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Bitfrost


Sam Farren



Copyright © 2018 by Sam Farren


All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, without prior written permission.


Sam Farren

farren.books@gmail.com


Publisher’s Note: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are a product of the author’s imagination. Locales and public names are sometimes used for atmospheric purposes. Any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, or to businesses, companies, events, institutions, or locales is completely coincidental.


Book Cover © 2018 Elly Beck

Cover Design © 2018 Glynnis Koike


Bitfrost/ Sam Farren. -- 1st ed.

ISBN 978-1721855827


Smashwords Edition, License Notes


This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.





For Elly.










This book uses gender-neutral pronouns (they/them/theirself) to refer to non-binary characters.


















CONTENTS

Journal One

Journal Two

Journal Three

Journal Four

Journal Five

Journal Six

Journal Seven

Journal Eight



Notes

Other Titles

About The Author

Bitfrost

Journal One

ORION

The third month of the year. A time of renewal and regeneration. Great luck befalls those born in its second and third week. Named for the Orione, the devoted women who followed the hunter-god Ori through her once-bountiful forests.



13 Orion, 428

The sea grows smaller every year.

The coast is now five miles from Undal. I know. I walked it, in a blizzard.

It was barely half a mile away when I was a child, and that was a trek worthy of complaint.


Two weeks spent on the sea for less than a month’s food.


14 Orion, 428

Took the fish to market. There was less than ever to trade for, but life is stubborn and finds a way to go on.

An old woman whose name I used to know came to my door with the rising dawn. Fawkes and I had yet to take inventory, yet there she was: begging. Forget trading at our stall, forget giving me something in exchange. Why not bother me so early of a morning?

Still. I could’ve spared it.


16 Orion, 428

Strange dream. Unrecognisable dregs remain, along with a sour taste in my mouth. Only one part can be put into clear words: so it was, she let them fade from their home, until the land was cold with gloom. A line from one of the books Undal has burnt to keep its people warm for another hour, I expect.

I am not certain what any of the images meant; the ice that drew in close, the high ceilings, the arched corridors. Could I find the book, or any book, it might open up a world of sense.

But never mind dreams. Rumour has it one of Undal’s tanners, from the time we had need of such things, was caught by a Shade, two days ago. Darkness swarmed them, and they made it back to town with an hour left. (Lucky: some only last minutes. Luckier still that they didn’t last agonising days.) After that, only the usual ashen corpse was left.

I hope that hour was enough time to say what they needed to. I hope the rot had not already filled their throat.


17 Orion, 428

Back to sea.

Only twelve people on board, this time. Losing a lot of regulars to desperate grasps at work that won’t be as profitable as they delude themselves into believing. They say the restless waves and bitter winds aren’t worth it. They say there aren’t enough fish to justify breaking their backs hauling nets onto deck.

They’re going to find fewer fish in Undal.

CETUS

Within the depths of the sea, more salt than water, Cetus gathered the bones of those lost on the long journeys from the distant continents, in search of the fading heat. It spat them onto land with the tide, mangled remains granted forms that would send a Shade running. Luckily, the frozen seas negate such a problem, nowadays. Cetus is a month for rash decisions.

2 Cetus, 428

Home.

Better haul.

One of the crew (Janus?) rambled about the fish being plentiful, back in his day. Everyone over the age of sixty acts wilfully ignorant that this is their day, now. The scarcity of food is our fault; we don’t work as hard as our elders once did. But we didn’t hunt the land creatures to extinction or cut down entire forests, either, watching as saplings refused to grow.

I took three fish from him. Any indignation was quelled by the usual pity/fear that stops people saying anything to my face.

I gave Fawkes the fish, but his luck didn’t last long.

Coughs and sneezes fill the apartment, thrumming through the wall between us. If Janus (?) and his ilk hadn’t filled their stomachs with bear and wolf and deer all those years ago, Fawkes would have some meat on his bones.


3 Cetus, 428

I let Fawkes sleep in, and got an earful about him not having missed market in eight months when I returned.

Funny how hunger bestows people with the bravery they believe they need to approach me. Without Fawkes to temper the conversation, bartering is like pulling teeth.

Small talk may no longer be my strength, but like Asrod in the depths of space, the base urge to eat pulled in a few notable trades. Enough wood to last another week, along with the pelt of what was once a bear. Possibly. It’s hard to tell when it’s ripped around the edges and worn through in half a dozen places, but we’ve all learnt to make do.

Its former owner sacrificed warmth for food. They’d had no choice, and they’d repeated it over and over. Was I supposed to give the fish away? I have a child to feed.

They said the same.

(I forget so much. Why do hollowed words from those teetering on the edge of defeat rattle around my head?)


5 Cetus, 428

The planet is bright, tonight. Loud in the way only colours that can’t be touched are.

When I can’t sleep, which is many, many nights, I wonder if the blue-green planet mocks our frozen wasteland of a moon. Metis is snow and ice and snow and ice, yet my mother used to say the planet above was so warm you’d be uncomfortable stripped down to the skin the gods gave you.

The same can be said of leaping into a fire.

In her journals, the blue-green planet is marked as Arcus, but naming it doesn’t make it something we could reach by land or boat. People tell tales of Metis being much the same, thousands of years ago. Forests covered the land, and not merely the paltry stumps and roots too stubborn to be pulled from the ground. Animals moved in herds and packs, begging hunters to cull their numbers.

All anyone wants out of an ending is food and warmth to always be within reach.

I’d settle for a world without Shades.


6 Cetus, 428

Headache.


9 Cetus, 428

I forget how young Fawkes is, sometimes.

Literally and figuratively.

He doesn’t recall ever eating meat. A decade ago, while on a mission with his fathers, they bragged about the slab of – what was it? – venison? – they’d procured from gods know where. It wasn’t impossible to get, back then, but it wasn’t easy, either.

