ICED ON ARAN
King Kuranes' questers, called Hero and Eldin for short--though neither of them was short, for being ex-waking worlders they were much taller than the average dreamlander, or Homo ephemerens, as Eldin was wont to call them--were laboring up the slopes of Mount Aran, above the trees and toward the snow line.
Hero was rangy, springy of step, younger than his friend; Eldin was stocky, gangling, somehow apish in his length of arm and massive strength, and yet not unattractive. They loved each other like brothers but would deny it almost to the death, while defending each other to that same grave limit; they loved as well adventuring, girls, booze and especially their travels and travails as the Lord of Ooth-Nargai and the Skies Around Serannian's special emissaries, agents, and troubleshooters in general--though the latter was something they'd also deny, except when they were broke and needed the work. Like now.
King Kuranes (or "Lord"; he made no special distinction, and only rarely stood on ceremony) was cooking something up for them right now, a job in far Inquanok; for which reason he kept the pair waiting in timelessCelephais on the Southern Sea while he made his various arrangements from his manor-house seat in that city. Alas, but sitting still on their backsides was something Hero and Eldin didn't do too well; a day or two of total inactivity was normally sufficient to drive them to drink, and from that to other diversions. They'd been drinking last night; had started boasting, and a boozing companion (one Tatter Nees, a wandering balladeer from Nir) had found himself filling the role of adjudicator.
Their bragging had ungallantly covered women, though never referred to individually by name; deeds of derring-do in various far-flung places; finally feats of physical prowess which, if true, would have made the pair the greatest athletes in all the dreamlands! (They weren't, as it happens, though neither were they slouches.) And finally they'd started in on their climbing skills:
"Who was it," Hero noisily demanded, slopping muth-dew in his enthusiasm, "climbed a Great Keep of the First Ones alone and unaided?"
"And who," Eldin thumbed himself in the chest, "scaled the Great Bleak Range, even to topmost ridge?"
"We were together on that!" Hero at once protested. "I did it too!"
"Aye, and stubbed your toe on the top," Eldin reminded, "and damned near crashed down the other side to your death. You would have, too, if a friendly little crevice-grown bush hadn't taken pity on you!"
"I was knocked over the rim fighting with Yib-Tstll's vast stone idol avatar, as you well know!" Hero was affronted. "And that's something else I do better than you--fight!" He jumped up, rotated his fists menacingly, leaped nimbly up and down and hither and thither like a frenetic boxer--until his head crashed against alow beam, which brought him to an abrupt, shuddering standstill. Then, staggering a little and grimacing a great deal, he collapsed back into his seat.
The Wanderer (as Eldin was also named) and Tatter Nees laughed till they cried, and Hero too dizzy and dazed even to protest.
"Well," said Tatter eventually, "fight and climb all you like, just as long as you don't go climbing Hatheg-Kla or Mount Aran. They're forbidden to mortal men, those two peaks, and the strange old gods who decree such things are pretty unforgiving."
"Eh?" Eldin raised a shaggy eyebrow. "Aran, forbidden? I mean, I know Hatheg-Kla's a bit hairy--old Atal of Ulthar's an authority on that, if ever there was one--but snowy old Mount Aran? A mere hill by comparison with some mountains! What, Aran of the ginkgos and the eternal snows, whose frosty old crown's forever white? Aran, where he rises from ocean's rim to look down on Celephais and all the southern coast? Aran, that most benevolent of crests, forbidden? I didn't know that!"
"Aran?" Hero mumbled, still recovering from self-inflicted clout and gingerly fingering the lump he could almost feel rising on his head. "That molehill! Hah! I'd climb it in a trice!"
"Then I'd climb it twice in a trice!" growled Eldin; and more cautiously, "Except it's forbidden. According to Tatter here, anyway."
"Tittle-Tatter!" cried Hero. "I'd run up Aran before breakfast, just to keep myself in trim!"
"And I'd be on top waiting for you," returned Eldin, "having gone up ahead for a breath of fresh air!"
"Now that's climbing talk!" Hero declared, sticking out his jaw. "In the morning, then?"
