Chapter the Eighth
Zaman thrust his knife deep into the neck of the snow leopard. The blood, still hot and sticky to the touch, did not spurt the way that it had when Zaman had struggled to deliver a killing blow, but it flowed nonetheless. The cat was already dead, and now needed to be bled. Zaman rested the head in a small pit he had dug earlier, so that the big cat could bleed out, and crawled over to the animal’s midsection, still exhausted from the recent struggle. He opened up the belly and quickly eviscerated it, the steaming entrails and large organs hissing as they fell into the snow and ice. He felt guilt at the waste of potential food, but he had no way to clean and prepare the innards of the cat for human consumption. Not that he would be able to carry all the meat on that cat; there would be much left behind. They would not go to waste, of course; before long, an ice bear would descend upon the sticky mess. Even the bones that he would leave behind would be picked clean by white-tailed ravens and auklets that claimed this cold and unforgiving land as their own.
Zaman quickly skinned the young cat. Fortunately for him, it was a juvenile cat; otherwise he would not have survived the encounter. Hunger is the one beast that does not fear death when roused, he thought morosely. The cat weighed in at a couple of hundred pounds, with fur as white as the snowscape that it subsisted in. There had been no warning before the attack; he had been walking with his companion across the frozen tundra, snow swirling around their feet as they trudged ever southward. The woman who refused to give him her name had continued her incessant chatter, but it was mostly directed at herself now. She had attempted to engage him in conversation a number of times, but he had rebuffed her advances at camaraderie. He did not care for the torrent of desire that she catalyzed within him; he had been long without a woman, and preferred the solitary company of his own thoughts to the distractions of the flesh, no matter how soft her lips seemed to be, or how her luscious body called out to all that was male within him. They had been walking with Zaman in the lead; he needed to follow the sun that hung low on the horizon, but he also wanted to serve as a windbreak for the girl that walked behind him. She had been talking about how men never seemed to know what they wanted – men, not women – when the snow leopard had sprung invisibly from the snow and tried to rip out his throat.
Truth be told, it was the nameless girl that walked at his back that had saved him. The wind was strong and unforgiving, and tore at his eyes as he walked. He had been looking down, trying to preserve his vision and lessen the ice crystals that constantly collected at the corner of his eyes when he heard his companion cry out in alarm. He only had time to instinctively bring his arms in front him and look up before he was knocked over by the pouncing cat.
Instead of tearing out his throat, the cat had latched on to his forearm that happened to be in the way. The pain had been piercing and intense; sharp canines tore through skin and flesh and impaled the bones of his arm even as the cat shook its head and tried to rip his limb from his body. Zaman did not even recall drawing his knife, but before he knew it his blade was buried in the cat’s underbelly and Zaman was working his way free of the weight of the cat upon him.
The cat screamed, blood pouring from its mouth and from its chest where it had been stabbed, and Zaman knew that he had already struck a killing blow. Encouraged, he scrambled to his feet and threw himself on the back of the animal, wrapping his arms around its girth. The leopard tried to shake him off, but Zaman would have none of it. Armed with his knife, he thrust his right hand once again in to the underside of the beast, and was rewarded with a yowl of agony. Zaman towed his knife down, hoping that he would strike a critical organ. The beast in his embrace shook, and Zaman felt the tell-tale convulsion of muscles that refused to admit that the end had already come. The cat tried to scream again but lacked the energy, and stumbled a few steps before landing on its side. Zaman let go, aware that the battle was over. He looked over to the girl that walked with him and saw in her eyes both admiration and fear.
He shook his head, trying to clear thoughts of her from it and concentrating on the task at hand. She snuck into his mind constantly, and he had to focus on not thinking about her. Zaman had not felt such desire or obsessive compulsion since he had celebrated the first hair he had found on his chest as a boy. Her causal glance at him had filled him with pride, and he cursed himself a fool for his inordinate vanity at the cast of her eyes and the upwards turn of her lips as she admired his handiwork with both approbation and disgust.
The knife slipped around the heavy shoulders of the cat, cutting away fur that Zaman planned to turn into a cloak for the girl. He had no idea how he was going to treat the pelt; he had no salt to dry the skin, nor had he the requisite acids to bind the fur together and prevent it from shedding. In the south, you could treat the fur with urine in a pinch, but here in the north that would result in nothing more than a pelt covered in frozen piss. Well, he had no intention of building a home here and farming the frozen tundra; he planned to make his way to the warmth of the south as soon as possible. If the cloak would last a week, it would be sufficient to sustain her.
“Can I help?” he heard a soft, diffident voice ask.
He grunted, the cold wind stealing from him his patience. “There is no need,” he said gruffly. “You saved us both when you saw the cat, even before I did. I owe you thanks.” His fingers shivered, covered in blood that had frozen in the exposed air. “All I do now is save us flesh to sustain us and provide you a cloak to keep you warm.”
She wrinkled her nose in dismay. “Eat the body of this animal?” she asked, appalled. “Is this some sort of tribal punishment you commit upon the flesh of those that you slay?”
Her nonsense words had stopped having the effect upon him that they did before. Instead of giving her a look of incredulity and wondering if she was joking or insane, he let the comment pass without consideration or consternation. If she became hungry, she would eat. He tugged upon the pelt of the cat, pulling off the skin in short, hard bursts. “One of our many failings,” he said to her finally. “We must eat, and you may have noticed that there is no real way to prepare corn-and-cabbage soup, given our current circumstances.” He did not know why he allowed himself to be baited, and what possessed him to respond, but he did. Another few tugs, and the pelt came free. “I would ask you to do something.” She nodded at him, and he continued. “Take the flat of this blade and scrape away any flesh and fat that remains on this pelt. Scrape it as well as you can. When you are done, we will lay it upon the ground with the fur side up.”
She pouted. “Seems messy,” she commented, looking at her dress. What had once been white was now gray, tormented by both gravel and snow. “This is not my favorite dress, but I would not see it covered in blood. Nevertheless,” she continued quickly, looking away from his narrowed eyes and pursed lips ready to give her a tongue-lashing, “I’m sure I can work something out.”
He turned back to the freshly skinned cat. He would let her handle it. He had other business to that promised to be messier than prepping the pelt. He needed to harvest the flesh of this cat. He did not plan to take all of it; no sense weighing himself down, and he doubted that the girl would carry anything more than the cloak that she was preparing. The rear quarters of the cat would provide a more tender cut of meat, and he planned to harvest the meat below the ribs of the cat. Thankfully, the cold and icy environment meant that he would not have to salt or smoke the meat immediately; it would stay for a week in this weather, and ten if they were to bury it in the snow.