Not that it did him much good. Fawkes has no recollection of it, and his fathers aren’t around to remind him of it.

What a waste.

People claim the animals in Noask, deer, bears, rabbits, wolves, depending on who you ask, are the only reason we agreed to a peace treaty with them. Never mind the war having been over for three years. If the Kaalinian generals wanted meat, our stomachs would ache from excess.

Moving on—

Yesterday was Fawkes’ birthday. Had my headache abated enough to notice the date, I would’ve said he was turning fifteen, perhaps sixteen. Setra came over (unannounced, as usual) to celebrate his thirteenth birthday.

The two of them made a real evening of it. My skull pounded, but only in the dull way it does when too many voices fill a room. Setra helped herself to this-and-that in the kitchen, ever the ghost of someone who still lives here. If I didn’t know her better, she would’ve made the present a fading echo of our past, draped in the shadow of how little has changed.

(Here’s the truth: the woman doesn’t have a spiteful bone in her body. It’s my marrow that has something wretched in it.)

A century ago, when the seas began to freeze and only the equator was spared, Setra and Fawkes’ pale-faced ancestors travelled south and settled around Kaalin and Noask. The two of them beam with a ridiculous sense of baseless camaraderie whenever they’re together.

(Gods. She’s Fawkes’ mother too, Zaun. See above: something wretched.)

I went to bed early.

Too many voices filter through the walls.


10 Cetus, 428

Another strange dream, too vibrant and obscure within my head. It continued from the last I made note of. I ran down a wide, empty corridor, shrouded in the darkness behind my eyelids, and a woman reached for me. Was she chasing me? Guiding me towards a light beyond my perception? Or was she reaching for anyone she could find?

She howled in the darkness, words rippling through me.

You and your gods-given power. So much less to devour.

Over this last half-decade, dreams are the only things that don’t pour from my head the moment they unravel. Or so Setra tells me.

Would that they were clearer.


11 Cetus, 428

Back to sea.

Crew 14 strong.


26 Cetus, 428

Bad haul.

Baines twisted his ankle, claiming to have broken it, and returned to shore three days in. The water along the “coast” is turning to slush. There are chunks of ice intent on causing problems for a ship as hardy as mine, making docking almost more of a hassle than it’s worth.

Nothing to be done about it.

I am no world-strangling serpent. I can’t move Metis closer to the sun.


28 Cetus, 428

Fawkes says I don’t make the most of my journals. According to him, I can’t simply write Going to sea – headache – back from sea. He’d never dare to read them, but I often write in the living room, and it doesn’t take long to make these entries. For me, at any rate.

(My brain doesn’t always send the correct signals to my writing hand, but in a sense, this is all I have ever known. Ink smears, intent comes across.)

Fawkes is right. It’s a waste.

A few years ago, the mostly empty journals my mother left behind would’ve netted me some favourable trades. Some pages are marred by her attempts at keeping a record of things, and whole volumes are missing, but she tended to lose interest after days, or weeks. They went untouched for more than a decade, until I pulled one from the endless piles of forgotten things around me.

The only reason (or what I pretend is the only reason) I use them is because they’d never be written in, nowadays. They’d be burnt for the promise of thirty seconds of heat.

At times, Fawkes takes better care of me than I do him. He’s right. Keeping track of my memory is a futile effort if there’s no substantial record. Nothing across these pages resonates within me. The journal has as many holes in it as my head.

Why not honour my mother’s (lack of) memory by making myself into the storyteller Setra says she was? Why not pretend everything left in this miserable world is but a tale to tell?

In that vein, here’s what happened today.

Fawkes woke up, bright and cheerful, and said, “Zaun! Guess what!”

Not an unusual way for him to greet me. He’s endlessly fascinated by anything classed as gossip, convinced he’s the only one to have ever gained some questionable scrap of knowledge.

Grunting, I continued with breakfast.

“I saw Barnes, last night. Oh, he’s fine, by the way!” Fawkes said. Typical. Barnes (not Baines) is new to fishing and let himself become overwhelmed. He sought the easy, inconvenient way out. “He was talking about castle Bitfrost. Well, I brought it up, but he had loads to say. Apparently, his mum was there, yeeeears ago. She was in the army, too!”

He grinned, giving me two options. Either explain there’d been more than a dozen of us enlisted, and it was unlikely I’d been the woman’s Captain, or keep chewing. I bit my tongue. It’s a good thing he knows next to nothing about the war.

If I don’t believe we fought so kids like him would never have to linger on it, there is no reason for any of it.

“Anyway, she said the Noaskians have finally got through the ice!” he said. Or words to that effect. It’s easy to replicate someone’s way of speaking when you’ve known them since the day they were born. “The ice isn’t unmeltable. All they had to do was—”

“Barnes’ mother was there years ago, but we’re only hearing about this today?” My plate was empty. Best not to let him get his hopes up. If someone told him he could reach the blue-green planet by jumping, he’d climb onto the table to ensure he didn’t miss. “I was there, years ago. Bitfrost’s as frozen as it’s been for the last thousand years, and the thousand years before that.”

Bitfrost isn’t impressive, or beautiful. Not in the way Fawkes wants it to be. The whole castle-trapped-in-unmeltable-ice thing loses its spark the tenth time you see it on the horizon, dragging all your gear and bodies in bags to the next battlefield.

Still, Fawkes wants to believe something is changing. That ice can melt on this godsforsaken moon. When all we’re left with is darker nights, colder days, and Shades lurking in the shadows, I can’t fault his blind optimism.

I should humour him more.

INDUS

Metis’ former twin moon. Thousands of years ago, a god lost a bet to Asrod the World-Serpent and forfeited Indus to its jaws. Most regrets arise within this month.