"Tonight, if you like!"
"No, morning's soon enough--and anyway, I've a headache."
"What? What?" cried Tatter. "Madness, and I'm party to it! Only climb Mount Aran--or race to the top, if you will--and tomorrow here's me composing a lyric farewell to two of my dearest friends, which I shall call 'Quest No More, My Fair Brave Lads.'"
"One fair brave lad," said Hero, "and one old ratbag!"
"More muth!" cried Eldin to the somewhat troubled taverner, who knew their reputation. "I want to drink a last toast to a gallant loser, before he burns himself out on the slopes of Mount Aran."
And so it went ...
Neither one of the questers remembered Tatter tottering them up rickety stairs to their respective rickety beds in a cheap, tiny, rickety garret room. But both of them remembered their oath. Perhaps they regretted it, too, but things didn't work out that way.
Across the distance of the single pace separating them where they lay, as the sun's first rays crept in through a small-paned window, they blinked crusted eyes and tasted mouths like old shoes with dead-rat tongues, and Eldin said: "Hero--ugh!--about Aran ..."
"Forget it--yechhh!" Hero had answered, wondering why muth wasn't called moth. "I won't hold you to it. What would it prove?"
"I mean, you're all those years older than me ..."
And after a moment, in a somewhat harsher tone: "Exactly--and that much more experienced! So get up, pup! The sun's up and Aran's snows are sweet and cool and waiting."
Which was how they came to be here now.
During the climb they'd been pretty quiet, headsclearing, thoughts their own, probably wondering what madness had prompted this contest. The only good thing about it was that it was burning the muth out of their systems. Hangovers which might normally last two whole days should be gone by the time they hit the snow line ...
Mount Aran was a mountain, one of the ocean-fringing range of mountains whose roots lay in the Tanarian Hills beyond Ooth-Nargai, but it was not one of those sheer-sided monster mountains like Ngranek or (worse far) Hatheg-Kla. Its lower slopes were green, gentling up through palms and shrubs and ginkgos, then gradually shifting to scree and bare rock, finally crossing the permanent snow line to rise more steeply, but not frighteningly so, to a white rounded peak. In the waking world it would not have had the height to support permanent snow and ice--relatively few mountains do--but these were the dreamlands, and things were different here.
Perhaps the questers thought of these differences as they struggled higher across slopes of loose, sliding shale, using the roots and springy branches of the few remaining mountain shrubs for leverage. Differences like the "timelessness" of Aran and Celaphais, where the seasons never seemed to change and people led inordinately long, almost interminable lives. Hero, considering this, thought: I'd be bored to death if I thought I was going to live, or dream, forever! And he grinned at the apparent contradiction in his thoughts.
Eldin saw that infectious grin; it signified the younger quester's emergence from muth-fume, also the resurgence of his natural good-humor. What's more, it might indicate that he was actually enjoying this barmy scramble, which Eldin frankly was not. The Wandererscowled. "Funny, is it?" he asked, "this foolish contest you've goaded me into?"
"Funny?" Hero parked himself on a boulder, drank deep of the crisp air. "Daft, more like! Actually, I wasn't smiling at your discomfort; I've more than enough of my own. No, it was something else I was thinking of, far removed from the scaling of Aran. As for goading: we goaded each other, I reckon."
Eldin sat down beside him, said: "You see no point in this, then?"
Hero shook his head. "None at all! Let's face it, we've climbed, you and I, in previously undreamed places. And what's Aran but a big hill, eh? Hardly a climb to tax our talents."
Eldin shrugged. "That's true enough--why, we're halfway up already, and not even noon! So why do we do these things, tell me that?"
Hero grinned again. "With nothing to test our mettle, we test each other. Or maybe it's the forbidden fruit syndrome, eh?"
"Because Tatter said we mustn't? You mean like naughty children? Is that all there is to us, Hero?" He nodded, considered it quite possible, gazed down on Celephais with its glittering minarets and caught flashes of Naraxa water where that river cascaded down to join the sea.