Two hours later, an exhausted Zaman threw himself upon the snow, his breathing labored and his arms and back protesting loudly at the exertion. Frozen beads of sweat dotted his face and arms, and his shirt had a thin sheet of ice all through the back and between his neck and navel. He was cold, but too exhausted to care. The damn cat had been heavy.
He had not heard from the girl in some time. Shortly after he had started, she had complained of the smell of the cat’s flesh and made her way some distance upwind of him. Far enough that he could barely make her out, but not so far as to concern him should something untoward occur. Like coming across another snow leopard. He had squinted in her direction a few times, the sun in his eyes, trying to see how she was making out, but gave up without much effort. The sun was too bright in these northern lands, and its reflection from the snow could blind a man temporarily.
He lay back with his eyes closed and tried to feel the sun beat down upon his skin, but the relentless wind stole any hopes of warmth. Zaman took comfort in the fact that he had dressed at least twenty pounds of meat from the cat; he had cut it into thick strips and buried them in the snow to freeze them. That much meat would sustain them for at least a week. By then he hoped to be out of this frozen tundra and entering lands that saw grass more than three months out of the year.
After a few moments, he forced himself up. It was only a few hours from darkness, and they needed to either find shelter or build one. Temperatures in the darkness could get cold enough that a man who closed his eyes to sleep might not open them the next morning. He dug up the strips of meat and bundled them together, tying them using sections of hide he had neglected to strip away when skinning the beast.
After brushing away the iced detritus of blood and other particles that caked his clothes, he made his way to his companion. For some reason, he was unsurprised to find her resting quietly on a reclining chair she had fashioned out of snow. Oddly, her dress seemed somewhat less dirty and stained since the last time he had seen her. There was not a drop of blood on it, nor was any blood on her hands or knees. Even his blade was clean, shining brightly as it lay just in reach.
“Hello the lady,” he called out to her, dropping the two packages of meat he carried.
She opened her eyes and looked up at him, wrinkling her nose in disgust. “You smell like a dead snow leopard, and look only marginally better.” she observed.
“Thanks,” he said wryly. “It’s a new look for me.” He looked around, wondering where the pelt lay. Evidently, he would be prepping that as well. “Where’s the pelt?” He bent over and picked up the knife. “I need to get started. We still have a few hours before it gets dark, and we must find or build ourselves some sort of shelter.”
“I’m sitting on it,” she replied archly. “And there’s nothing for you to start, other than an apology for giving me such a strenuous task to complete.” She made her way out of the odd snow-recliner she had crafted. Under her was the shawl she had brought with her, and underneath that was the hide. Zaman picked it up and shook it free of snow and ice. “It’s completely prepped!” he exclaimed incredulously. “How did you dry it out so fast? How did you manage to get it so clean? I don’t even see any blood on the fur!”
“It was nothing,” she said modestly, making Zaman want to grab her by the shoulders and give her a good shake. He tugged at the pelt and found that there was little to no give in it. No trace of blood, either. The water had been leeched out of it as though it had been salted and dried for a week in the hot sun.
“This is impossible,” he muttered. “Are you an Ayn? What skills do you hide from me, woman?”
She looked at him askance. “What is an Ayn?” she inquired, but then suddenly decided that it would be a good time to get offended. “My skills are restricted to the womanly arts,” she continued more severely, “which you will never be privy to, given that you have a wife and daughters. Do you plan to sit here and gossip away the afternoon with me like an old widow? Darkness draws nigh, and I suggest we move before the night’s cold sets in.”
Zaman ground his teeth. Patience, he told himself. Serenity in the face of such madness with surely curry favor with the Keeper. “Right,” he agreed painfully. He felt a headache encroach. “Let’s go.”
The wind had turned around, and now it approached them from behind. Its speed and icy breath were dreadful. If you were not careful, an errant gust could catch you in its vaporous embrace and push you to the ground. Zaman felt hounded as he trudged through the barren and dreary landscape. No tree could survive this far north, and bushes and other brush were a stunted few, providing no relief from the unrelenting northern wind. Every few minutes Zaman flexed the fingers on both of his hands; they were nearly numb with cold, and carrying ten pound bundles of raw meat was not helping. His hands were becoming less and less motile, and Zaman feared that frostbite might soon set in.
When the wind turned, he had taken a position behind the girl. That had not lasted long; as the speed of the wind steadily increased, gusts of wind kicked up her dress and exposed those long, sinuous legs. Even in the cold he had felt his face burn. Zaman had seen his fair share of long legs; he was an officer in the army, after all. More than his fair share, some might argue. This woman, however, inspired madness. He could not help but look, and each time he did a guilty pleasure rattled the calm of his subterfuge. Finally, he had picked up his pace and moved in front of her, but now he caught himself looking back at her continually. She smiled a small, secret smile whenever she caught him looking, but Zaman thought he saw a hint of sadness in it, and it made him all the more ashamed. I am better than this.
His arm had hurt intensely for the first few hours after their episode with the leopard. He bound the wound with a few more strips of hide; the bleeding stopped in short order, thanks to both the pressure of the binding and the intense cold. An inspection of his forearm did not reveal any broken bones, but the damage to his flesh was well enough. He was tempted to clean it but when he prodded some of the flaps of skin and exposed muscle with a finger, he had a sudden change of heart. Sudden and painful.
Left right left. It was the only chant that he could keep track of as they made their way through the snow. One foot in front of the other. He looked back again and saw his companion walking sedately though the cold. In this dimming light and wearing that snow-white cloak, she looked like a small face floating just above the ground. Her strength and resolve were admirable. Impossible, really. He felt half dead as he stumbled across a desolate desert of ice and snow. He did not have the energy to pray or curse whatever god had brought him into this freezing nightmare; it was all he could do to walk. Her back was not bent against the wind; she did not rub unfeeling hands together for warmth.
The cloak she wore must have been a welcome relief from the cold of the early afternoon when they had first started out. The bite of the wind had taken its toll quickly. Neither of them was dressed for the sub-freezing temperatures of the north, and before long Zaman could not think past the constant wailing of the wind and his companion’s relentless chatter. The cold was a flail of unremitting torture, a lover whose fingers slipped between his cloak and the folds of his clothes to caress his skin with strokes of icy abandon.
The wind had picked up and was leeching the strength out of him. The tatters of his shirt did nothing to protect him from the hunger of the errant gusts that sometimes came out of nowhere. Zaman despaired of making it to the evening; at this rate, he would be dead in another few hours. At least the condition of the girl seemed to be passable, if somewhat uncomfortable. If she was cold or had complained of hunger, he had not heard it. More so because he was not paying attention to her constant if somewhat amusing stream of comments, observations, and remarks about everything from the Dead God to the particular shade of white that ornamented the snow. She had urged him more than a few times to take the thick fur cloak they had crafted from the skin of the leopard, but Zaman had steadfastly refused. Better to die a man than to live a coward, he had tried to say to her, but his numb lips had a hard time forming the words. He pushed her hands gently away as she tried to unwrap the cloak and put it on him, but he did accede to taking the shawl that she had started the journey with. It was wrapped about his head and neck, muffling the screams of the wind as it raged across the flat expanse of ice that extended in all directions.