3 Indus, 428

The truth about the war is that someone decided it was inevitable, ushering in a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Kaalin and Noask straddle the equator, and are the only nations to have survived the onslaught of ice. So much of the world was lost, the rest falling out of balance, and we could only abate our fear by taking it out on our neighbours. It distracted enough of us. Five years after my honourable discharge, it’s difficult to think of anything else.

The truth about the war is that we were lied to, but are still all complicit.

There is no longer true peace between Noask and Kaalin, as our elders assure us there once was. Political battles are waged in our respective capitals, bloodier than all I do and don’t remember seeing from a frozen trench.

Noask has resources. That’s what the war was about. Our leaders whispered of Noask’s dark, powerful magic, and we marched to protect Kaalin from those forces, to gather up all the wood and meat and pelts our mages and soldiers needed to defend us.

It’s been on my mind, these past few days. A pretence of peace was made with the Noaskians to prepare ourselves for a civil war. Valus, the closest town to Undal, is a mile west of us, and we no longer mingle with our neighbours. The remaining forests between our towns have been claimed by Valus’ official patrols, who demand an unfair price from any Undalians looking to keep warm or cook.

I must’ve visited Valus as a child. My mother would’ve met with their Spearmaster at least once a month. It’s a town the size of Undal, that much I know, but I cannot fill in the blanks with any specifics beyond that.

I grow more and more dependent on tangents. Here:


Someone pounded on the door, shortly after dawn. I rolled over, awake long enough to hear Fawkes drag himself out of bed and answer the door. Whatever hazy slumber I was on the cusp of reclaiming died with a call of, “It’s Set!”

Of course. Of course!

Old women begging for fish know better than to sour my mood by waking me.

“She’s still in bed,” Fawkes mumbled to Setra.

I sat up, determined to fix that.

“Zaun!” Setra’s voice, that time. She knocked on the door and opened it before I could reply. A smart move. I would’ve told her to leave. “There’s been an incident. We could really use your help.”

Did she try to smile? Try not to look at the piles of discarded clothing on the floor? Let’s say she did.

I scowled and threw the bed sheets aside. That fits, too.

Seven years ago, I was the sort of person to offer help before people realised there was a problem. Four years ago, all of Undal came to me for aid, and I obliged them until my teeth ached, until the endless tasks I did for a faceless crowd blurred into one. I made mistakes, yet people treated my survival as a miracle and debt I could never repay. My hands trembled in ways they never had before and I forgot the promises I made.

Eventually, I stopped doing people favours.

My choices were limited. Find out what the incident was and what it had to do with me, or risk Setra crossing the threshold and stepping into my bedroom.

Her old bedroom.

Our—

Neither of us wanted that.

Battered furs and tough leathers are no obstacle for the cold, but disregarding them would prove everyone right in their estimation of me. Setra shuffled on the spot, spreading anxiety by proximity. I didn’t give her time to thank me. I marched straight past her, eager to put to rest whatever fuss had claimed Undal.

“Wait,” Setra said.

I stopped because she said it. My fingers fell from the door handle and I turned to her.

My apartment isn’t large. A living room houses two armchairs and a fireplace. There was wooden furniture there, a hundred years ago, but one night my head throbbed more relentlessly than ever and cold burnt my fingertips. The crackling warmth of a shattered table leg saw me through till the morning.

A kitchen leads off one corner, mostly used to store piles of fish, and two bedrooms, each half the size of the living room, are stuck awkwardly along the back.

The three of us and the bulk of our clothing filled the living room, and Setra’s panic turned the air stagnant. She is, and has always been, a sensible woman. I know better than to dismiss her.

“There’s a woman here from Valus,” she said. It was the sort of thing Fawkes finds worthy of remark. “She was coming back from Rhoes when she realised she was being followed.”

Fawkes half-gasped Followed!? on cue.

“She’s in Undal now. She’s safe,” I said, forced to be the voice of reason. Setra didn’t reply. She met my gaze with her soft, blue eyes, so unlike ice, and I knew what had followed the woman.

I knew why people demanded a solution from me.

“She was followed by a Shade,” I said, when Setra wouldn’t.

She reached for my arm. I took a swift step back, spiting the apology burning in her eyes. If she were truly sorry, she never would’ve breathed a word of it to me.

(I did not die. I did not die, so I owe them all!)

The only use Undal has left for me is as an empty gesture, a beacon of hope and pity. I’m here to help them sleep better at night.

(Poor Zaun, they say, followed by, Well, better her than us!)

“Stay here,” I told Fawkes.

He didn’t listen.

I marched through the town with the pair of them at my heels. Icicles the length of my arm hung from awnings, and ice coated the roads. Years ago, the icicles were broken as quickly as they formed, lest they fall and impale a passer-by. Now the cold ensures they’re a permanent part of the architecture.

Half the town had gathered in the centre of Undal, barricading the woman in. Citizens circled her as though an animal had wandered into Kaalin, at long last. They drew close enough to gawk, but not close enough to risk touching her.

Setra pushed her way through the crowd, in search of the Mayor. There’s no conspiracy in Undal: his furs are as battered and worn as the rest of ours.

He didn’t take his eyes off the woman he’d had surrounded, imagining we were the ones at risk.

“You brought Zaunis,” he said. “Good.”

What was good about it?

One by one, people turned from the woman to stare at me.

I’ve forgotten so many things since my accident, but one memory I can’t shake is the way people used to look at me. When I returned to Undal, I was a hero. The guilt I survived alongside was inspiring. I represented a long-lost hope, a sense of endurance.

It’s no longer the way of things.

I am a stranger in a patchwork version of a familiar form. There’s as much to fear from me as there is the Shades. I have…

Disappointed them, I think.

They expected answers from me. They demanded a solution with the weight of their gaze.

It wasn’t hard to ignore them. Focusing on too many things at once makes my temples pound, and my vision isn’t what it once was. It kindly blots and dims all that gathers along the edges of the world.

There was only one person who deserved my attention.

