The Ice Fog Rises
They found blood on the trail on the seventh day, five spots, red against the grey of old snow. It wasn’t new-spilt, but it might look like it to someone who was unfamiliar with killing game in midwinter. Blood began darkening to black the moment it left the body, thickening and distilling until there was nothing but copper and iron left. It was different when the air crackled with ice. Blood could freeze in perfect red drops in the time it took to drip from an elk’s collarbone to the taiga below. Raif remembered how he and Drey would scoop up frozen beads of elk blood after a kill and let them melt upon their tongues; sweet as fresh grass and salty as sweat. The taste of winter and clan.
But this wasn’t elk’s blood before them.
Raif glanced ahead to the top of the rise, where towers of white smoke rose straight in the still air. The trail had been rising all day and they still hadn’t found the source of the smoke. The ground was hard and brittle here, formed from basalt and black chert. Cliffs soared to the east, high and straight as fortress walls, guarding knife-edged mountains beyond. To the west lay the farthest tip of the Storm Margin, its rocky draws and moraines disguised as rolling hills by a thick layer of snow. Beyond there lay the sea ice, and beyond that lay the sea. Stormheads gathering on the westernmost horizon had begun to silver the floes.
“What happened here?” asked Ash, who was standing above Raif as he crouched over the blood. Her voice was clear, but there was too much space between her words.
“One of the Sull breathed a vein.”
“How can you be sure?”
Raif faked a shrug. “Even a clean kill leaves more blood.” He fingered the red spots, remembering frozen carcasses, ice-bent blades, Tem Sevrance laughing at his sons as they strained to push an elk kill down a slope only to have it crash into the lake ice at the bottom and sink. When Raif continued speaking his voice was low. “And the blood wasn’t sprayed. It dripped.”
“How do you know it’s human?”
Abruptly, Raif stood. He felt an irrational anger toward Ash and her questions. They both knew the answer here. Why did she force him to speak it?
“Listen,” he said.
Standing side by side on the headland, their breath whitening in the freezing air, Raif Sevrance and Ash March listened to the sound they had been heading toward all day: a crackling hiss, as if lightning touched down upon water.
Raif counted the columns of smoke as he said, “They were here, Mal Naysayer and Ark Veinsplitter, they heard what we hear. They saw the smoke.” And knew it was something to be feared, so they let blood to still their gods.
Ash nodded, as if she had heard what he had not spoken. “Should we make payment too?”
Raif shook his head and started forward. “This is not our land and not our business. There are no debts here for us to pay.”
He hoped it was the truth.
They had been following the Sull warriors’ trail for nine days. It had led them north and west from the Hollow River, across land Raif would never have dared to cross if it hadn’t been for the telltale markings in the snow. Horse casts buried shallow, human hair snagged on the bark of a dead pine, a footprint stamped on new ice. The Sull had left “Such a trail as can be followed by a clansman.” Raif’s shoulders stiffened as he walked, aware of the insult in Ark Veinsplitter’s words. “We travel without leaving any trail,” they boasted, “but will make effort to leave one for you.” Even as Raif had resented the Sull’s arrogance, he knew to be thankful for their skills. No clansman would cross a green-froze lake, nor scale an unknown ice sheet in the hope of finding a pass.
The journey had not been easy. The days had been short and the nights long and full of silence. What could he and Ash say to each other? Raif wondered as he stripped bark for the watchfire each night. They could not talk about the Cavern of Black Ice, nor what had happened later, when they emerged from river and something, something, came with them. All Raif saw was a shadow, but shadows don’t make pine needles crack beneath them…and shadows can’t scream.
Raif shivered. Whatever it was, it was gone now. Fled. And even though they had seen nothing since, it had changed everything.
Ten days ago, in the cavern beneath the frozen river, he and Ash had spoken of returning to the clanholds, of finding Angus and journeying with him to Ille Glaive and visiting the Broken Man one last time. Heritas Cant had a promise to keep. “Return safely from the Cavern of Black Ice and I will tell you the names of the beasts,” he had said. But now the word safely seemed an impossibly high standard to keep. They were not safe. Raif did not count himself a clansman anymore, but the old instincts had not left him. He knew when to fear. A deep unease had settled upon him, making him watchful and ready. The ice pick he counted as his only weapon lay cooling the skin at his waist.