“What is that?” she suddenly asked. With some effort, Zaman forced himself to look up in the direction in which she pointed. Ahead and a bit to the east was a small blur of black, marring the uniform white of the world in which they strode. He squinted, trying to get a better look, to no avail.
“No idea,” he said, wishing he had a looking-scope. “I couldn’t hazard even a guess. It’s too far away.”
“Maybe a city or a village?” she suggested hopefully.
The thought of a warm fire and some hot food nearly caused him to break into a run in that direction. “In the middle of nowhere, surrounded by nothing? I think not,” he replied, depressed. “In any case, most Northerners are nomadic. They carry their homes upon the backs of goats and rams that they have bred to survive this harsh land. There are a few cities nearer to the south, but up here all we will find will be tribes.” He felt her small hand wind its way around his arm as she pressed up against him, and he thanked her in his heart for both the warmth of the cloak and her gift of proximity. “Might be that we look up some ruins, or the summer retreat of some madman with more gold than good sense.” He shrugged.
“I have heard more cheer in the wail of a newborn babe than I have in you,” she remarked as she looked into the distance. “Was it a woman that broke your heart? Or perhaps a man?” She pulled at his arm a bit, drawing him down and filling his nose with the scent of her hair. He was taller than most men, but this girl was only a head shorter than he. “I think we should go there. We may have shelter from this accursed wind tonight within its walls. Perhaps even a fire. And I would look at your arm too, my captain.” He felt her fingers curl around his arm and resisted the temptation to lean against her. Never trust the weather or a woman’s touch, his da had been fond of telling him, and if she is pretty, you best run.
“We might also find an ice bear weaning her young,” he submitted to her with a smile. “Or another snow leopard.”
“Then we shall have two cloaks instead of one, and I will no longer worry for you,” she responded brightly, her smile bringing life once more to his exhausted heart. “Come then; you have convinced me.”
It took them a better part of two hours to get there, but Zaman did not notice the intervening time now that he had an objective before him. His heart lifted, and for the first time he thought they might survive this ordeal. The fog that had begun to haze his mind cleared away as a goal came into sharp focus. A little while longer, that is all it will take. A little while longer, and maybe we can build a fire. Eat some hot food. His frozen body complained without respite, but even it had begun to realize that relief was in the offing. It gave him the strength to keep going.
“It looks like a castle,” she said to him, interrupting his thoughts.
“What?” He looked out into the distance at their destination. As they approached, it was slowly coming into focus. “Northerners don’t build castles. They burn them to the ground and piss on the ashes.” It did look like a castle, sort of, but smaller. “It’s big enough to be a garrison or a way-station for travelers, though I cannot recall The King of the Wastes ever committing to building something not for his own use.”
Her brow furrowed. “Your race is certainly colorful when it comes to titles,” she said to him. “King of the Wastes?”
He grinned. “Look at this place. At least we know that he is not a liar.”
She smiled at him and he felt warmth travel the length of his body. The urge to put his arms around her was overwhelming. For the hundredth time, he cursed himself for a fool. “All men are liars, love,” she told him. “But it’s part of your charm, so I forgive you.”
He was silent, wondering if she knew of the longing she inspired within him, and wondering if that longing was the result of his own weakness or the feverish effects of an unknown magic. They walked together across the snow, her arm wrapped possessively in his. Comfortably so. Every once in a while she would reach up with her free hand and touch his arm or his chest, as though to make sure he was real and still there for her. She made him feel important. Relevant. It was as if she had been crafted to appeal to his every sense. Uncomfortable thoughts tumbled through his minds, and he did his best to keep his expression neutral, that it would not betray his feelings.
As they approached their destination, Zaman was able to make out more and more details. It was neither the castle the girl had thought it to be, nor was it a barracks or some other sort of hostel as Zaman had surmised. Instead, they came upon an odd building built of dark stone. Its base was wide enough to hold an entire city square, and it had been built up as though the architects had designed a pyramid, but the labor had abandoned their work less than half way into their efforts. By the looks of it, the structure had been abandoned for centuries, if not more. Only the iron parts of assorted tools had survived the abuse of the elements, and even they were pitted with rust and corrosion. The tattered remains of a small foundry and blacksmith shop was scattered across the street, along with other stalls and equipment too far corroded to identify. Mammoth stones the size of alifaunts lay strewn upon the top of the structure like the discarded playthings of a giant’s brood. A wide ramp of packed dirt and reinforced with stone paved the way to the top of the building.
Zaman walked up to the rusted remains of what seemed to be a wagon or a wheelbarrow of sorts. He tipped it over with a foot and watched it break into pieces as it hit the paved stone floor. Rust and debris rose from its remains in a small cloud that quickly settled. “Do you think they left in a hurry or did they merely tire of their efforts and slowly bleed away?” his companion inquired, gazing deeply into the detritus of another era, as though the mere act of observation would force the scene to give up secrets. She walked up to the rotting remains of a furnace and put her hands upon its surface, still inexplicably stained with ashes and grit.
“I would hazard that they fled,” he responded, looking around himself. “The work is unfinished, and many of these tools would have had value. They would not be discarded as they have been were it not for flight from some unknown assailant.”
“You would hazard wrong,” she said sadly as she stroked the frozen metal. “There is a wrongness here, unnatural as it is virulent, that descended upon these poor people without compunction or hesitation.” Her eyes brimmed with tears. “I can still feel the fear echoing in these tools and buildings. They built this edifice to appease whatever it was that hunted them.”
He looked at her, confused. “What are you talking about?” he asked her, startled at her tone and her sudden change in demeanor.
“We should leave this place,” she said, distractedly. “We should depart and leave the departed to their restless sleep. If we stay here, I fear it will not end well for us. This place reverberates with the whispers of death and madness.”
“My lady,” he said, “we can only hope to flee from a possible death to a certain one. We must have shelter tonight. We will not survive this night outside, I assure you.”
Her fear was overwhelming her. He reached for her hands, but she pulled away. He grabbed her roughly by the arm but she still pulled away. “Stop it,” he said harshly. “We are not children and this is no fairy tale.” He looked over to the half-finished pyramid. “What of that building? Can we take shelter or hide in there?” He cursed silently when her only response was the silence of tears. He took a deep breath. Now was not the time for panic or anger. Gently he took her by the arm, and she did not resist.
The two walked sedately around the building in the dying light of the weak afternoon sun, each moment filling Zaman with dread. What was it that could have sent his companion into a flight of tears? He was not sure, but certainly did not want to find out. The best part of valor can be discretion, he reminded himself. Sometimes, at least.