Before they'd sat down the Wanderer, too, had been dwelling a little on the timelessness of things: chiefly on Aran's snowy crest, which was the same now as the first time he'd seen it--oh, how long ago? What kept the ice going? he wondered. Why didn't it melt away? Or, on the other hand, why didn't it get so thick it formed a glacier down to the sea? Had it been this way immemorially? And if so, would it be the same a thousand years from now?
"Sometimes," said Hero, breaking in on his thoughts, "I feel weary."
"That's my line, surely?" Eldin snorted. But it pleased him anyway. What? Hero tired? Ridiculous! He was like a workhorse! But if he really was tired ... well didn't that say something for Eldin's stamina, who must always keep apace of him?
Hero turned up the collar of his jacket. Fine when you were on the move, but at this altitude it quickly got cold when you sat still. "Brrr!" said the younger quester, and: "Tell you what, let's go up to the snow, find a block of ice, and ride it down to Celephais. That should satisfy Tatter. And we'll tell him we climbed opposite sides and clashed heads at the very top!"
"Suits me, if you say so," Eldin agreed. "But who cares what Tatter thinks?"
Hero sighed. "That's what makes me tired. Not Tatter especially, but people in general. These reputations of ours, they're what really keep us going. And that's the answer to your question: why do we do it. What are rogues if they quit their roguish ways, answer me that? Brawlers, boozers, adventurers: if we stop doing those things, what's left? 'Hey, look! There go Hero and Eldin. They were a couple of bad old boys--in their time ...' See what I mean?"
Eldin thought about that for a moment, said: "Now I really do feel weary! Let's go and collect that ice and get down out of here; we break the mood of the place, change what shouldn't be changed."
They stood up; started climbing, crossed from scree and riven rock to snow and ice. And there, more than two-thirds of the way to the top--
"Ho, there, you lads! Lost your way, have you?"
Startled, the questers scanned about. The thin snow was dazzling in morning sunshine, where it coatedAran's ice, so that they must shield their eyes from its glare. But up there, fifty yards on to the ice, was a thin small figure, pick in hand, staring at them apparently in some surprise. They moved toward him, saw that he was old, gave each other sour glances.
"A right pair of adventurers, we are!" Eldin muttered under his breath, which plumed now in the frozen air. "What? Come to climb a 'forbidden' mountain--and grandads leaping about all over its peak?"
As they drew closer, so the old man studied them minutely. They could feel his eyes on them, going from faces to forms, taking in every aspect, comparing Hero's bark-brown garb to Eldin's night-black, the former's curved blade of Kled to the latter's great straight sword. And finally: "David Hero," he said. "Or Hero of Dreams, as they call you. And Eldin the Wanderer. Well, now--and it seems you really have lost your way!"
While the oldster had examined and spoken to them, they in turn had given him the once-over. There seemed no requirement for a detailed scrutiny: what was he but an old man? In no way threatening. Still ...
He was dressed in baggy gray breeks tied at the ankles, his large feet tucked into fur-lined boots that went up under the cuffs of the breeks. His gray jacket was fur-lined, too, and buttoned to his neck. Tufts of fur protruded from button- and lace-holes. Upon his head he wore a woolen cap with a pompom, beneath which his hair and beard and droopy moustache were white as snow. All in all, his attire looked so grotesquely large and loose on him, it seemed to the questers he must be the merest bundle of sticks inside. Certainly his hands were pale and thin, as the petals of some winter-blooming flowers; blue-veined, they were, and very nearly translucent. Likewise his face, framed in curlinglocks of wintry hair: all pale and shiny as if waxed, or covered perhaps in a thin skim of clear ice. Icy, too, his eyes; indeed, gray and cold as snow-laden clouds, but not unfriendly for all that. And not without curiosity.
"What brings you here?" he finally asked the pair, his voice almost a chime. "Why do you climb Aran?"
"Because it's here!" growled Eldin at once. And: "Do we need a reason?"
The old man held up placating hands. "I wasn't prying," he said. "I've no authority one way or the other. Just making conversation, that's all."