The woman who’d summoned us was younger than Setra had made her out to be. She was a handful of years older than Fawkes, if that. She was terrified, shuddering with something other than the cold.

Only I stepped closer. The girl tensed, frozen to the spot, unable to do anything but stare up at me.

(I’ve always been particularly tall.)

“Did it touch you?” I asked.

She shook her head so hard her teeth chattered.

No one in their right mind would admit that darkness had brushed against them, had become them, but why should that matter to me? Rot isn’t contagious between humans. If it had spread, she was the only one who’d suffer, who’d turn to ash before her time.

Why had Setra brought me there? Was I supposed to reassure the girl, to forge some semblance of solidarity?

“Which way did it head?” I asked for the sake of asking something.

“N-north,” she managed, pointing towards the western horizon.

The crowd gasped with a shared breath.

I placed a hand on the girl’s shoulder. She winced, worried I’d drive her into the ice.

“There’s nothing we can do.”

Regretful sympathy was lost to the shrug in my voice. Why had Setra brought me there? Was making a spectacle of myself, reminding Undal of what I’d been, all she needed of me? She has grown soft, since beginning work for the Mayor. In any other world, she would be a hunter.

“Use someone’s house,” I added. “Make sure you really didn’t come into contact with it.”

And what if she had? Should I have told her to put herself out of her misery the moment she could? Better to end things prematurely than live a few agonising hours, spiting the entirety of her life for the way it’d ended.

There was no reason to say it out loud. None felt the implication in their bones more than the girl.

A portion of the crowd roared into action. It wasn’t enough to ensure the girl was safe and see her on her way. They gathered their weapons and courage, heading north and west to track down the Shade that’d been a figment of a frightened imagination.

What would they do if they found it, other than run in the opposite direction? Their spears wouldn’t pierce it. Their blades wouldn’t bleed it. Shades have always existed on the cusp of reality and legend, between stories made to scare children into obedience and the very reason adults refuse to travel alone.

The older generation did their utmost to ignore the threat of Shades, along with the encroaching cold. They claimed they were a force of nature, as transient as the winds. Like a storm, they would pass. To them, it didn’t matter which killed us first.

Eventually, the crowd dispersed. The makeshift army disappeared into the fresh snowfall, knowing they wouldn’t find anything, and Setra couldn’t look my way.

Good.

Let her know I won’t be pushed and pulled around.

Someone tugged my sleeve before I could head home and steal another hour or two of sleep.

I grit my teeth before my eyes met Fawkes’.

“So,” he said, taking a deep breath. He was paler than ever, as settled as he’d been the first time a boat rocked beneath his feet. “What happens now? With the Shade, I mean. Should we—I mean, are you…?”

“It’s fine,” I said. “I’m fine.”

I didn’t have words good enough for him. I never do. I assured him the Shade was gone, if it’d ever existed, and the only harm it’d done was to stir Undal’s delicate sensibilities. I put an arm around his shoulders and walked him home, certain he’d feel better after breakfast.


4 Indus, 428

I don’t like writing entries like the one above. And then Fawkes did this, while Setra said such-and-such. I remember fragments of fragmented conversations, not unaltered discussions; I remember phrases and forget entire topics. Attempting to scrawl dialogue across the page leaves my head aching in an avoidable way. I could negate the strain but do not, desperate to prove something to myself.

(That this is worthy of record, I suspect.)

Half of it is made up. It must be. I know Setra said X, so it follows she said Y and Z to reach that point. Is it right to invent whole paragraphs?

Or is it wrong to allow myself to forget so easily, when I have ways around my head trauma?

It doesn’t hurt to try. I’ll become better, in time.

If I organise my thoughts in such a way, if I practise putting my days down on a page, it will come more easily. I’ll create new pathways in my brain.

That’s what I was told, when I slowly regained the ability to speak. That’s what I should’ve started doing, five years ago. (Even if my hands shook.)

It’s too late, for all I know.

Still.

I hardly have anything better to do.


5 Indus, 428

Gods above and below.

In the forest, I

No. That is no place to start.

(My mother was a storyteller. What would she have said? Do not blurt it out. Do not say the first thing that comes to mind. You do not need to rush things. You deserve to be heard, from start to finish.)

Deep breaths.

Market went as it ever did. The incessant drone of conversation revolved around Shades. Suddenly, everyone knew someone who had a friend or neighbour or distant cousin who’d seen a Shade. Suddenly, people swore up and down that darkness had lurked behind the eyes of the girl from Valus. Suddenly, I was conspicuously absent from every conversation, at the heart of every stolen glance.

Fawkes, awkwardly chipper, steered the conversation away from dark themes when people approached our rickety, fish-laden stall.

He’s always had a way with words and people alike.

I don’t know what’s become of the girl. She would’ve been allowed to go on her way. There was no reason to keep her in Undal, no reason to anger Valus further.

I had a headache, by early evening. Mornings and nights are always the worst. I often blame the glare of the blue-green planet, but it was masked by cloud cover, dull in the sky. The truth is that a thick, ugly scar brings discomfort as regularly as the sunrise. It starts at my hairline and doesn’t stop until it reaches the nape of my neck. My hair is long and dark enough to cover it, when hoods do not.

When I have a headache, it burns with a ferocity the sun and all its lions would seek shelter from. Today it was not so. There wasn’t so much as a dull, aching burn. It was more a persistent thudding between my brain and skull, heartbeat misplaced. It was annoying, not agonising. It told me there was something I needed to do. Something I was—I was not forgetting it, because I understand what it means for everything to fall into your blind spot.

There was something I’d misplaced. That felt right.

Sleep didn’t come. Undal fell silent, all forced to succumb to dreams as a refuge from the bitter night, as the howling wind grazed across ice and snow.