The panels of the exterior walls were covered in reliefs that Zaman found disturbing. Oddly, the intervening decades had not dulled the edges of the carvings; they looked as though they had been carved only recently. Zaman ran his hand across the face of a woman whose mouth was open in a scream and ended up rubbing away some of the grime and dust that coated the walls. Underneath, an alabaster white shined dully in the dying illumination of the late afternoon sun. Other depictions were even more disturbing. Men and women twisted into unnatural positions. Images of women being debased in ways that made his heart lurch and his stomach turn. Men tortured with instruments designed to extract only blood and pain. He saw a frieze of a man with some sort of mechanical device pushed into a mouth that had been forced open. Even in the stone carving he could see the terror in the man’s eyes as the tool forced his jaws apart and tore both bone and sinew. He shuddered.
They came up upon a large rectangular shaped gap in the wall, still waiting for hinges and the heavy, fifteen foot doors that no doubt would have enclosed it. The two made their way inside without hesitation. The cold wind pushed at their backs, and the thought of shelter made Zaman nearly faint with relief. He had been cold for so long he could not remember feeling any other way. Once they made their way inside the wind stopped, and its cessation made his skin tingle.
Zaman looked around the huge, cavernous chamber, illuminated only by the setting sun. Long, misshapen shadows of the twisted wreckage outside cloaked the few fragments of the area that were visible; most of the room was occluded by an inky, impenetrable blackness. It was impossible to see any of the far walls, not could Zaman discern any fixtures or other objects in the room. The air was musty, heavy with the scent of centuries of disuse.
“It’s dark,” he heard her say.
He tugged at her. “Let’s look around some. Maybe we can find a place to start a fire. If this is a temple, they might have a brazier somewhere.”
“You look,” she said to him. “I don’t want to walk around in the dark. I’ll start a fire.”
“I have some hide left. I’ll crush some fat from the leopard and try to coat the hide with it. Maybe I can make you a torch. I’ll find some wood or some sticks outside to start it up.” She pushed him away gently. “Go and find something that will warm us. And if you come across a bath, let me know.”
Smiling, he nodded. “Will do. Be careful, and don’t wander too far.”
“I won’t,” she promised. Zaman thought she looked less pensive than she had before. Having something to do would probably be good for her.
He walked carefully into the darkness, careful of what might be scattered on the floor. He made his way to the back of the building; if this was a temple, then some sort of altar or platform might be found against the back wall. That seemed the most logical place to put it. And even if there was not, Zaman wanted to find an open space where he could start and vent a fire.
It did not take him long to discover that the room was, for the most part, empty. Aside from some unidentifiable cold iron parts on the floor that he stepped on occasionally and a cart at the far end of the room, Zaman found nothing of any consequence. The cart he would break down for kindling; it was in a terrible state of disrepair. A few hard thumps and dry wood had splintered from the nails and joints that had been hammered in place. He had been afraid to try to climb aboard the bed, given its fragile state. Instead, he pulled free a few pieces of wood, resolving to use them as tinder and come back when he had light to see by.
The other item of note that Zaman came across was a staircase that led up to the second floor. He took a few steps up the metal staircase, only to have one of the steps crack and fail from his weight. Fortunately, he did not break an ankle or cut himself against the undoubtedly rusted edges of the metal planks that he tried to step upon. Luck can cut both ways, he reminded himself as he carefully pulled his foot from the trap it had fallen in. He decided to wait until he had a torch before attempting to make his way upstairs.
He did not see or hear his companion as he walked back towards the light of the entrance. In the hour or so he had spent exploring, the sun had nearly set. Only a dim glow identified the entrance to the edifice he was in, and he hurried his way there, trying to exercise caution as he walked upon the unseen floor. Zaman was not usually unnerved by darkness; in fact, it was almost comforting to his naturally devious mindset. However, the blackness of this room felt more like the darkness of a room shrouded in smoke than a room bereft of light. It was thick in an unnatural way, sliding across his vision like a heavy fog, teasing his senses with illusion and artifice. Zaman wanted out.
He found his companion sitting right outside the building, a small fire hooded by a pit she had evidently prepared. Her coat had already come off and she was nestled close to the fire. Zaman could see the shadows and flames dancing across the perfectly sculpted lines of her face. The thin, worn fabric of her dress did little to hide the soft rise and fall of her curves, and Zaman once again felt an unnatural desire ignite within him. She turned and looked at him, a playful smile playing at the corners of her lips, as if she knew the yearning her every move inspired in him.
“Where do you find the timber?” he asked her, trying to distract himself from her flesh.
“Where does anyone find timber?” she asked him in return. “Trees, usually. Is that wood in your hands?”
He looked around. Not a tree in sight. Well, whatever. He nodded at her. “There is a wagon inside that can be used for fuel. We should move the fire inside, where there will be less chance of it being seen. We can set it up near the door so as to vent it. Also, I will need a torch. How did your leather strips turn out?”
“Oh, quite well!” she said brightly. She seemed to have overcome her earlier melancholia. Well, a warm fire on a cold night could do wonders for a mood. Certainly it did for him; in the few moments he had stood by the fire, he felt it leech the cold from his bones and instill a new feeling of strength and vigor into his muscles. He felt… good. “I wrapped them around some pipes I found, and used leather wetted by snow for the grip. They should work well!”
He stared at her, amazed, as she handed him two torches. The grips had already dried, and the leather was taut. Thick strips of leather were arranged in a tight ball at the top; Zaman could see where the animal’s fat had been rubbed into the hide forcefully. He could not have done this kind of job in an hour; how had she managed it? “How…” he stuttered, trying to formulate his confused thoughts into a coherent sentence.
She patted him on a cheek with a hand warmed by the fire. “Now, now,” she said, another smile adorning those lips he longed to touch. “Only an ill-mannered man would ask a woman her secrets. Take these in good faith, and remind yourself that every woman has her mysteries!”
Zaman lowered the torch into the small fire and watched it burst into flames. As he pulled it out, the torch sputtered a bit, and then settled into a low-burning glow that dripped liquid flames every few moments. There was no use talking to her, he realized. Some sort of magic was afoot, and she would not tell him of it. So be it; as long as it aided him, what did he care that she did not want to admit that she was an Ayn? “I’ll be back in a little bit,” he said to her. “I want to take a look upstairs. Can you set up another pit inside?”
She beamed at him. “Of course!” she gushed, clearly pleased to be trusted with additional work. In many ways, she seemed to be a child. “I will have it set up in moments!”
“Can you cook? Yes? Have a care not to cook the meat too long. We do not want to scent of cooked meat floating across these plains. Scorch each side quickly. No more than that. Understand?”
