Chapter 19: Alone in Ice
Howling winds whipped around them, pelting their exposed skin with icy pinpricks, as they trudged through the thigh-deep snow. Every move proved exhausting. With no coats to protect them from the frigid cold, which penetrated the very core of their beings, they moved, hoping to find shelter before they froze to death.
Alfric took the lead; his strong movements punctured the ice-encrusted snow, making it more pliable for the others as they trailed behind and did their best to avoid the snowdrifts that matched their height. Heads bent low, nothing spared them from the planet’s wrath. Its arctic-like winds bombarded them with knifelike snowflakes that stabbed them until crystals formed on them, clinging to the hairs on their arms. Brie shivered. Tom appeared beside her, wrapping his arms around her shoulders to warm her, but it did little good since his skin was as cold as hers.
The snowstorm never ceased its attack on the newcomers to the ice planet. Thick, bulbous clouds blocked the sun, not that it provided any warmth to the surface. Alfric continued his quick pace, ignoring the ice that filled his hair and beard.
An eerie howl sounded behind them. Each turned in its direction, but none saw anything through the horizontal snow. Another roar.
“Is there wildlife here?” asked Tom.
“Every planet has wildlife,” replied Rynah, straining to see through the blinding snow.
The bone-curdling howl sounded again as a dark shape appeared in the distance, growing larger.
They fled, the deep snow making such efforts difficult. Half jumping, half running, they ran as fast as they could to get away from their newfound predicament. What looked like a white saber-toothed tiger (except much larger) pounced on them. It went for Brie first as she lagged behind the others. Stumbling, she crashed into the snow, missing its sharp teeth. The tiger roared in frustration, pawing at the snow and snapping its jaws. Brie screamed as she rolled through the ice to avoid becoming lunch.
“Come here, odious creature!” Alfric stretched himself to his full height, banging two of his knives together. The pirates never bothered unarming him. The tiger looked up. It licked its jaws with its pink lips, studying Alfric. With a leap, it bounded for him, its massive paws flying over the ground. Alfric turned and ran. He galloped through the snow, leading the beast away from the others and heading for an ice cliff.
Alfric made a sharp turn. Unable to mimic its prey’s movements, the tiger’s large size and momentum forced it to turn wide and slip. Losing its balance, the tiger slid across the ice, one of its claws missing Alfric by inches. The Viking never slowed in his pace. He raced for the ice cliff and jumped upon it, piercing it with his knives.
Heightened adrenaline fueled his movements as he climbed upwards. The tiger reached the bottom and leapt for him. It missed. Clinging to the wall of ice, Alfric focused on lengthening the distance between him and the beast. The tiger clawed and howled as it tried to reach him.
Further away, the others helped Brie to her feet.
“Are you all right?” asked Rynah.
“Fine,” said Brie, still trying to calm her erratic heartbeat. The cry of the tiger caught her attention. “Alfric! We have to help him!”
Rynah watched as the tiger continued to reach for Alfric as he clung to the icy wall. “How?”
In a moment of rare courage, Brie ran for Alfric. She was not about to allow the man who had saved her life at least three times die. The others chased after her. Brie scooped up snow in her bare hands and formed it into a ball as she ran. Coming to a screeching halt near the cliff base, she chucked the snowball at the tiger, hitting it on the ear. Irritated, the saber-toothed beast turned in her direction. A growl rumbled over its curled lips as it crept toward her.
Brie stood frozen, her fear paralyzing her once again. She had no backup plan and now wished she had thought her actions through.
“Hey!” Tom appeared, throwing a ball of snow at the tiger. It turned its gaze to him.
Solon ran up beside Tom with Rynah, each chucking their own snowball. Angered, the tiger reared up, balancing on its hind legs before crashing back down into the snowy earth.
Rynah pulled out her laser pistol and fired, grazing it and singing the animal’s fur. “Get it to expose its neck!”