Hero spoke up. "No motive to our being here," he said, "except we thought we'd climb Aran, that's all. But what's in it for you? You'll pardon my saying so, but it seems to me you're a bit long in the tooth for shinning up mountains."
The old man gave them a gummy grin. "A man's as old as he feels," he said. "And who's to say who feels the younger, you or I? Looks to me like you two are feeling as old as the hills themselves right now--if you'll forgive me saying so. As to why I'm here: why, I cut the ice for the fishmongers and butchers and vintners in Celephais! The ice of Aran provides my living, you see, as it did for my grandfather and father before me. Cutting it, and carving it, too--though the latter's more properly a hobby, a small self-indulgence, with nothing of profit in it. Obviously I can't take my carvings into town, for they'd quickly melt. Up here, however--why, they last forever!"
"Carvings?" Eldin looked all about. "I see no carvings ..." Perhaps the old lad was an idiot.
The icemonger grinned again. "Only brush the snow away where you stand," he said.
The ice-slope had been simplicity itself in the climbing,. for here and there it went up in uniform ripples, almostlike steps, with only a thin, crisp covering of snow to round off their sharp angular shapes. Eldin scuffed at some of these flat, regular surfaces with his boots; saw that in fact they were steps, cut with infinite care into the ice of Aran. And, narrowing his eyes toward the peak, the Wanderer saw that indeed the steps would seem to go all the way to the top.
"Steps!" said Hero, following Eldin's gaze, and at once felt foolish. Of course they were steps.
The old man nodded. "To make the climbing of Aran easier, aye."
"But who'd want to make the climbing of a forbidden mountain easy?" Eldin was puzzled.
The old man laughed. "An icemonger, of course! My grandfather first cut steps on Aran's frozen slopes, and after him my father, and now I cut them. You see, the mountain is not forbidden to me. But ice-steps are not the carvings I was talking about, Wanderer. You brushed snow from the wrong place."
The questers looked again.
Flanking the rippling stairway they had ascended, large expanses of the slope showed columnar, lumpy, or nodal structures beneath a thin snow sheath. Eldin got down on his knees to one edge of the steps and brushed away snow with his hands. Hero likewise on the opposite side of the steps. And now an amazing thing, for beneath the snow--
"Wonderful!" said Hero, his voice full of admiration.
A figure reclined there, laid bare by the quester's hands: the figure of a man carved in ice. He sat (or seemed to) on the slope, his back against an ice boulder, hands in his lap, and gazed out through ice eyes far across all the lands of dream. He was middling old, yet looked ages-weary, and his downward sloping shoulders seemed to bear all the weight of entire worlds. His ice-robeswere those of a king, which the ice-crown upon his head confirmed beyond a doubt. But even without the royal robes and ice-jewelled headgear, still the figure was unmistakable.
"Kuranes!" Hero whispered, seeing in the ice an image almost of life itself, yet at the same time a Kuranes utterly unknown to him.
"The Lord of Ooth-Nargai, aye," the old ice carver whispered. "My father sculpted this in a time when Kuranes dwelled in the rose-crystal Palace of the Seventy Delights, before he dreamed himself his manor-house and built his Cornish village on the coast. As you can see, the king was weary in those days, and jaded on the dreamlands; see how clearly it shows in his mien? But once he'd builded a little bit of Cornwall here"--he shrugged--"his weariness fell off him. My father had thought he might visit this place, come up and see himself shaped in ice, but he never came. Still, time yet ..."
Hero was astounded. "The king didn't sit for this?"
The old man gave a curious, brittle little laugh. "No, it was done from memory. My father's skill was great!"
Hero scuffed at a flat, snow-layered area next to the ice-carved king. It was empty, just a flat space cut out of Aran's ice. "Well, if Kuranes ever does come up here," he said, "and if he sits here, why, then he'll be beside himself!" He grinned.