He could not say whose decision it was to follow the Sull north. It was something else he and Ash didn’t speak of, the need to learn more. The two Sull warriors knew what Ash was. She was a Reach, born to release the Endlords and their Taken from their thousand-year confinement in the Blind. Ark Veinsplitter and Mal Naysayer could provide proof that Ash had released her power safely, leaving the Blindwall intact, and the Endlords imprisoned in their own breed of hell. The Sull were the only ones who could tell them it was safe to return home.
Home. Raif took a breath and held it. He could not return to his birthclan. Raif Sevrance had been judged an oathbreaker and traitor. There was no place for him at any hearth in the clanholds. He had no family or home…only Ash.
As he glanced toward her their gazes met. Eyes that had once been gray regarded him levelly. Before he and Ash had reached the Cavern of Black Ice her eyes had been the color of silver and hailstones. Now they were the color of the sky at midnight. A perfect Sull blue. If he thought about it too long he knew it would undo him. He and Ash had been through so much together. They had journeyed long and far, learned the many different ways to live with fear and weariness, and the only way to live with loss: simply to carry on. His arms knew what it felt like to bear her weight. She had leaned on him countless times, put her safekeeping willingly in his hands. Yet what she didn’t know was that his safekeeping was in her hands. Ash March held the power to destroy him. All his dreams about the future centered around her. When everything was done and the nightmare that had become their lives had ended he hoped to take her somewhere new and begin again.
Digging his heels into the snow, Raif began the slow climb toward the ridge. Her eyes, that was the thing. Their blueness filled him with fear. Ash March had changed, and a small, insistent voice inside him warned that things could never be the same between them. A shift had taken place. Ash might be pale, and too thin for a girl of seventeen winters, yet strength lay in the set of her mouth and the determined tilt of her chin. Something new and vital had come alive within her, and Raif found himself waking in the darkest, coldest hours of each night, hoping that it wasn’t something Sull.
It took them an hour to top the rise. Ash pushed ahead, and Raif was content to follow the shadow she cast against the full moon. Neither spoke as they surveyed the valley below. Twelve geysers of steam erupted from the ice and rubble of a dry glacier bed. A ring of blue fire blazed at the base of each column, leaping up from a crater of ash and melted stone that had formed around the burn. The roar was deafening: the crack of exploding rocks, the hiss of melting snow, and the constant rip of igniting gas.
The quickening wind brought the stench of char and lightning to Raif. He had no words for what he saw. To find fire and smoke here, at the frozen edge of the Storm Margin, seemed as impossible as finding breath in a corpse.
“Is this where the trail leads?” Ash asked, turning her face toward him.
He found he could not look into her eyes. “The trail cuts through the valley, toward the coast.”
“So we must cross here?” As Ash spoke the ground moved beneath them, and rocks and snow spewed forth as a new column of smoke rent the valley floor
Thirteen, Raif counted, feeling the heat of the explosion puff against his face. He remembered the tale of Murdo Blackhail, the Warrior Chief, who had led his men to war across the Stairlands. On the final day of their descent, the mountain had erupted above them, and a spray of molten rock burst forth. Murdo had been riding at the head of the party, high atop his stallion, Black Burr. His breastplate had burst into flame with the heat, and later when his armsman pulled it from him, Murdo’s skin and muscle came with it. In the two days it took him to die, Murdo Blackhail directed his men to victory over Clan Thrall and took his wife to his bed, fathering their only son. Bessa, his wife, was led to her husband blindfold and with plugs of wax within each nostril, for the sight and stench of his burned flesh was said to be terrible to behold.
Raif grimaced. “We travel through the valley,” he said.