By the second or third hour, I’d pulled on my coat, boots and gloves, and headed into town. The streets were deserted. It’s a sheer act of stubbornness cultivated over generations that allows people to tolerate the cold at midday, and something less admirable that compelled me to step out into the night.

Wood is too scarce to waste on torches. The light from the blue-green planet was enough to travel by, even on such a murky night.

With nowhere to go, I headed into the forest.

We called it the forest, though it has long since become something else. It is a mockery of the name it bears. There are children who have never run or stalked between trees; who never grabbed branches and hauled themselves up to see the light reflected off the northern glaciers; who believe the forest is but a collection of stumps buried in the snow, there to be tripped over.

As a child, I mistook the bowing, leafy branches for Shades. My mother laughed and slapped me between the shoulder blades.

(Or did that happen to Setra? Did I watch it unfold or experience it? Who can say. I am only assuming it happened.)

That said:

In what remained of the forest, there was nothing to stop me from stumbling into what called me.

Now—

These urges are not new. They are a restlessness that cannot be expressed in that word alone, though there is not one more fitting. I’ve risen and wandered into the unforgiving night time and time before, offering myself to any blizzard or blustering wind the gods might manifest.

Setra would wake alone, not knowing if I’d return with the rising sun.

I blame the crack in a glacier of a wound I have.

I blame a lot of things on it.

These urges have never left me anything but exhausted. Ill, sometimes. Last night, they brought awe and wonder. I was Fawkes, dreaming of castle Bitfrost. My heart pounded with whatever delight remains on Metis, rhythm backed up by giddy fear.

A wolf.

There was a wolf!

I stared at it, and it stared at me. When was the last time I saw one?

Eleven, twelve years ago? No. Longer, longer. My mother had been there, and I had a bow (staff? spear?) in hand, and…

The wolf lowered its body to the snow. I crouched, slowly putting myself on its level. It wasn’t going to attack. It was the foolish result of a decade and more without the reminder of what wolves were capable of, but I was convinced I was safe.

It didn’t bare its teeth. Didn’t grumble a warning growl.

Its nose twitched, golden eyes reflecting the blue-green planet. I reached out and the wolf’s ears perked up as it ran away, lost to the night it’d come from.

A wolf!

Gods above, below, and all around.


9 Indus, 428

Three days ago, I awoke to find I’d melted.

My skin slipped off yellowed bones, pooling as a bubbling, boiling mess down the centre of my bed. Dark brown flesh turned green with heat, and my ribs rose from the foetid soup as icebergs once rose from the ocean.

My eyes were solid, whole. Enough of my skull remained to take in the warping walls of my room.

I closed my eyes and woke hours later, drenched in slick sweat.

A fever.

I burnt with it for two long days. Medicine is scarce, as with all things, and magic is but a comforting thought. Undal has healers, not mages, for there is nothing to trade for potions. We have concoctions made from fish guts and ground bone to get us through the worst of it. Any magic therein is incidental.

Setra arrived (uninvited) and forbade me from clinging to the bedsheets. My protests were but a pathetic mumble.

She said a prayer to the gods above and the gods below, adding I was too stubborn to accept their help.

I laid in my bed, sweating out all I was, forgotten by the gods below. How could they inhabit a sea that had turned to ice? Had they moved to what was left of the waters, I would’ve hauled them out with fishing nets. Those within the ground itself are frozen in their own tombs.

I’ve recovered, somewhat. I’m weaker than I’d like, but Setra’s prayers and the medicines Fawkes traded fish for have done what they can. There is work to be done, but Setra pushes me back into bed, saying I’ll have more than a fever to worry about if I leave.

It’s given me time to go over this journal. Looking back on it, the signs of sickness were there long before I felt them.

A wolf indeed.

I never so much as left my bed.


12 Indus, 428

I have a knife.

Not a stone one, like so many of our weapons and tools. It’s a relic from the days when snow and ice melted, letting us dig for ore. It’s another of my mother’s possessions, left to her only daughter. Her only child. In the last half-decade, I have (thankfully) got more use from her journals and inks than the blade, but I’ve kept it close, these past few days.

Fawkes fidgets in his seat when I absentmindedly toy with it.

My mother was Undal’s Spearmaster, back when the title meant anything. They never appointed another. Without her, there was no point in respecting the gods and their traditions. My mother wouldn’t have considered it an honour. She would’ve been outraged at our insistence on driving the world further and further into disrepair.

Were the ground not frozen, she’d rise from her grave to scold us.

Wherever that may be.

My mother proved herself in her youth. She slaughtered an ancient bear responsible for the deaths of two dozen travellers, along the path between Valus and Undal. Not everyone was happy with her seizing the title when she was only twenty-two. Plenty believed the bear was an angry god made flesh, justified in picking off whoever it pleased, but no one ever challenged her claim to her face.

I have never been a hunter or tracker of note. If my mother didn’t hold this against me, I’ve convinced myself she has. My faded memory is made of spite that does not touch her, but the truth is she had no need to care one way or another. She had Setra for hunting expeditions. Setra saw more of my mother than I did, when I was fifteen.

I joined them, occasionally. Even then, we knew the balance of Metis was shifting. Each time we trekked through the deep snow, we were trying to relive a memory we couldn’t follow faithfully.

Picture the forests of my mother’s youth: trees stretching towards a sun that still shined. Hardy birds huddled along branches, brimming with reason to sing. Deer drinking from gentle streams that only froze over on the deepest winter nights. Wolves lurking in the darkness, and bears sleeping in caves that had yet to be claimed by ice.

How did it all change so quickly?

Setra has my mother’s spear, for all the good it does her, but I like the knife well enough.


13 Indus, 428

I hate writing about my mother like that.

I’ve been dwelling on it for a full day.

I don’t remember most of those things. Setra tells me stories and I choose to take them as the truth. I choose to believe she wouldn’t lie, or otherwise misremember things.