"That was a joke," Eldin drily explained, but the old ice cutter only narrowed his eyes. The Wanderer had meanwhile cleared away snow from half a dozen ice-carvings. In doing so, he'd brought a curious thing to light. While Kuranes figure was carved only once, the rest--and the slope, as far as the eye could see, was literally covered with snow-humped shapes--appeared all to be duplicated. They sat, kneeled or reclined, or occasionallystood there on the slopes of Aran, in perfect pairs like glassy twins cut from the mountain. Two of each, almost exactly identical, strange twinned stalagmites of ice in human form.
Eldin uncovered more figures, Hero too. "I recognize a few of them," the Wanderer mused. "Here's old Cuff the fisherman. He never married, stayed alone all his days. Most people keep young in Celephais, but Cuff grew old. Toward the end he didn't even speak to people, stopped fishing, just sat around on the wharves staring out to sea. People said he was tired of life."
The cold was starting to get into Hero's bones. "I don't know how you can work up here," he told the old man. "It's so cold here even Zura's zombies would last forever!" Snow was beginning to fall: light flakes like confetti cut from finest white gossamer drifting down near-vertically out of the sky. "As for your work," Hero went on, "I can't fault it. But don't your fingers freeze up? These things must take days in the carving! And there are thousands of them ..."
The old man smiled his thin, cold smile. "I wrap up warm," he said, "as you can see. Also, I'm used to the cold. What's more I work very quickly and accurately. It's in my blood, come down from my grandfather, through my father to me. And sometimes I have advanced knowledge. I get to know that someone else desires to be carved in ice. Come over here and I'll show you something." He led the way nimbly across the snow-slope, knowing every step intimately. Hero and Eldin followed.
As they went, Hero asked the Wanderer: "So what happened to old Cuff the fisherman? Did he die?"
Eldin shrugged. "Drowned, they say. After a storm they found his boat wrecked on Kuranes' Cornish rocks. They didn't find Cuff, though, and he was neverwashed up. The sea keeps its secrets. Actually, I'd forgotten all about him till I saw him--both of him--up here."
"How about that?" Hero asked the old ice-cutter. "Why do you carve two likenesses of your subjects? And why, pray, only one of Kuranes?"
"Here we are," the old man might not have heard him. "There--what do you think of that?"
"Why, I ... I'm floored!" Hero gasped.
"Or, maybe, 'flowed'?" said Eldin. "You know: ice-flowed?"
Hero groaned and rolled his eyes, but the old man said, "Flawed, yes! Kuranes, I mean. You asked why only one of him. Because the ice was flawed. When my father set to work on the second image, it shattered. And so there's only an empty space beside him."
The questers said nothing, merely gazed in astonishment at ice-sculptures--of themselves! The carvings were far from complete; indeed, they were the crudest of representations, the merest gouges and slashes in blocks of ice; but just as a great artist captures the essence of his subject with the first strokes of his brush, so were the essences of Hero and Eldin here caught. Perhaps in more ways than one ...
Hero's gape turned to a frown, then an expression of some puzzlement. "Two things," he said. "Yet again you've only represented us once apiece. But weirder far, why are we here at all? We didn't ask to be sculpted in Aran's ice; and as for your being forewarned about our coming, why, you couldn't have been! We only decided that last night, and even then we weren't sure."
By way of answer, the old man asked questions of his own. "I'd like to be certain on that point," he said. "About your coming up here, I mean. You told me you climbed Aran 'because it was here.' By that do youmean that you automatically do things you should not? Which in this case is to say, because the climbing of Aran is forbidden? Or was it simply that you were bored, tired of mundane dreaming?"
Hero looked at him a little askance. "Mundane dreamers? Us? Hardly!"
Eldin's ice-statue sat, elbow on knee, chin in palm, gazing frostily on Celephais. The Wanderer got down beside it, put his real elbow on the empty knee, adopted the same pose more or less, and stared into the statue's roughly-angled face. "You keep asking us our reason for climbing Aran," he said. "Because we shouldn't, you ask, or because we were bored? Well, actually--if it's that important to you--it was a bit of both. See, we've been a little out of sorts, Hero and I."
"No, no!" cried the sculptor at once. "Don't sit there, but here, right alongside. That's right. Good! Good!" Similarly, he positioned Hero beside his carving, which sat straight-armed, hands on knees, staring bleakly ahead. Then he took out tools from his pockets, began to chip away. First at Eldin's unfinished sculpture, then at Hero's, and so on, back and forth.