The gas vents glowed blue in the failing light. Ash had little fear of them and picked a path through their center, once drawing close enough to a crater to drink water from its moat of melted snow. Raif spoke no word of warning, though he saw the danger clear enough. The entire valley floor was under pressure, its ancient rock buckled and twisted by whatever forces lay below. It might have been beautiful, this corridor of burning gas and rising smoke, but all the tales of hell he had listened to as a child had begun with an approach such as this.
They walked well into the night, Raif postponing making camp until the gas vents were far behind them. The next day the sun barely rose above the horizon, and what light it gave could hardly be called daylight at all. The following day was darker still, and the trail left by the Sull became more difficult to follow. As the afternoon wore on Raif began to spot signs of other men. Ice-bleached bones and sled tracks, dog fur and slicks of green whale oil pitted the path. The snow itself was hard and frozen, the air so dry and clear that even the finest specks of dust were revealed.
They came across the Whale Gate at some time during the long night. Formed from the jawbone of a massive bow whale, the ancient archway rose as high as two men and as wide as four. It stood alone on a headland of frost-cracked rocks and graying weeds, marking entrance into the territory beyond. Raif bit off his mitts and touched it with bare hands. The ivory was stained and scaling, its edges jagged with the stumps of baleen combs. Designs had been burned into the bone. Dolphins chasing stars had been seared atop an older, darker design of beasts slaying men.
Raif took his hands away. In the sheltered valley below the gate, the faintest possible lights twinkled, and above them a white haze of exhaled breaths shifted in the air like sleeping ghosts.
“The trail ends here.” Raif couldn’t remember the last time he had spoken, and his voice sounded strange and rough. He looked down upon the village, if village were what it was. Stone mounds, rising mere feet above the ground, formed a circle around a smoking firepit. The mounds were built of obsidian and basalt and other black things, and their edges glowed faintly in the starlight. They reminded Raif of the barrows of Dhoone’s Core. Twelve thousand clansmen dead, each corpse interred in a stone tomb of its own. For three thousand years they’d lain there, rotting to bone dust and hollow teeth. Withy and Wellhouse kept no history of the massacre. Raif had once heard Inigar Stoop name it “the Price of Settlement,” but warriors and chiefs gave it another name, whispered around campfires in the deep of night. The Field of Stone.
Suddenly Raif wanted very much to turn back, to grab Ash’s hand and take her…where? No land that he knew of was safe.
Abruptly, Ash stepped through the gate, leaving Raif no choice but to follow her into the village below.
Dogs began barking as they approached. Yet even before the first growl of warning caused lights to brighten and stir, a figure stood in waiting at the first of the stone mounds. Raif recognized the pale bulk of Mal Naysayer, his cloak of wolverine fur stirring in the wind, the haft of his great two-handed longsword rising above his back. As Raif and Ash approached, the warrior stood unmoving, silent and terrible against a field of burning stars.
“The Sull are not our people and they do not fear us.” The old clan words came to Raif as he raised a hand in greeting, yet they were old words and often said and men who knew nothing about the Sull spoke them, and they fell from his mind when the warrior began to kneel.
Mal Naysayer, Son of the Sull and chosen Far Rider, dropped to his knees as they drew near. He held his position until Ash and Raif passed within speaking distance and then laid himself down upon the snow.
Oh gods. So it begins.
Muscles in the warrior’s back moved beneath his cloak as he spread his arms wide to form a cross. Raif could see dozens of white letting scars on his knuckles as he dug bare fingers into ice. Not for me, Raif knew with certainty. No Sull would prostrate himself before a clansman without a clan.
Ash stood silent above the Sull, wrapped in lynx fur and boiled wool, her hair lifting and falling in the changing air. Nothing showed on her face, not exhaustion or fear…or surprise. “Rise, Mal Naysayer of the Sull, for we are old friends met in far lands and I would speak to your face, not your back.”
Raif felt a tremor pass through him as she spoke. How could I have come so far with her and not realize she has been leading the way all along?