I present them as my own memories. I memorise numbers (my mother died when I was twenty-two! my head was cracked open five years ago! the war ended three years ago, without me on the front lines!), praying there’s inherent value in them. If I read this journal in the months to come, assume I recorded my own experiences, I can convince myself I feel it all.

I hate writing about my mother.

This journal is a poor imitation of who I wish she was.


15 Indus, 428

“Why aren’t we going back to sea?” Fawkes asked from his armchair.

He was busy hitting rocks against one another, until sharp shards flaked off. The rhythmic sound of stone glocking against stone has kept me company while I read over the last few weeks, cast in ink, familiarising myself with my recent past. Fawkes’ birthday wasn’t long ago. If I keep rereading, I might remember it, next year.

I glanced up, only to find Fawkes’ bloody finger wrapped in a scrap of cloth as he worked diligently around the wound. He does this fairly often. There are plenty in Undal who are too old or too busy to make their own knives, and you can always count on Fawkes having his arm twisted into helping people for nothing in return.

“I was sick,” I said for the fourth or fifth time. I haven’t been the parent or vaguely passable guardian I promised to be, yet I know I am not the one who ought to be interrogated. “The regular crew have scattered to other boats. I don’t want to deal with incompetent newcomers.”

Fawkes frowned.

He’s picked that up from me. It doesn’t suit him.

“No. Why aren’t we really heading back?” he asked. I stared until he shuffled in his seat and said, “We sail with new people all the time! You always say it doesn’t matter, because everyone’s equally useless, and equally hungry. So why aren’t we going?”

“We have enough fish to last us,” I said.

What a weak argument. I give too much away with my poor excuses.

Luckily, Fawkes can be silenced with a look. He sunk into his chair, shoulders hunched, lips pressed together, and returned to his work.


16 Indus, 428

Yesterday, Fawkes asked why we weren’t heading back to sea. We were sat in the living room, armchairs vaguely facing one another. He was busy making knives for people who pretend they don’t have enough time to do it themselves, and I was glancing over older entries.

At his question, I kept reading. My gaze burnt into the pages for a distraction, making the words hard to read, and,

Hm.

Oh.

Never mind.

I slept little, and hadn’t reviewed yesterday’s scrawlings. Well. I cannot tear the page out, for the words inked on the back of it. These past few weeks have cost me a third of a journal, and we live in a world of waste not, want anyway.

But to make use of the moment, last night’s dream:


I was in the endless corridor again. The woman and her voice were ahead of me, or behind me, and there was a crack in the sky. In the ceiling, I suppose. It spread above me, long and thin, shapeless, all teeth and unblinking eyes. The woman called to me in a voice that wasn’t a voice, saying something like: I brought the ice, closed the gate, in case of the throne. Ruined world, on and on it goes. It repeated over and over, like a song or poem I once knew.

Yet I do not think these words are from any book, forgotten or otherwise.

Setra was there, too. She was trying to repair a hole in her gloves with ice, and cried when it wouldn’t keep out the cold.

(These may have been two unrelated dreams.)


17 Indus, 428

I like the feel of paper. Of many things. Touch and texture are a luxury; if I remove my gloves without suffering numbness in my fingers, it’s a sign of the warmth and abundance around me. There was more of that, when I was a child.

My mother wrote, read to me, and watched me write. Not many in Undal, or indeed Kaalin, do so, but as Spearmaster, my mother understood the importance of the written word. When I was very small (relatively: my mother was built as I am, all height, square-shoulders and muscle), I would sit on my mother’s lap and run my fingers along the parts of the page she had yet to write on.

The memory returned to me, as they so rarely trickle in these days. I don’t hate writing any of this, and that’s how I know it’s true. I found some things she wrote, and the act of running my fingers across the aged, crinkled paper made my nerves burn with the past.

I’ve attached the page. I wish it were one of her stories, but I have to take what I can get.


Set tried to lift my spear & fell over backwards. Highlight of the day.

Bureaucratic nonsense. People want the Spearmaster to be a conquering force. A deterrent. I tell them I’m here to act as a messenger & negotiator but the recent increase in Shade sightings have people scared. One from Rhoes died last week. There are rumours. More than usual. They come from Bitfrost, people say. But what don’t they say about Bitfrost? Honestly.

Others say they come from Noask. They’re their invention. Some twisted magic. I wouldn’t necessarily put such a power/display beyond their mages, but Shades kill as many Noaskians as they do Kaalinians. What’s their endgame? It doesn’t add up.

Well. More pressing (read: fixable) matters to deal with. Meeting with the Mayor tonight. It’s likely I’ll be away for another few weeks.

Zaun is old enough to be left alone.

The sky is clear.

I don’t like it.


My understanding of my mother comes from Setra. So much of my past is shaped by her recollection, her experiences. But the memory of sitting with my mother, pressing my fingers to the pages and smudging her ink, is mine.

It’s enough.


18 Indus, 428

I saw it again.

Unable to sleep (again), I climbed from my window and onto the flat, icy roof to watch the blue-green planet. Setra and I used to do that. We would wonder out loud about the animals living upon such a world. If it was really as warm as they said, would the animals need fur? Would they be bald? Setra could never follow the line of conversation without bursting into laughter.

Last night, my eyes were drawn to Metis. The wolf was in the street. It stalked through the snow, demanding more from Undal than the people within it.

My knife was at my side, but what would I do with it? Jump from the roof, land heavily in the snow without shattering my knees, and dig the blade into the wolf’s throat before it could dig its teeth into mine? What would I achieve if I killed the wolf? If it was the last of its kind, it had to be protected. If it wasn’t, the same was doubly true. If there was a pack, they had the chance to repopulate.

Yet my blood boiled with something darker than anger. It was something I couldn’t explain, something that wasn’t me. It wasn’t me in the same way I tell myself I only act and speak as I do because of the scar hidden beneath my hair.