"You didn't answer my questions," said Hero, watching him out of the corner of his eye. "How come you've already started work on us? And why only one piece apiece?"
"My friends," said the old man, "you see the work of long, lonely years here. Here are represented years before I was born, and years before my father was born. There are a number of celebrities carved here--like Lord Kuranes himself--but mainly the works are of ordinary men. Now, the carving of ordinary men is all very well, but it is unrewarding. I mean, in another century or so, who will know or remember them, eh? Butmen such as you two, destined to become legends in the dreamlands ..."
"You carved us because we're famous!" cried Eldin, beaming.
"Or infamous!" Hero's frown persisted.
"What better reason?" Again the old man smiled his thin, cold smile.
"Something here," said Hero, hearing warning bells in the back of his head (or maybe the tinkling of warning ice-crystals), "isn't quite right. I can't put my finger on it, but it's wrong." And talking of fingers, the old man had just put the finishing touch to Hero's right hand--which even now promptly fell asleep upon his knee, as dead as if hard-bitten by frost. Hero made to rise, stir himself up, but--
"No, no, no!" the old man chided. "Now that you are here, at least do me the courtesy of sitting still. Fifteen or twenty minutes at most, and the job's done. And while I work, so I'll tell you my story."
"Story?" Eldin repeated him, watching how he carefully molded his boot from ice--and feeling his real foot go suddenly cold inside the real boot, with a numbness that gradually climbed into his calf. "Is there a story, then?"
"Ooth-Nargai"--the sculptor appeared to ignore him, his fingers and tools alive with activity--"is said to be timeless. For most people it is, but for some it isn't. If all a man wants is a place that never changes, then Celephais in Ooth-Nargai's the spot. But there are those who want more than that, who must have change; restless souls whose hearts forever reach beyond the horizons we know. Alas, not all are fortunate enough to be far-traveled questers such as you two."
"Don't get to believing that all quests are fun andgames, old man," Hero cautioned. "Me, sometimes I get heartily sick of them!"
"And me!" said Eldin. "Sometimes I think: wouldn't it be grand just to sit absolutely still for a thousand years?"
"Exactly!" said the iceman. "And if such as you can become bored, jaded, dissatisfied, how then the little fisherman--"
"Like Cuff?" said Hero.
"--and the potter and the quarrier, who've never seen beyond a patch of ocean or the hot walls of a kiln or the steep sides of a hole in the ground? And so, in the far dim olden times, every now and then a man would climb Aran." He fell silent, concentrated on his work, shaped Eldin's elbow where it joined his knee.
"Eh?" said the Wanderer at length. "I don't think I follow." He felt an unaccustomed stiffness in his arm, the one that propped up his chin, and grunted his discomfort. But other than that he kept still.
"Maybe," the sculptor continued, "in the beginning, they came to broaden their horizons, to gaze across the dreamlands on lands afar, which they'd never see except from up here. Anyway, that's how it started ...
"Now, my grandfather was no ordinary ice-cutter. He was a passionate man with a passionate skill. And yet he was compassionate, too. And he knew his talent was magical. He could not bear the loneliness, the boredom, the utter ennui of certain of his fellow men, men who grew old and withered despite the timelessness of Ooth-Nargai. Aye, and he could spot such men at once, for sooner or later they'd invariably enquire of him: 'What's it like, up on Aran?'"
"Is there a point to this story?" Hero suddenly asked, his teeth beginning to chatter. "Lord, I'm freezing! Are we daft, sitting here in the snow like this?"
The old man, working on Hero's sculpture, put a final touch to the jaw--and at once Hero's teeth grew still, almost as if they were frozen in position. "A point? Of course! For when he was asked about Aran, my grandfather would say: 'Aran is forbidden! Don't ask about it. It's not for you to know. No one climbs Aran except me, to cut the ice.'"
"Ah!" said Eldin. "It was him started the myth, then?"