In silence, Mal Naysayer pulled himself to his feet. The silver chains and brain hooks at his waist chimed softly as he brushed snow from his mouth. Raif watched his eyes. Pale as ice and colder still, they spared no glance for the clansman. The warrior looked only at Ash.
“Snow burns,” he said.
A chill went through Raif…and for one brief instant he almost knew why. He saw thirteen columns of smoke rising from a valley thick with snow, heard the old guide chanting a fragment of a cradle song, long forgot: Snow burns, the Age turns, and Lost Men shall walk the earth.
Ash breathed deeply and did not speak.
Raif spotted a line of men coming toward them, bearing spears pointed with volcanic glass and torches that burned with white-hot flames. Small and dark-skinned, they moved in the fluid and soundless manner of men accustomed to stalking large prey. Rib cages of walrus and seal were bound to their chests in armored plates, riding over layer upon layer of skins and strange furs. Forming a defensive half-circle behind the Naysayer, they thrust their spear butts deep into the snow.
Raif watched them watch him. He supposed he should be grateful that they at least considered him more of a threat than Ash, but the Sull’s words had stirred a fear within him, and he found little satisfaction in the wariness of other men.
Their rank parted, and a tiny old man stepped forward. His skin was the color and texture of cured wood, and his eyes were milky with snowblindness. On either side of his face, aligned with cheek-bones as sharp as crab claws, two deep black scars bored into his skull in place of ears. A ruff of vulture feathers warmed the broken flesh, their quills rising upright from a collar of rolled bronze. Over his shoulders and across his back lay a coat of fur so dark and lustrous it was as if the soul of the slain beast still lived there.
“Inuku sana hanlik,” he said in a voice thin with age. “The Listener of the Ice Trappers welcomes you to this place.”
Ark Veinsplitter came to stand at the old man’s back, his face grim and his eyes narrowing, as he translated the Listener’s words. He wore scale armor over padded silk, with a heavy fur mantle thrown back over his shoulders. His left arm was bared to the elbow, and a trickle of blood circled his wrist. He could have stanched the letting wound before he came to meet us, yet he wanted us to see the blood. Raif suddenly felt weary enough to lie down in the snow and fall asleep. He didn’t want to greet this old man, didn’t want to know who he was.
The Listener spoke again, and Raif realized that some shadow of sight still survived behind his eyes, for he looked directly at Raif as he said, “Mor Drakka.”
The wind rose, and the old man turned and walked away. Gritty bits of ice flew into Raif’s face, stinging the raw flesh beneath his nostrils where his breath continually froze and thawed. Without thought, his hand rose to his throat, searching for the hard piece of raven that was his lore. Nothing but cold skin and raw wool met his touch. He had forgotten he had given it to Ash.
“The Listener bids you follow him.” Ark Veinsplitter stepped aside to make a path. Raif watched the dark-haired warrior for a moment, noticing how the skin at the base of his neck was the only part of him untouched by the letting knife; and wondering why the Sull had chosen to translate the Listener’s gesture, not his words. Raif did not know in what tongue the old man spoke, but he knew his last words were meant for him. And they were not some softspoken request to follow him home.
Ark Veinsplitter glowered at Raif as the two drew eye-to-eye. Something in Raif made him slow his pace and exhale in the warrior’s face. Something else made him lay a hand on Ash’s shoulder as they passed.
Almost, Ark Veinsplitter managed to hide his alarm at seeing the color of Ash’s eyes. Muscles tensed beneath the uncut skin on his neck, and his gaze sought and found his hass. Mal Naysayer’s shoulders bowed once in acknowledgment…and Raif knew with certainty that the blue in Ash’s eyes meant something to them.
He tightened his hold on her as they made their way to the farthest of the stone mounds. Men in walrus-bone armor lined the route, naked thumbs pressing against the kill notches on their spear shafts, faces dark with mistrust. These men were not young, Raif noticed, recognizing a careful show of force when he saw one. Briefly, he glanced westward to the sea ice, wondering if the younger warriors were upon it, hunting seal.