“What? You still hope to eat the flesh of the leopard?” She grimaced, disgusted. “Well, there’s no accounting for tastes. You are from a barbarian race, Captain. But I will do as you ask.”
Zaman made his way back inside, the torch held high before him. The woman was mad. Barbarian? He wondered what sort of world she came from that did not eat the flesh of beasts. A mad world, no doubt, for a mad woman. Zaman did not mind grains or the flesh of the occasional fruit, but not to the exclusion of everything else! Truth be told, he had heard of some southern towns that candied field insects, or ate the flesh of scavengers. He supposed that refusing to eat something was by a sight better than engaging in those sorts of repulsive eating habits.
He was careful not to approach the cart too closely, given that he held a torch in his hand. Beneath the firelight, he was able to see where he had pulled away one of the guard rails that held the contents of the cart in place. The wood was as dry and brittle as he had thought it to be. Rusted nails peeked through the recesses into which they had been driven.
The cart was bigger than he had first thought. He circled around the rear of the cart to get a better look but was distracted by a large, metal container that sat behind the cart. Light danced across its pitted frame, but Zaman could tell that the metal was still inches thick. Decay had not caused this device to fall apart yet. It stood taller than he was and had two large doors that hung slightly open. At the base of the closet, there were another small set of doors. Zaman pulled one of the larger doors open and looked inside carefully. The interior was lined with a grayish ceramic. On the surface, he saw a couple of rectangular shaped pieces that had crumbled slightly from age.
This was a kiln, an oven used to fire bricks. He wondered what it was doing inside the temple. He pulled open the bottom doors and ran his fingers inside, unsurprised to find a soft, powdery substance covering the base. He felt around and found a hard stone and pulled it out. A quick sniff quickly identified it as coal. Gods! Such luck! He would have to tell the girl to forget the fire inside; they would be able to use this oven instead. As long as it was properly vented. Zaman had no intention of suffocating in his sleep. He stuck a couple of pieces of coal in his pocket and got up.
He walked along the body of the kiln, which was longer than it was wide. He saw a stone chimney stack that ran diagonally from the kiln and up the wall. It looked as though it vented through the ceiling and into what was the second floor. The chimney looked like it was still pretty solid. He could not see any crumbling bricks or cracks on its surface.
The stairwell that he had nearly fallen through was not too far away. He would take a quick look upstairs, if he could make it up the stairs, and then situate the girl. He briefly thought about a quick reconnaissance of the other buildings on the street, but rejected the idea. He was too tired and it was too cold. His abused muscles needed time to rest, to heal. He would need his strength tomorrow; he was determined to make it out of the tundra and into the grassy plains that waited to the south of them within the next day or so.
The metal stairwell was nearly impassable. Most of the metal was rusted through, and more than once Zaman’s boot passed through a grate footrest far too rusted to support his weight. Even the cold iron banister that he held to was more rust than metal. One hard squeeze and most of the material ended up in his hand in a puff of red. Nevertheless, he made his way up. As he neared the top of the twenty-foot staircase, he heard the tell-tale sign of metal scraping painfully against metal. Alarmed, he leapt the last few steps to the landing. With a crash, the staircase behind him collapsed into a tangle of rust and iron. Shaken, he looked down, aided by his torch, which dripped its fiery essence down into the mess.
Another kiss for the Keeper, he though shakily as he looked at the jumble of sharp edges and points that was once a staircase. Holy hell.
Upstairs was another huge, undivided room. Above him, the first glimmers of evening starlight shined though the unfinished base of the third floor. There were a few columns that supported the would-be ceiling, but the contents of the room, if it could be called that, were the huge, black building cubes that stood twice the height of a man and maybe twice that across. Inside, piles of the gritty white bricks that were a product of the kiln below were arranged in piles. The unusual bricks were stacked in the various corners of the floor, and at the far ends of the huge room he saw them lining the inside of the pyramid that he stood in. It looked as though the bricks were not being used as building material, but rather as a façade for the interior walls. The one completed wall was completely covered in the odd bricks, and the other wall that had just been started was partially covered in the white bricks as well. The two walls that faced the north were non-existent, and opened the room to the elements outside. He walked up to the completed wall and ran his hand across its sandy, unfinished surface. This wall had not been sealed and polished like the ones outside; perhaps they lay in eternal wait for stone artisans to come and carve reliefs into their surface. Sealing and polishing would probably have occurred after the frieze was carved.
He walked over to the gap that was the two unfinished walls. Night was falling in truth, and the temperature was plummeting. The wind blew, and he felt it licking at the little warmth he had jealously guarded from his moments with the fire below. Above him, the night sky slowly awoke from its torpid slumber, the incandescence of starlight feigning warmth on a cold and heartless plain. He looked out into the darkness, searching for the telltale flicker of fire, but saw nothing. He was glad to see that the small fire that his partner had started had already been put out; on plains as flat and as dark as these, it would have given them away from a distance of miles.
A packed dirt ramp extended down to the road below him; more than likely, this was how the huge black building stones were transported to the second level. He was sure that the ramp was reinforced by either brick or metal, but nevertheless he made his way carefully down the steep decline. The floor was slick with ice and packed dirt; he did not relish the idea of tumbling down twenty odd feet and maybe breaking his neck in the process. He crabbed down the slope carefully on all fours, trying not to wince as his hands slowly went numb against the cold floor.
Downstairs, his beautiful accomplice had already decided to use the kiln as a stove. She hummed merrily as she added pieces of cart to the fire that was now burning furiously at the base of the kiln. It smelled of smoke, but not heavily. The room was warm, and as he approached the glow of the kiln, he found it hot.
“I had to open the vent,” she explained to him as he approached. “Smoke started coming inside, but it was only because there was a vent that was closed. Just a matter of twisting a knob.” She smiled with self-satisfaction as she pointed to a small wheel at the base of the pipe that vented the kiln.
He nodded. Smart girl. “I am glad to see you are feeling better,” he commented as he took a seat on the floor. “This will be a cold night, although not for us. And tomorrow will be harder still.”
“Pshaw!” she exclaimed at him derisively. “Does ever a thought not grim spirit its way through that bone head of yours?”
If you only knew, he thought, looking at her ash-smudged face and wondering how a woman could be so beautiful. “I am a solider,” he reminded her. “We only think about two things.”
She started at him for a moment before pretending outrage. “You are quite the flirt, sir,” she reprimanded him playfully.
He grinned. “Death and taxes, wench. I’m sure I don’t know what you’re referring to.”
She laughed a deep, throaty laugh that filled him with both warmth and longing. “Oh my Captain,” she chuckled. “What was I thinking? You are too much for this simple girl.”
He harrumphed in disbelief, but she paid him no attention. “I thought to prepare you dinner, given that you have taken such care of me these last few hours,” she said.