The others continued to throw snowballs at it as Rynah lined up a shot.
Clinging to the wall of ice, Alfric watched their futile efforts. He looked up. Above him, the snow curved, forming a cornice with a large, and rather deadly, icicle hanging from it. An idea formed in his mind. Using all of his strength, he reached up and plunged his knife into the ice, while hauling himself upward out of the blue shadows of the snow base and into the light, where the ice acted like a mirror. The sinews of his muscles streaked across his bare, and rather hairy, arms.
Focusing only on the task at hand, Alfric climbed higher until he reached the crevice where the cliff touched the protruding ceiling of ice. With one hand clinging to the knife stuck in the snow, he used his other knife to hack at the ice ceiling. Bits of sheer ice chipped away, with each strike stabbing him in the face. Refusing to fail, he worked faster. With each strike, small echoes surrounded him.
The freshly fallen snow on the cornice shifted. Alfric hacked away at it with furious slashes, desperate to save his companions, as swirls of snowflakes taunted him. His hold on the cliff slipped. Refusing to let go, Alfric stabbed the curve of the snowy ceiling. A low groaning sound rumbled above him, growing louder with each passing second as the icicle shifted. The ice ceiling dripped. Knowing he had succeeded, Alfric plunged his knife into it one last time before—CRACK!
The ceiling of ice broke away from its hold, plunging straight down with the icicle still attached—a knife looking for its victim. Alfric lost his grip. Accepting his fate, he fell away after the sheet of ice.
From their positions on the ground, Rynah and the others watched as snow broke away from the cliff side, crashing into the tiger as the animal launched for them. Mounds of snow and ice flung in every direction, forming clouds in the frozen air. They covered themselves to avoid the onslaught of ice shards. Once everything cleared, they looked up. The tiger lay sprawled on the ground in a pool of blood, with the icicle going from its back, through its body, and out its stomach.
Brie searched for the Viking, but saw no sign of him.
“Alfric!” Tom’s voice bounced off ice walls, filling the empty area.
Still no answer.
One by one, each called his name as they climbed over the dead tiger and through the loose piles of snow. Fear filled Brie as the thought that he had perished in the fall gripped her. “Alfric!” she called again.
A low moan escaped from beneath their feet.
“Over here!” yelled Solon as he dug away at the snow and revealed the Viking’s mop of blond hair.
The others raced toward them, dropping to their knees and plowing into the snow, desperate to dig their friend out. Alfric coughed and grunted as they heaved him free of his icy prison, before he jumped to his feet, staggering and flinging his arms in a defensive posture until he realized that the tiger was dead.
“You okay?” asked Brie.
“I feel invigorated,” said Alfric, who had managed to avoid suffering even a scratch. “My blood is pumping and we have killed this creature. Now, we can eat.”
“Eat?” said Tom. “How are we supposed to eat it?”
“Skin it,” said Alfric. “Cook it over a roaring fire and rejoice in our tale of bravery and honor.”
“Still not sure where we’ll get a fire,” said Tom.
“We need to find shelter,” said Rynah as she looked around. “If we don’t get out of this wind, we will all freeze to death before nightfall.”
“Where’s Solon?” asked Brie, noticing that the young philosopher had gone missing.
While Alfric talked about great deeds, Solon had wandered a few yards away, a black hole inside the wall of ice having caught his notice. He strolled over to it and peeked inside, using one of the glow lights that he had hidden in his pockets before the pirates had boarded Solaris. As he stepped through the opening, welcomed warmth wafted over him. He searched through the small opening in the cliff and realized that it was a cave. Though not large, it would do. He ran back outside. “Over here!”
The others raced to him, each pausing before the cave entrance.
“The ice falling away must have unsealed it,” said Solon.