Light spilled from the entrance to the Listener’s mound, shining on pits of ashen tar and frozen blood. The Listener stood in the shadows behind the light, beckoning Raif forward with the curled black fingers of a corpse.
Raif had lived so long without warmth that the heat of the chamber burned him. As he raised his head after passing through the opening, his vision dimmed. A liquid queasiness in his stomach reminded him he had not eaten in two days. The piglike smell of walrus meat nearly made him retch.
The Listener unclasped his fur and laid it upon a bench of plain black stone. He gestured Ash and Raif to sit upon it, close to a little soapstone lamp that was the only source of light. The walls glittered weirdly. Plugs of hair and skin had been used to shore the chinks. When Raif found himself wondering if the Listener’s missing earlobes had been stuffed between the cracks, he realized he must be experiencing what clansmen called “come-in-from-the-cold madness.”
They waited in silence as Ark Veinsplitter entered and sealed the door. A raven swung upside down on a whalebone perch, making the soft chuffing noises of a bird whose vocal cords had felt the heat of a throat-iron upon hatching. Spying Raif, it righted itself and fixed him with its sharp black gaze. Unnerved, Raif found himself speaking when he had not planned to.
“We’ll be on our way in the morning. We need to head east while the calm still holds.”
“You do not know the way east, Clansman.” Ark Veinsplitter poured a line of water under the door, sealing the chamber with ice.
Blood rose in Raif’s cheeks. The Sull warrior was right. No clansman knew this territory or the ways to and from it. He hardly knew what had made him say such a thing. Neither he nor Ash had spoken of what they would do once they arrived here, and both of them needed time to rest.
Now all he wanted to do was be gone.
“You could share knowledge of the eastern trails, Far Rider,” Ash said, and even though he was aware she had spoken to support him, Raif was not glad to hear her speak. Some insane, heat-fevered part of him wanted to believe that if she were quiet, barely moved, barely spoke, they would not notice her. Or want her.
The Sull warrior rose heavily, revealing the brace of knives strapped to his back. “Knowledge of Sull paths comes at great cost. Would you have me give them freely, as if they were nothing more than deer tracks through a wood?”
“I would have you tell me what’s happening here,” Raif fired back. “Why did the Naysayer drop to the ground when he saw us? And why is there blood on your wrists?”
“My blood is mine to spill, Clansman. Would you tell me when to piss and shit?”
Raif sucked in air to reply, but the little man with no ears hissed a word that could only mean Silence!
In the quiet that followed, the Listener of the Ice Trappers poured steaming liquid into three horn bowls. Raif nodded thanks when the first was handed to him. He smelled the sharpness of sea salt and fermented flesh, watched as Ark Veinsplitter and Ash held bowl rims to their lips and sipped. The old man arranged himself on the chamber floor and waited for Raif to drink.
The liquid scalded Raif’s tongue. It was thick with invisible threads of sinew that floated between his teeth and then slid back into the bowl when he was done. Strangely, the heat seemed to null the taste, and although he had been expecting something acrid, he was left with only a vague sense of fishiness and a whiff of lead.
The Listener refilled Raif’s bowl. “Oolak.”
“Fermented sharkskin,” explained Ark Veinsplitter. “The Listener brews it himself.”
Raif nodded. Bad homebrew was something he was familiar with. Tem’s brew had been so bad that no one but blood kin would drink it. It had been a point of honor with Raif and Drey, the enjoying of it, the laughing, the one-upmanship as each tried to outdo the other in lavishing the foul brew with praise. Tem would cuff them for their cockiness, then walk away grumbling about how a father could have too many sons.
Smiling, Raif drank deeply. When the Listener filled his cup a third time he drank more. He was hungry for its magic; the way it let him think of the things he had lost without the pain of losing them.
“Raif. Open the door and let out the smoke.” Ash’s voice seemed to come from a very great distance. As Raif lifted his head to look at her, he caught a glance passing between the Listener and the Far Rider. Dimly, he realized many things—that Ark Veinsplitter had not answered any of his questions, that it was the old man, not the Far Rider, who held power here, and that it would serve a clansman well to be cautious in this place—but there was a heaviness settling within him. The fermented sharkskin and the lamp smoke and the heat had slowed his thinking along with his blood. He knew things yet could not act.