“There is no need,” he began, but silenced himself when she turned around to look at him. Her cheeks were rosy with blush, and she looked down shyly. “There is no need for you to do so,” he said more gently, “but if you were to, I would be in your debt.” A slow smile crept across her face, inspiring Zaman to demand a feast with all the trimmings. He kept his mouth shut and ducked his head at her.
“Nonsense,” she replied, and her happiness was palpable. When was the last time Zaman had felt such joy at such an uncomplicated request? “You just sit back and rest, and I will cook the flesh of this animal. There’s no accounting for taste, but who am I to judge?” She began fiddling with the satchel he had crafted that held the strips of the snow leopard he had salvaged. “Hmmmm… how will I cook this? On an open flame?”
“I can look by the blacksmith to see if I can find you something to cook on,” he suggested.
“Fah! Your job is to protect me from harm. You are not my lackey. If you get up, I will smack you with this hand, sir. Stay seated. Rest. I will find what I need. If not, I can do without. And when I come back, I will look at that arm of yours again.”
“Very well,” he replied, relieved. He did not relish the thought of digging around through a smithy looking for a cooking pan. He worked the laces of his boots. “I will leave it to you.” He tugged the first boot loose. “Aaaahhhh,” he sighed, wiggling his toes.
“Take a nap,” she suggested.
“Good idea,” he agreed. “If you go out, stay close. Don’t try to climb any stairs. I almost killed myself on some earlier. And if you hear something – anything – wake me immediately.” The other boot came loose. Warmth from the kiln was soaking into his muscles and bones, and he was forced to stifle a yawn. “I’ll be here.”
Zaman awoke to the sound of fat crackling in a pan. The smell of cooking meat made his stomach growl even before he was fully awake. “Smells good,” he said as he rubbed sleep from his eyes.
“Oh, you’re awake!” she said as she bustled about the kiln. “I was about to wake you.”
She had procured a small table from somewhere, and two chairs as well. “I found a pan at the smithy,” she told him, “and more besides. There was a shop with herbs and spices that were frozen in jars and buried in the snow. I even found beans!” She beamed at her accomplishment. “Let’s hope they’re still good to eat.”
“It smells delicious,” he said, meaning it. He had hoped for some rare strips of meat; what he smelled suggested a repast that he would not soon forget. “I think you forget that your companion is a lowly solider and such effort will be wasted upon him.”
“All the more reason to make it,” she retorted kindly. “Sit at our table, Captain Zaman. Tonight you will be the tired husband, returned from a hard day at work. I will be your doting wife, who spent all day in the kitchen to prove her love for you.”
“Consider justice done by the smell alone,” he responded lightly, secretly wishing for a marriage. “And if it tastes half as good as it smells, your husband may reward you with a new set of cooking pots.”
“You are too kind,” she rejoined, smiling at him.
He stretched, and was surprised to find that his bandages had been scraped clean and refitted on his arm. “Did you clean and change my bandages?” She nodded, and he stood up, disturbed. “How did you manage to do so without waking me?”
“A woman’s touch,” she replied innocently. “In any case, you slept like a dead dog. The Keeper himself could not have awoken you.”
Zaman was silent, trying to mask from her how disturbed he was. He prided himself on his ability to wake at a moment’s notice and at the slightest disturbance. He could wake at the presence of another person in the room. The thought that someone could have removed and cleaned and re-wrapped the bandages on his arm filled him with dismay to no end. It was not possible. Well, he already knew that she was not the typical traveling companion; maybe he should not be as surprised as he was.
The repast was excellent, far beyond anything Zaman had dined upon in the recent past. The thick strips of leopard had been seasoned with salt and a few other spices that Zaman could not place. It sat in a bed of dark lentils that the girl claimed him would give him “… both strength and potency; your wife will thank me the next time you lay with her, though your daughters may curse you for disturbing their sleep.” Above all, however, were the soft and comforting sounds of her interminable commentary that Zaman now found soothing to his soul. He could not follow even half of the conversation; for him, it was enough to listen to the gentle rise and fall of her voice and pretend that it was reserved only for him. He responded with an occasional smile and a well-placed nod, but his attention was only on the movement of her lips and the animation of her eyes as she spoke. And the food he tried not to shovel into his mouth. As he suspected, she avoided the flesh of the leopard, but she ate the lentils with delight.
“Did you get a chance to look in the back of the cart?” she asked him as he leaned back in his chair, the meal settling comfortably and heavily in his stomach. He watched her put back on the pelt of the leopard that he slew, a part of him wishing that he was peeling it off of her rather than allowing her to put it on.
“What? No, I don’t think so,” he responded, distracted. The meal was excellent. She was a chef of unparalleled skill. “Why? Is it full of those white bricks? I noted that they have been used to line both the inside of this building and the exterior of the ground floor. It is an odd sort of material. I think it is this oven that they used to fire them into hardness.”
“You should look.”
“Very well,” he replied. Finished with his meal, Zaman regretfully wiped his mouth with yet another leather strip that had been rebranded, this time for use as a table napkin. He got up and walked over to the kiln. He opened both of the doors that held the coal and wood used to heat the cooking chamber. At once, firelight and shadows danced across the length of the cavernous room, illuminating with fire as much as it chose to hide with shadows. The sides of the cart glowed with the hot, red ruddiness of the fire pit of the kiln, and Zaman climbed in and made his way to the back of the cart.
Skulls. Human skulls.
He walked to the back of the cart’s bed, astounded by the number of skulls. “What is this?” he asked as he looked upon the pile of boiled, bleached-white human remains. Skulls of all sizes abounded, ranging from the tiny, delicate frames of what could only be infants to the thick white bone of adults. Some of the skulls had mandibles attached, but most of them did not. They were scattered haphazard in the back of the cart, piled high, with grinning teeth looking at him as he scrutinized the collection in horror.
“Madness inspired by a plague? The malefic designs of a corrupt mage come true? I know not, save that this place is tainted by what happened here.”
He did not hear her words, or if he did, they did not register in his mind. “This kiln,” he said. “This kiln. It made these bricks, but these bricks are not made of stone or lime. They are human skulls, crushed and ground into a powder, admixed  with something to make them hard. Am I right?”
She nodded sadly. “I think it to be so.” Disgusted, Zaman made his way off of the oversized cart. The girl whimpered as she made her way to his side once again and held his arm. She pressed herself close, burying him in the soft fur pelt of the leopard. Despite the horror of what he was seeing, Zaman could make out the firm, feminine contours of her body. Her scent filled his nose. He took a deep breath and ruthlessly strangled his burgeoning want for her and instead focused on the warmth of the fire. “We should not stay here,” she whispered to him, her lips brushing his ear. He felt the fires of eternity set his skin and his soul alight. “I do not like how this place feels. It hurts me to be here.”