It isn’t me, but it is.

I wasn’t born to be a hunter. Did my mother resent that? I was built for war, an intentional misrepresentation of her, but have ended up more fisher than soldier. My mother would’ve been able to track the wolf. Setra too, but they are both lost to me.

I slipped from the roof, feet finding the window ledge, and that of my neighbour’s a level below.

A soft shift of snow greeted me on the ground. Any lumbering was masked by the howling wind.

Undal is a ruin of itself at night. It is an icy fortress keeping its citizens captive until daybreak. The fences were torn down years ago, wood used to repair the frailest buildings, or burnt on the darkest, deepest nights. Our defences were replaced with towering blocks of ice, keeping the wind at bay. The city is low, one or two floors huddled close to the ground, hoping to escape the malicious wind.

The roads are narrow, houses clustered together to share what little warmth remains. The wolf chose the easiest path out of Undal, and I knew it wasn’t going far. It was leading me to the forest.

It didn’t run. The wolf didn’t check I was following, but I did.

Heat rushed through my veins, sparked from a sense of possessiveness I couldn’t account for. I’d known the wolf for longer than a matter of days. I’d forgotten why it had chosen me, but strode onwards.

As surely as the wolf had chosen me, it too was mine. I walked in its footsteps, crushing them into the shape of my own so none could follow, and left Undal.

Even now, I wonder if my fever has returned, yet there’s no sweat on my brow and my hands shake no worse than they ever do as I write. My lips are chapped and my skin raw for how long I spent in the bitter cold, but nothing like sickness swirls within me.

We headed beyond the icy walls, into the valley that once opened onto a forest. It was no more than a two-minute sprint from Undal, but I could’ve been in another world.

The wolf stopped. Something else bartered for its attention. A long, thin shadow slithered across the snow, and the wolf pounced, driving it deep into the powder with its front paws. The wolf pulled back, ears flat, but there was nothing there.

The wolf shook out its mane and sat on its hind legs, facing me. Starlight showed what a beautiful creature it was, fur more silver than grey, eyes burning with the gold of a rising sun.

I lowered myself to the ground. I crouched in front of the creature, aching for it to stay. It was bizarre to think I had the power to frighten a wolf, an animal cast as a beast in our bloodiest stories, ever vicious, ever on the prowl for the flesh of deer and humans alike.

Why wouldn’t they be? Better to think ourselves free of monsters lurking in the forest, intent on hunting our children, than admit we’d killed off an entire species doing what it could to survive.

I inched closer, mind racing with possibilities. The wolf might lead me to its pack, its den. If I knew where the last of the wolves gathered, I could take them fish. I could spend more time on the sea to ensure their survival. In time, I could introduce them to Setra and Fawkes.

The wolf tensed as I moved closer, waiting for something. Waiting for me to do something. I tore off my gloves with my teeth and held out an arm, bartering for its trust. The wolf sniffed my fingers and let me brush them through its thick fur.

My heart leapt into my throat. The wolf whimpered under its breath, but it endured, allowing me to twist my fingers in its silver fur, and

Gods above and below.

I am sorry for daring to have hope again. Sorry for believing I could help.

And then,

I cannot find the words to put to paper.

Forgive me.


20 Indus, 428

Setra lives with her cousin. Their house is on the other side of Undal, close to the wall. I don’t visit often.

Her cousin makes no pretence of liking me. It’s not a recent development, but she makes an opportunity of my injury. In her estimation, I have damaged Setra beyond repair. I’ve never felt the need to prove her wrong. My words would fall on intentionally deaf ears; this is a woman who thinks Setra weak.

Today, her cousin was visiting a friend in Rhoes, and Setra happened upon me while I was wandering back from market.

I only recall the small, important things that unfolded between us as a blur. A glimpse of my past, seen through a blizzard. Setra and I once held hands as we walked aimless paths through Undal, but no single moment stands out from the others. I’m more heartbroken over what I could have than what I’ve lost. I can’t miss something that’s more of a story than the truth of what I’ve lived, yet…

Setra remembers. She remembers every moment and is burdened with knowing more of Zaunis Rheas Undal than I do. In some ways, I have it better than her. My head wound meant years of recovery and unending frustration at the present, but Setra doesn’t have the privilege of literally having the past carved from her skull.

I have only the faintest idea of who I once was, but Setra knows two Zauns: the one she grew up with, who clumsily kissed her as a teenager, and made plans to travel beyond Kaalin and Noask, in search of the last bears; the Zaun who sits and scowls, retreating to the sea when the silence of isolation isn’t enough.

I often ask myself if I still love her. The answer never varies, nor does the single condition.

Yes: but not as Zaun-from-before-the-war did.

Setra cared for me when I couldn’t speak. When no one else believed I’d survive the night. She sat by my side and held up objects, encouraging me to find the right words. To find any words. She ignored everyone who said I’d never be anything but a hollow shell, barely blinking, and quelled my frustrations when I stuttered around the wrong words, tongue thick and heavy.

Am I ashamed she saw me in such a state?

Perhaps. Perhaps I am only as bitter as the northern winds because I want her to loathe me. I want her to believe I’ve always been as I am; that I am not worthy of her, that she ought to move on, free of the memories stolen from me, from us, fingers slipping into my skull…

“Fawkes is worried about you,” she said as I sat in her kitchen, waiting for the water to boil.

My answer was nothing but a frown. Setra glanced over her shoulder, unfazed by it, by me, and took the water off the low flames.

Being confined to a chair was the only thing that made me shorter than Setra. She mirrored my expression, frowns suiting her as much as they do Fawkes, and lifted my chin to stop me looking away.

“I’m worried about you, Zaun,” she murmured. She is always worried about me, not the world freezing over around us. “You haven’t left for sea in weeks! Fawkes says you keep going out at night, and if a blizzard were to pick up…”

She trailed off. What if that was my intention all along?