Slowly, he rose to his feet. A rim of ice had formed around the driftwood door, weeping where it touched the chamber’s heat. As he reached for the pull ring, Ark’s hand came down upon his arm.
“Mora irith. The ice fog rises this night.”
Raif pulled back. He knew about the ice fog, of how it had risen the night Cormac HalfBludd, first son of the River chief, was standing vigil on the banks of the Ebb, and how the old Croserman who found his body the next morning thought he was looking at a river wraith’s corpse, so inhumanly blue was Cormac’s skin.
Raif reclaimed his seat. The Listener refilled his bowl. As he accepted the steaming liquid, Raif felt Ash’s hand touch his thigh.
“Guard yourself,” she murmured.
He watched her face, saw her desire to say more stifled by the nearness of other men. She was beautiful in the lamplight, her skin flushed with warmth, her eyes unnaturally bright. The oolak made it possible to believe that they were the only people present, and that their lives had reverted to a simpler time. Just you and me, he wanted to say to her. Remember how it was that night in the abandoned sheep farm near Ganmiddich?
Smiling, he recalled the rabbit he had killed and skinned for her. She was a surlord’s daughter, accustomed to silver forks and embroidered table linens, yet she had eaten that rabbit with her fingers; tearing the meat off the bone with her teeth, and then holding her hand out for more.
“You take good care of me,” she had said when she was done. He had not trusted himself to reply. Speak and he knew he would reveal too much. She had been named a Reach by Heritas Cant, and although Raif could not begin to understand what that meant he guessed it foretold a troubled life. Ash March had battles to fight—battles she had not chosen and were not her own. Yet even that night, when he knew that great dangers lay ahead and that to place himself at Ash’s side meant standing in harm’s way, all he could think of was I have to stay with her.
He had sworn as much in the oath he gave her. “You’re not alone in this, Ash March. Know that. We will make it to the Cavern of Black Ice, and we will bring an end to this nightmare. I swear that on the faces of nine gods.”
Now the terror of the Cavern of Black Ice was behind them he should have felt that his duty was done, but uncertainty persisted. Ash had sealed the prison walls of the Blind, confining the Endlords and their Unmade to their own kind of hell. So why did his fears live on ?
Thickheaded from the oolak, Raif felt his thoughts begin to float away from him. It was difficult to concentrate in the smoky haze of the chamber, increasingly harder to discern what was important from what didn’t matter at all. Unable to fight the lassitude, Raif raised his cup to his lips and drank.
As he swallowed the final drop he became aware of Ash’s gaze upon him. A single tear shivered in the corner of her eye. A distant warning sounded, a dim light in the murkiness that filled his head. Ash’s features were perfectly controlled, her breathing even. Yet when Raif’s gaze dropped to the cup she held, he saw tiny ripples disrupting the surface of the oolak. Quietly, almost imperceptibly, Ash March was shaking.
He should have acted. The instinct was there, but it was becoming impossible to retain his thoughts. A blink was all it took to return to the murk. Time drifted. When it occured to Raif that his cup was empty he held it out to be filled. The ice fog was rising and the door was sealed against it, and a man could do worse than sit in the warmth and drink.
So that was what he did. Hours passed and the lamp smoke thickened and sea ice beyond the chamber boomed and cracked. No one spoke. The Listener paid attention to the lamp, tamping the wick ever lower into whale oil. Raif’s shoulders sought the hard comfort of the chamber wall as his head grew heavy with sleep. Soon it became increasingly hard to stay awake. And as his eyes closed and he drifted toward oblivion, he saw the Far Rider watching him with cold and knowing eyes.
“The Sull are not our people and they do not fear us.”
Raif heard the voice of his clan and knew to be afraid…but the alcohol was in him and sleep pulled hard upon him.
And when he woke two days later Ash was gone.
Copyright © 2003 by J. V. Jones