"Because of his consuming compassion," answered the sculptor, "yes. He must be sure, you see, that only the most bitter men climbed Aran--only the ones in whom life's animation was dying! The ones without ambition, without aspiration, in whom nothing was left worth dreaming! Those for whom timelessness and changelessness had fused into one vast and dull and slothlike anathema! What matter to them if Aran were forbidden? What matter anything? They'd climb anyway, and damn the consequences! But did you say myth? No myth, my friends. Aran is forbidden--except to such as you!"
Eldon's feet and legs were finished, his thighs, too, also the arm and hand which cupped his chin. The Wanderer would now extend a finger to scratch an itch on his cheek, made so to do--discovered he could not! It seemed the blood had run out of his hand and arm, leaving only a cold numbness there.
The old man now returned to working on Hero, rapidly finished arms and shoulders and neck, also hands where they clasped knees. Following which Hero could only watch him from swiveling eyes, for his neck had suddenly stiffened into a cramp, doubtless from holding the same position too long. Except that now ... now the alarm bells were clamoring that much louder and faster in the younger quester's mind. He'd seen, heard and feltmuch here, so that what he'd begun to suspect must at least be better than a guess.
He made a real effort to stand up then, and couldn't; only odd parts of him had feeling, remained in his control at all. And even those parts were rapidly succumbing to a cold, unfeeling rigidity. Here he sat beside his image, twinned, one of him carved in ice and the other human--for the moment!
And it was then, like a bright flash of lightning in his mind, that all became known to him. "You're making a big mistake." He started to blurt the words out, but stiffly, from one side of his half-frozen mouth. "Eldin and I, we're not bored with anything! Why, we've got more go in us than ..."
But what they had more go in them than remained unboasted, for the iceman quickly touched Hero's statue on the lips and brought them to a perfect image of life--and simultaneously froze his actual mouth into complete immobility!
Eldin had been watching from the corner of his eye; he'd recognized the panic, now shut off, in Hero's voice. "What is going on?" he demanded, thoroughly alarmed. "What in the name of all that's--?"
The sculptor touched the Wanderer's statue's hair, Hero's statue, too, and etched their locks into icy replicas of life. And oh, the cold that seeped down from the roots of their hair into their brains then, and what sudden, frozen horror as they knew for a certainty their fate!
Tears flowed freely from the old man's eyes, freezing like pearls and rolling from his cheeks as hail. He knew they had not come here like the others, tired of an endless, changeless existence and more than ready to accept any alternative. But he also knew he couldn't let them go down again. Only turn these two loose, with tales offabulous ice sculptures on the slopes of Aran, and tomorrow the people would come in their thousands! Of course, that would be the end of it: the selfless services of three generations of master icemen terminated. Services, yes--for surely it were better--
"Hero!" came a distant cry, soft on the tingly, downy air, startling the sculptor like the crack of a whip. "Eldin!"
What? The old iceman looked down the slope, saw a king's courier waving his arms at the edge of the ice. Looking up here, he'd see nothing of the ice statues, just snow and dazzle and the pair of seated questers, dark figures against a glaring background. He would not see the sculptor, not unless he stepped on to the ice--and he was not likely to do that, because the snow-slopes of Aran were forbidden.
Gaping, the old man turned back to the questers. But too late, they were stirring! And anyway, the courier had seen them, for as yet they were not turned to ice. Not quite. Another touch here, a stroke there ... it had been that close! But too late now, too late ...
And: Too late!: the old man's thoughts were imaged in Hero's mind, for he also had heard the courier's cry. Through ears of cold crystal he'd heard it, and his brittle brain had taken it in, and his faltering, freezing heart had given a lurch. Part of him said: Go away, whoever you are. I've done with all that. I'm ice now, part of the permafrost, a glassy pimple on Aran's frosty face. I'm at peace with everything.
But another part had been galvanized into a great start, had gasped and drawn air, had shouted (however silently): No! I am NOT ice! I'm David Hero--Hero of Dreams! And that part of him had won.
The snow went out of Hero's eyes, Eldin's too, and they creakingly lowered their heads and their gaze, staringdown the slope. There the courier capered and waved.