I closed my eyes. I didn’t insult Setra by telling her I was fine. I didn’t flinch when she pressed her fingers to my cheeks. I didn’t breathe, either.

Maybe, just maybe, I could allow this. I could let Setra close. I could let her run her fingers through my hair, tracing my scar as she once had, letting me believe it’d always been part of me.

I could kiss her. She was short inches away. I could feel her skin against mine, could recapture the heat Metis had lost, if only for a moment.

But I’d have to remove my gloves.

I’d have to show her the darkness staining my fingertips.

Setra stepped back when I rose to my feet. This was the part where I stormed from the apartment, refusing to talk to her for weeks.

She knew how it went.

But I wrapped my arms around her and pulled her close. Nothing on Metis could’ve surprised her more. She grew stiff as an icicle, melting in my arms after a dozen jerky heartbeats, and wrapped her arms around my waist.

And I remembered.

I remembered all I’ve buried beneath scar tissue.

No words passed between us. I kissed her forehead, her cheek.

I left without meeting her gaze.

Now, as I sit in my room, gloves splayed across my bed, I’m desperate for tears to roll down my face, thick and hot. My eyes sting and my temples ache, but tears won’t come.

I don’t know who to cry for.

For Setra, who is alone. For myself, because I’m not who I once was, though all these parts of me are me. For Fawkes, whose fathers are dead, and have not left their son with the guardian they wanted. For my mother, who has been gone for twelve years and only exists in Setra’s stories.

For this dying world I will not see put to rest.

The Shade’s rot has taken me.

It will not be long before my body is as fractured as my mind.


25 Indus, 428

(four days ago)

I pulled myself together and packed a bag. There was little in it: the last of my mother’s journals and inks, her knife, and a few fish. The latter were taken out of habit’s sake, rather than a sense of survival. I left behind everything but the tattered furs on my back, hoping Fawkes and Setra would make use of it all.

“Where are we going?” Fawkes asked with that wonky grin of his.

Stupid. I should’ve left through the window.

We. We. It’s always us, isn’t it? How did I end up with him? Who had I been for his fathers to trust me with their only child? I sent up a silent prayer to the gods above and below, hoping the empty gesture would negate what I was about to do.

Fawkes and Setra have another thing in common. I have abandoned him as I abandoned her.

“I’m going to Valus. I want to see the girl who ran into the Shade,” I said. The lie formed as my lips moved. Fawkes’s eyes lit up and I said, “Sorry, kid. I promised Setra you’d help her out today. She’s got an errand to run for the Mayor.”

(Don’t give the impression you’ve paid too much attention to imaginary details.)

Fawkes bought it. He has no reason to distrust me. Had. Spending the day with Setra was as good as trekking to Valus, by his reasoning. Either that or the thought of Setra and me having spoken recently made him smile.

He hurried out the door with a quick, cheerful goodbye.

I wasn’t given the chance to say anything to him. No, no. I didn’t fight for the right to say anything to him. It’s for the best; I couldn’t explain why I was leaving, and I couldn’t allow him to spend the rest of his life believing he’d been intentionally abandoned. Not after losing his fathers.

My plan was simple. I would leave, tracks covered by a blizzard.

Everyone knows it’s foolish to travel alone. They’d say I was too reckless, that I thought myself untouchable because of my past. Others might be sympathetic and murmur that I’d forgotten how dangerous the outside world could be.

Poor girl. Lost on the simple path back to Undal!

The rot would take me. It’d spread past my nails, by then. I’ve seen Shades sap the life from people more times than I care to count, and those are only the instances I remember. Some struggle for minutes, others for hours. I’ve held soldiers in my arms for days. I refused to resign myself to a bed and wait for my body to bruise with purple-green rot.

I wouldn’t leave an ashen corpse for Fawkes to find.

I would walk, and I would keep walking until I was no more.

That was my plan.

As I am writing this still, four days on, it’s clear it never unfolded.

I followed the plan for the better part of a day. I set off in no particular direction, thighs aching as my boots dug deep into the snow. I’m not as fast as I was, once upon a time. The physical exertion blocked out the chill for minutes at a time, and I marched from sunrise to sunset, without rest.

Without food.

Not a wise idea, in my condition. Still, I am at the mercy of a new condition, now.

Why were there fish in my pack? Why extend my misery?

The sun set, blue-green planet ever watchful overhead. Its soft glow let me continue into the night, and snowflakes as thick as my thumb began to fall. Kaalin isn’t a large nation, but open tundras and empty landscapes make it endless, unknowable.

There are mountains in the distance, beyond Noask’s border. All I saw was dark, jagged shapes on a dark, jagged horizon, as out of reach to me as a cure.

I marched through the darkness, towards certain death, and saw something so obvious it doesn’t bear mentioning. I’d sought the wolf, on some level. It ran ahead of me; I was supposed to be there.

I wasn’t surprised. Wasn’t afraid.

I was relieved.

There was strength in its golden eyes. It wasn’t done with me.

It had somewhere to lead me.

Good.

Let it lead the way. The dark, featureless form of a Shade no longer rippled beneath its fur. It could be captured.

It could be captured, and it could be killed.

I wasn’t going to die alone. Wasn’t going to die for nothing.

I set after the creature, uncertain whether I’d always had such a taste for revenge. Had the war instilled it within me, or had I joined the battle because of it?

If I hungered, my stomach didn’t turn against me. If my legs ached, my muscles didn’t burn and my feet didn’t throb. I followed the wolf for two days, and for two days, it didn’t stray from its path. If I ran towards it, it sprinted. If I dwindled, dragging my feet, its paws padded rhythmically in the snow.

I cared nothing for what it wanted to show me. What answers could the wolf – the Shade – give me? I was renewed with determination to live, that I might settle the score between us. Throughout those days, not once did I check the spread of rot across my skin.


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