“We can only trade your distress for certain death,” he replied to her, “because that is all you will find out there in the cold.” He spoke more harshly than he intended to, but could not help himself. Zaman wondered if she teased him with intent. He did not think so, but he had been made a fool more than a few times by a woman. He knew his judgment was no better than suspect when it came to understanding the fairer sex.
“Give a man what he wants, and his irritation will be incessant. Deny it, and you will lead him by the nose.” She sniffed petulantly as she pushed him away. “So be it. What does my distress matter to you? I am no more than a stranger, after all. A pretty one, of course, though you never deign to notice. Men have started wars for me! Blood has been spilled for my favor! And you cannot so much as smile.” She stalked off, muttering to herself indignantly.
His mouth hung open as she walked back to the kiln, the sway of her hips tempting him with madness. This time he was sure it was intentional. Women! I’d rather do sums.
They made preparations to sleep. There was draft that ran from the open doors up through the ceiling, but far against the back wall where the kiln was allowed them to escape the worst of it. The ovens had started to burn down, and Zaman knew that the hot heat that it released would slowly cool to radiating warmth. The girl arranged her fur wrap carefully on the floor and folded it in half, making sure the ground was as free of rocks and dust as she could manage. Her small scarf was balled up as a pillow, and when she slipped between the sheets, Zaman could tell that she was both warm and comfortable. Zaman’s preparations were somewhat simpler; he lay upon the floor on his back and covered his eyes with his undamaged arm.
After a few moments of silence, she spoke. “Tell me a tall ,” she urged. “I cannot sleep with you wroth at me.”
“I am not wroth with you,” he replied quietly. You make me feel as I have not in a decade or more. “I am not used to being around a woman, particularly one as beautiful as you.” Each moment I must strangle the madness that insists that I throw myself upon you and hold you next to me and breathe your breath and taste your lips. “It is a bit unnerving for an old soldier like me.” You are so far beyond me that it is madness to even think it, and yet for you I would drown the oceans and set fire to the sun. “I am no more than a sword to defend you. Thus I have been, and so I will ever be.”
He heard her chuckle and blushed, thankful that it was dark. For a soldier renowned for brevity, he was a veritable fountain of feelings and insecurities today.
“Such words! Better than a story, I must say, my lord Captain. You have the soul of a poet. A wounded poet.”
“Good night,” he snarled, turning away from her. The tinkle of her laugh chased away his embarrassment and followed him into the realm of dreams.
It was not their murmuring that woke him, although it was certainly loud enough for to wake a soldier as well trained as he was. Nor was it the heavy tread of their feet, or the clanking of various metal buckles and chains as they rubbed together. It was not even the sour smell of days-old sweat and blood that caused him to wake. Rather, it was an attenuation Zaman had to the air around him that caused him to wake; a subtle shift in the energy of the room, or maybe the unseen rustle of wind as a body displaced it. It was the knowledge that every solider had that the potential for violence had made itself available to the immediate vicinity. Zaman did not open his eyes, but instead listened carefully.
There were more than three or four of them, otherwise Zaman would have been able to make them out individually. The rustle of their clothes as they moved was also evident; he was sure that they were using hand and arm signals to communicate with each other. Carefully, Zaman cracked an eye; fortunately, he was facing the intruders and was able to make out some details in the dying glow of the kiln.
There were five men visible to him; no doubt they had left one or more to guard the entrance. They were large men, heavy in the gut and through the chest, with large, wicked-looking swords that tapered to a forked point. That would make them of the Ice Fish Clan, if he remembered his Northern geography and politics correctly. Even if he didn’t, it made little difference; Northerners were for the most part ill-bred, unlettered, and full of contempt for what they saw as effeminate and weak-willed Southerners. This encounter would not end well. Zaman was no mean swordsman, but he was armed with a knife and had a woman to protect. Against five or more Northern clansmen, it was almost certain death. He was trying to decide whether to try and negotiate their way out of this when the girl awoke. “Hello,” she said without fear as she sat up, and Zaman saw a sword make for her neck.
He screamed and launched himself at her, already knowing that he was too late and that blade was going to kill her. They thought of her blood upon that blade made him mad with fear. He was too far away.
A loud clash echoed in the room as the sword was knocked away by another, but Zaman’s moment of relief was transformed into excruciating pain as a mailed fist nailed him in the stomach and drove him to his knees. He struggled to take a breath as a second fist struck him in the face, and a blossom of pain lit up his cheek. He spun heavily and hit the ground, tenuously holding on to consciousness as he fought to inhale and clear the water from his eyes. Hands searched him and took from him his blade and the pieces of coal and wood in his pocket. Two men grabbed him unceremoniously by each arm and pulled him up to his knees.
“Light,” he heard a terse, guttural voice demand. Zaman heard someone striking flint, and torch began to burn, illuminating the room. “Someone pick up that fool Gautham. Tie him to the back of a wagon. He’ll walk back. If he weren’t my sister’s son, I’d crack open that useless head of his. Remember that, the next man who swings a sword at a woman without thinking.” The big, hirsute man who was evidently the leader of this group turned his attention to a groaning Zaman. “Who are you? Speak, unless you would rather be made to speak.”
“There is no cause for such behavior,” his companion said indignantly as she struggled to her feet. “Are these your lands? We are sorry if we have offended you, but we were freezing to death and needed the warmth. We thought these ruins to be abandoned.”
There was silence as the men regarded her. Zaman could see what they saw and quailed. Even dirty and windswept, she was too beautiful by far to be left alone. Northerners were not known for the compassion; they took what they wanted, unless someone could stop them. She became aware of the hungry gazes of the men, and drew her shawl closer to herself self-consciously. But there was no amount of cloth available that could hide those striking curves or those flawless features.
“Well,” the man spoke, his lips unconsciously smacking together as he drank the sight of her. Zaman’s rage flared, and he fought down his jealous desire to choke the life from the man. “I ask the man to speak, and it is the woman who has the courage to answer.” He looked down at Zaman and grimaced. “Is this pup your man?”
“He is my friend,” she answered. “Which is more than I can say for you, sirrah!”
He laughed. “You’ve spirit, girl, I’ll give you that. Your sons will be strong, I doubt it not.” He looked down at Zaman again. “And who are you, pup? Do you fear to speak, or does your friend do the speaking for you?”
“Leave us be,” Zaman said, and was greeted by chuckles all around. “We mean no harm or disrespect to the Ice Fish Clan. Where is your honor, that you would deny us the right of passage through your lands? By your own rules we have committed no crime.”