Rynah took the glow light and explored inside; its stale air, from years of having been sealed shut, penetrated her nostrils. She sneezed. Particles of dust floated around her, her movements having stirred them. She looked around the one room (not an unpleasant chamber full of monsters from a child’s dream, its stone walls smoothed by time and running water from melted snow, and a small pit in the center, perfect for a fire, and a mound of a ledge, only five inches off the floor, circling around the edges) and was pleased that they would not have to go far for shelter.
Splintered wood from broken crates, left over from when the cave was used as a secret cache, littered the damp floor. Her foot kicked an empty bottle of liquor, sending it skittering across the rocky surface. “This will do,” she said. “These abandoned crates can provide fuel for a fire.”
“What are they doing here?” asked Tom.
“Smuggler’s hold,” said Rynah. “Pirates and smugglers often find desolate planets to hide their treasures. By the looks of it, this hasn’t been used in a while.”
“But why would the pirates leave us on a planet where they store their stuff?” asked Tom.
“This might not be their hiding place. Or, they figured we would die before we ever found this place. It doesn’t matter. Start gathering it up in the center and place a few rocks around it to form a border.”
Within minutes, they had a fire started and the cave filled with cozy, warm air driving the chill away. Each huddled before the roaring flames, except Alfric. He took one of his knives and skinned the tiger; the fact that it was three times his size didn’t bother him. Food was food.
Once warm, the others helped him bring in the skin and stretch it before the fire to dry. Tom and Solon prepared the meat for cooking, while Alfric showed Brie how to cut bits of meat into thin strips and dry them into jerky using the fire.
Rynah stood guard. She did not want any more surprises. “Where are you Solaris?” she whispered to the frigid wind. “I swear I will get you back.” Pangs of guilt at losing the archaic ship filled her.
“Rynah,” said Alfric, pulling her from her musings, “Time to eat. I will stand watch.”
“But…” Rynah started to protest.
“Go,” Alfric’s gentle, but stern, command persuaded her to obey.
“Thank you,” said Rynah as she joined the others by the fire and accepted a slice of meat from Solon.
The lowly pirate, a very low ranking pirate as he had just joined Jifdar’s crew, eyed the archaic ship before him, remarking at the varnished steel and his reflection as it stared back at him. Tear it apart—those were his orders. Such a shame, for it was a handsome ship. Heaving rubber tubes and a box of tools on his shoulders, the pirate walked to the rear hatch and stopped. He stared at it with a peculiar expression, knowing that it had been open moments before with its ramp stretched out.
The pirate tapped the button on the right side of the hatch. Kerplunk! The gears turned as the ramp slowly descended before it rolled back up and the door closed. Irritated, the pirate bashed the heel of his scaled hand against the button. Nothing happened.
“Open up,” grunted the pirate, “you bucket of bolts, or I’ll jimmy you open with my hammer.”
Gears shifted, grumbling to life as the rear hatch opened and the ramp dropped down. Pleased, the pirate shifted his tools and stepped forward before—Glooop! Burnt orange sludge (and who knows where Solaris got it from, but she was a resourceful ship) rolled down the gangplank, smothering the poor pirate in its sticky, malodorous (reminding him of a latrine) substance.
The pirate seethed as he wiped the glop from his face, smearing it more than clearing it, and flung a handful to the oil-soaked ground. “I hate this ship!”
Four moons, one full, two at three-quarters, and the last one at a quarter moon, gleamed in the night sky against the backdrop of a giant purple planet encased in rings. Alfric stared up at it, mesmerized by its beauty. Before he had been brought to Solaris, he had never bothered noticing such sights, but things had changed since he had met Brie. He pondered how his people fared without him. He hoped that the thieves had been dealt with. A sudden longing to return home tugged at him. Alfric shoved it away. If this mission was what the gods willed, then so be it. Rynah had made it clear that there was no returning home until this task had been completed.
