lew as he stepped out from the evergreen he hid behind.
The figure whipped its head towards him. He couldn’t see a face because of the overlapping bands of scarf. A bit of yellow-blue light spilled from between two bands of wool. It took up the trumpet and aimed his way.
Something crashed into him a split second before the sound of a screaming sunset rushed overhead. He fell with his back down and above he saw the rippling note slam into the tree which pulsed and shattered. Every needle and branch was pulverized to dust.
Lew fell with the Fencer on top of him, down and out of sight from the Trumpeter. Through ringing ears he thought he heard someone mutter loudly about, “damn glowing sky anemones.”
“He’s dreaming?” whispered Lew as the Fencer untangled himself from the man he had just saved.
“You messed up,” frowned the Fencer. “I could’ve crept up on him if not for your friendly words. You aren’t talking to a man there but a dream, and there is nothing so driven to violence than a dream.”
He was right and Lew knew it. Years of hospitality had made him soft, despite all the brawls and ice creatures. He was too used to welcoming people in. Suddenly he went cold with fear.
“How can his trumpet make such noise?” realized Lew. “Is that instrument enchanted?”
“Ridiculous,” muttered the Fencer before turning on the man. “So one bit of magic is acceptable but two is cause for worry?”
“I just never thought I’d see such wonder again,” he stammered.
“Except you have played host to the alchemist Clea on many occasions,” countered the Fencer, whose eyes were moving about forming a plan of attack.
“She was different,” said Lew firmly. “She was subtle.”
The Fencer laughed, not at the notion, but at how true this was. It was a bit too loud.
“Fencer, is that you?” shouted the voice of the Trumpeter within the copse.
“Let me handle this,” said the swordsman as he put his weapon away, a possibly unwise choice. Lew crept up just enough to watch the goings on.
“Fencer?” asked the musician. “How is that you are underdressed?”
“I’m not so cold,” replied the swordsman who craned his neck to see what it was that the Trumpeter was unearthing from the snow.
“Tough talk but this is the Pole!” declared the madman. “You’ll be ice in just a moment, well, so will I, but not before I find the proper crypt.”
“Is that what we’re looking for?”
“What I’m looking for,” corrected the Trumpeter.
The Fencer was as bewildered as Lew. Even the dreams of the insane musician were a magnitude more incomprehensible than their own. Did he mean the southern Pole? It would explain the elaborate bundling. Then something caught the swordsman’s eye.
“What is that?” he muttered automatically. He was looking in the direction of the glaring bright shard plunged into the woodland.
“What?” questioned the Trumpeter, who turned and dismissed the object. “Oh, that’s just part of a ship which sails between the stars.”
“I think I see something in that surface, some other place,” mused the swordsman, who approached the shard of heaven.
The Trumpeter pushed the Fencer aside in order to be the first to molest this new discovery. Even as the swordsman recovered with a nasty look in his eye his companion had stopped before the thing which dimmed as the sun at last disappeared over the western hills.
Lew ventured closer. Now he could see that the object was a single huge metal strip cut into a square. Its surface was that of the mirror, reflecting whatever it faced. For a brief moment he caught a yellow-blue glimmer. The Fencer had his weapon drawn.
“What do you see in the mirror?” he asked the Trumpeter.
“I thought…,” began the madman. “I thought I saw nothing.”
The musician turned around, his eyes that normal blue of limitless sky.
“Where did these feathers come from?”