The leader’s face hardened. A nasty-looking scar that ran from the corner of one eye down his temple and halfway down his neck puckered as his eyes narrowed. “You know less of our laws than you think, Souther. When was the last time one of you crossed the Ice Wastes and took refuge in the Bone Pyrax, where even our own step with care? Did you come to the fires of our elders with seal oil and fish roe? Did you bring gifts of music and cloth? You have no rights here, nothing beyond what I offer you, and I offer you nothing.” He spat towards Zaman. “You did not answer my question, Souther. Who are you? And what do you do here?”
“We are crossing through, I and my friend.”
“Is that so?” he inquired contemptuously. He walked up to Zaman and squatted down in front of him. Zaman’s stomach turned at the darks stumps of teeth and the fetid breath that assailed him. Hair the color of corn husks lay matted upon his brow, falling unevenly around his massive shoulders, and Zaman could see the leather of his sleeves strain to enclose the big man’s arms. “Listen to me carefully, Souther,” he said to Zaman softly. “That girl is not your sister? No, she cannot be of the same seed as you. And she is not your woman. That alone saves you from death, else I would have taken your life to claim her as my own. As it stands, there is something about you that smells wrong to me. I will take you to our First Mark, who will decide what to do with you.” He held Zaman’s chin and turned his face such that he could look dead into his eyes. “Hear me well. You live at my leisure. Tempt me not.”
Zaman kept silent. He was not partial to bravado, nor did he have anything to say to the Northerner before him. All he could do was curse his luck; if they had not found this place, they would have frozen to death. It was a toss of the dice that these men found them this night.
“Sergeant Madrari, they have meat here. And the skin of a snow leopard,” one of the men called out.
“That pelt is mine! Let it go!” Zaman could see her struggling to hold on to the fur as one of the men laughed coarsely and pulled it from her. Off balance, she fell forward into his embrace. Rage lit Zaman, white hot, and he struggled against his captors.
Smiling, Sergeant Madrari stood up and turned around. “Leave her be, Wymeth, and give her the fur. She is my prisoner and will ride with me.” Grumbling arose from the gathered men, but was silenced by a hard glance by the sergeant. “Get your members from out your hands and get us ready to leave. Ten minutes and we are off. Any man not in his saddle will walk with Gautham.” He walked over to the woman now in his possession and took her roughly from Wymeth. “A word, and you will taste the back of my hand, woman. I’ve no care for your face, only that body of yours. Keep it shut and only good will come of it.”
“You are no gentleman,” she said to him, and he was true to his word. She fell to the floor, blood trickling from the corner of her mouth. Her cheek already began to darken. She looked up at him, her hand on her cheek where he had struck her. “Did I mention you smell like a dog dead three days past?” she added, and he laughed.
The Notherneners were anything if not fastidious. In moments they had tied the two of them up, stripped the unfortunate Gautham of most of his clothes, and saddled up the horses. The meat that Zaman had saved was stored into a wagon; the coal and wood he had collected was reverently placed back into the kiln. After that, it did not take long for them to begin their trek. They made their way out of the small, abandoned village and set off towards wherever the First Mark was camped. As luck would have it, they moved south by southwest. A small favor from an apathetic god that they headed in the direction that Zaman wanted to go. The two companions were separated; she was mounted on a horse and sat behind Sergeant Madrari, whereas he had a rope tied to his neck and was forced to march behind one of the wagons that followed the small squad. Fortunately, he was not made to run; in fact, he could not have, due to the wind and the cold and the uneven and treacherous ground, but this hampered the movement of the other soldiers and the horses as well. Nevertheless, their pace was certainly faster than Zaman thought they were going to manage. A small oil lantern was tied to the back of the wagon; it cast a dim light that allowed Zaman to make out the contours of the ground that he walked upon.
“We would be better off without this light,” one of the Northerners said to him as the howling winds screamed around them. “At least we wouldn’t have to look at your ugly face while we marched.”
He did not respond; it took too much effort to talk, and could barely control the chattering of his teeth. Privately he agreed with him; the light illuminated capriciously, subject to the whim of the winds and the direction they chose to push the flames. Even then, ridges and clefts in the ground were hidden by the sweeping snow driven by the incessant wind, and one’s footing could never be sure. He looked up dismally into the sky. It was impossibly clear, each speck of light glistening wetly in the swath of ink that was the night. The moon hung heavily on the horizon, low and orange and pregnant with purpose.
Time, insufferably, plodded on. Zaman could not tell how far they had come or how long it had been. I am going to die this night. The thought was not as troubling as he once thought it might be. Death was a constant companion to a solider; an old friend, if you could survive long enough to call him old. The cold lapped at his strength more quickly now as the temperatures plummeted and the winds stole from him both his breath and his warmth.
He thought dimly of the snow leopard he had slaughtered earlier. Had that been only this day? It seemed impossible. The cat had stumbled into eternity by his hand; death was just another moment like any other on these frozen plains. Certainly it could come for him just as suddenly. The men had made a commotion when they learned he had slain the cat with only a dagger; he had not said a word, but the girl had blithely shared their story with Madrari even as many of them listened on. They looked at him differently after that, not sure if he was still the pup that Madrari had named him, or if he was some other, more dangerous sort of dog. Perhaps one with teeth.
Time thinned, stretching itself out uncomfortably across the static and unchanging horizon. Left right left, left right left, Zaman’s mind chanted as he put one foot in front of the other. Images of a beautiful woman in a dirty white dress and lips as soft and sweet as honey flickered through his mind. Darkness reigns, his mind reminded him, but Zaman was unconcerned. Where is this place?
He was slowing down; there was no question of it. Panic tried to worm its way past his fettered brain and into his heart, but the trek was too difficult and it soon gave up. A languorous lassitude had begun to creep up on him, and Zaman knew that this was the Keeper’s softest kiss, reserved for those that slept in eternal cold.
He reached for the canister at his side, to find the snow he had filled it with had turned to ice. Water, he thought. Water, water. A man would sweat twice as much in an ice desert as he would in a dry one, but because of the cold, you did not notice until you were already dead from dehydration. He told the girl that she had to melt the snow and drink it if she wished to live, and she had complied with regularity. She would stop every few hours and take a few mouthfuls of snow. It was a painful and slow method of hydration but it was better than dying, he supposed. Zaman reached down to scoop a handful of snow into his hand and found himself falling over into the ground. Falling into snow was odd; it did not hurt like you expected it to, and your body waited a moment or two for the jolt even after you had hit the ground. If he had not been as tired as he was, he might have been amused.
Hands pushed at him, urging him to stand. It’s not so cold anymore, he thought hazily. A well-placed shove aggravated his damaged arm, but even that pain was hollow and distant. Just a minute, he thought despondently. Just a minute to rest my eyes and I’ll walk with you again. He felt something tugging at his neck.
His eyes closed, and the unfailing screaming of the wind finally began to fade.