"Hero! Eldin! Are you two going to sit around all day? My master has a mission for you. You're to report to him at once."
Hero stood up. Or rather, he slowly straightened his knees until his backside lifted and his body tilted forward, then straightened his waist until his hands slid from his knees along his thighs. Thin sheaths of ice cracked and fell from various joints and limbs as he moved them, and the first tinglings of returning life told him all would be well.
"I said--" the courier shouted.
"We heard what you said!" Hero shouted back, which came out as a series of croaks.
"Eh?" the courier cocked his head on one side.
Hero cleared his throat, tried again. "You go on ahead. Tell him we're coming." And as the courier shrugged and turned back down toward the tree line: "How'd you know we were here, anyway?"
"I've been looking for you all morning," the messenger called over his shoulder. "Tatter Nees told me where you'd be. But I don't think I'd better report that to my master!"
"Thanks!" Hero yelled.
"Good old Tatter!" Eldin grunted. He'd struggled to his feet and clumsily brushed himself down, sending thin splinters of ice flying as he shook his massive frame. This proved effective, but not a little painful, too. "Ow!" said the Wanderer, and several other things which don't need recording. Then he glanced down the slope at the courier. "Do you know what the king wants with us?" he shouted.
"Something about a job in Inquanok. You'd betterhurry ..." And with that the courier departed, scrambling away down the slope.
The echoes of their shouting slowly trembled into silence; it stopped snowing; the questers looked first at each other, then all about at the frozen humps under the snow.
"Inquanok?" said the Wanderer presently. "That's a drab, bleak sort of place to go a-questing, isn't it?"
"You'll hear no complaint from me," said Hero. "Not this time. But first--"
It took them only a few minutes to find what they were looking for. The other statues on the slope were under an inch or so of snow; this one, however, carried only the finest dusting. They clambered over the slope toward him, and saw that he was three.
Then, when they'd brushed snow from the other two, they understood. The three were dressed all alike, and they were obviously blood-related, but there were differences which made each one an individual. Grandfather, father, and son. "Son" was the one with only a film of snow. There'd been no time for any more.
Eldin growled in his throat, began to draw his straight sword--and Hero stopped him. "Vandal!" the younger quester softly accused. "What? You'd deface a work of art such as this?"
"Deface?" the Wanderer glared. "I'd destroy 'em, all three! Especially him. Why, he looks halfway pleased with himself!"
"No need, old friend." Hero shook his head. "He's destroyed himself. His time had come, and he knew it. He'd probably wanted to do it for a long time, and we were the one small push he needed to send him over the edge. He must have known we weren't right for this place. When he sensed we were coming, he tried to carve our images and got only the roughest outlines; buthe'd done much better with Kuranes, which shows how close the king came at one time!"
Eldin caught on. "We weren't right for this place ..." he mused. "But the old iceman himself, he was."
Hero nodded. "As for the look on his face: pleased with himself, did you say? Looks more to me like he's just sighed a long, last grateful sigh--and it's frozen there forever."
They made their way back to the ice steps. "And this one?" the Wanderer stood, sword in hand, beside the image of the Lord of Ooth-Nargai.
"Leave it be," said Hero. "If there's a sort of sympathetic magic in these things ... I'd hate to think we were the ones brought some sort of doom down on old Kuranes. And who are we to decide a man's destiny, anyway? You never know, p'raps he will want to come up here one day--and maybe the old iceman has a son of his own, eh? You know: to carry on the line, and the work?"
Frustrated, Eldin returned to his own ice sculpture. "Well, this at least is one destiny I can decide!" he declared.
"That I'll grant you," said Hero, coming up behind. "These really don't belong here at all." With great grunting heaves they wrested their images from their bases and threw them flat.
And with a great deal more courage than skill, the pair steered their amazing sledges down across the ice, less rapidly across scree and rock faces, shudderingly into the heart of the trees on Aran's lower slopes. From there they continued on foot, and as the statues melted behind them, so their steps grew lighter along the leafy way ...