A tremendous snore startled him. Alfric turned. Tom lay on his back with his mouth wide open, snoring louder than anything the Viking had ever heard. He sauntered over to him and nudged the man with the toe of his pointed boot. Tom rolled onto his side, never waking. Chuckling, Alfric went back to his post, taking a small glance in Brie’s direction. She shivered. Snatching the now dried animal skin, Alfric draped it across her, tucking it in along the sides. She was so like his sister.
“You care for her.”
Alfric jerked his head up. Rynah stared at him with her violet eyes. She had only pretended to sleep. “Should I not?” Alfric walked back over to the cave opening and peered out at the night with its four moons.
Rynah joined him.
“You should sleep.”
“I can’t. You act differently around her, than around the others. Why?”
Alfric faced Rynah. ”My reasons are my own.”
“Tell me,” said Rynah. “
“She reminds me of someone I once knew.”
Alfric inhaled deeply before releasing it. “My sister.”
“Tell me about her.”
“She is dead.”
Rynah lowered her head. Always, she seemed to find the people who had suffered a loss much like her own. “What happened?”
“My father frowned the day she was born. He prized sons over daughters, but that never bothered Gróa. She was strong-willed and gentle hearted. One day, we had gone out into the forests near our home. My father had just arranged for her marriage to a man of great honor in a neighboring kingdom. It would have brought wealth to our family and strengthened his rule. One week before the wedding, she and I went into those woods. We spent the day trekking through the hills of Agnor.
“Upon our return, we ran across bandits. We ran away from them, hoping to reach our home before they caught us. Along the way, Gróa fell. Her foot had become lodged between the roots of two trees. I went back for her, but the bandits were closing in. I tried to free her, but her foot was stuck tight.
“As the bandits neared, I became frightened. I looked into her eyes, and it was as though she knew what I was about to do next. There was no fear within them, only forgiveness. I left her there. I succumbed to my own fear and left her there. The bandits took her and had their way with her before they killed her. Her screams will haunt me the rest of my days.
“When I look at Brie, I see those same eyes, but I also see the same fear that had plagued me all those years ago.”
“How did you overcome it?” asked Rynah.
“The day we sent her spirit to the halls of Freyja, I vowed to never let fear dictate my actions again.”
Rynah remained silent, absorbing Alfric’s narrative.
“What about you? What do you fear?”
“Nothing.” Rynah’s quick reply earned her an unbelieving look from Alfric.
“Then you must have a heart of stone.”
“Failure,” whispered Rynah. “What if I fail to stop Klanor?”
“Then do not fail,” said Alfric.
”Tell me about your home.”
“My home lies far in the cold northern lands and near the sea with its sheets of ice. In winter, its days are much like it is here, cold and dark, the sun always far to the south. But life thrives there. The morning smells of the fish that had been freshly caught, and the evenings smell of roasting meat over a large fire, with the sweet scent of honeyed mead. Joyous music and dancing fill my halls. From the west come treasures unheard of in my kingdom, brought by traders who prefer life on the sea to the walls of clay, wood, or stone. The nights are filled with rainbow lights—always they appear—that dance in the starry sky. This is my home.”
“Sounds lovely,” mused Rynah.
“Tell me about yours.”
“There isn’t much to tell. Purple skies, emerald grass, and valleys as big as oceans. Though, I miss the Strongmyr, the double sunsets that happened every summer solstice. It was always beautiful.”
A series of low howls echoed across the open expanse before them, startling Rynah from her memories. “What was that?”
“Wolves,” said Alfric.
“Wolves.” The name sounded foreign on her tongue.
“Or something similar. They are hunting and have found a worthy prey. Don’t worry. We aren’t it.”
“Who’s worried?” teased Rynah. “I think I’ll go back to sleep.”
“Sleep well, shieldmaiden of Lanyr.”
Rynah grinned. She went back to her place in the cave and fell asleep, despite Tom’s persistent snores.
Alfric stood poised in the cave entrance, staring out at the moons’ pale glow upon the shimmering snow. There, he remained the entire night, never moving, never flinching.