The trio, led by Mavis, crept warily on through the night. Guided by the light of their flickering torches, they stepped precariously from pan to pan as the never-ending field of ice before them shifting with the movement of the water beneath. Inches lay between them and the icy depths of the Further.
This is madness, Jamie thought to himself as the white surface creaked and groaned. Once already he had fallen into the winter water and was not eager to do so again – especially being so far from shore and any hope of lighting a fire.
“We ought to look for holes, I say,” said Mavis, “where they come up to the surface to breathe.”
“Aye,” agreed Hektor from the back of the line.
“Any sign of the other lights, Hektor?” Jamie asked over his shoulder.
“None,” replied the older man, who was spying around with his eyeglass. “And lets keep it that way. No man has good reason to be on the ice at this time of night unless they are as starved as we are.”
“Perhaps they’ve succeeded in their hunt and returned home?” said Mavis.
“I doubt,” Jamie said. “There are no settlements on the West shore other than Birchbanks, and that is miles to the North of here. Lhorrenhelm is farther south.”
“I agree with Jamie. They would not have gone back this fast. Their torches should still be visible.” Hektor took another cautious look along the facing shoreline. “Nothing but black.”
“They must have camped for the night, then.”
“I hope so, Mave,” said Jamie. “I have a really bad feeling about meeting strangers out here in the dark. Especially those which douse their torches.”
They crept on, using their makeshift spears to test the sturdiness of each ice pan before walking onto it. Hektor started a low chant, half singing and half humming the words to himself as they moved on with their hunt:
“The night is cold and winter long,
and winds of western wilds sweep,
but my fire is warm and whisky strong,
and I must fight away the sleep.
The trapper’s trail o’er hill and field,
goes silently across the land.
From traps I plea that none will steal
the fruits of labours of my hand.
Now come ye back just one last time,
to northern reaches through the snow.
But the greatest treasures I shall find
are paths that lead my feet back home.
The trapper’s trail o’er valley wide,
leads restless men all to their catch,
but wander not too long my friend…”
Hektor’s song trailed off. Something else had caught his attention. “Did ye hear that, lads?” he said, after a moment’s pause. The other two stopped.
“What?” Mavis and Jamie asked in unison.
“Shhh!” Hektor hissed, holding up his torch to silence silence them. “Listen.”
The trio held their breath. Jamie strained his ears hard, hearing nothing but the gentle whispering of drifting snow and his own heartbeat – which had grown faster and louder.
“I don’t hear…” he started, but then stopped. He could hear a faint noise, like the gentle stirring of water. Looking at his feet, his mind suddenly sprang into action. It’s coming from beneath us! He dropped to his knees and pressed his ear hard onto the ice.
“What in Aer’s name are you doing?” Mavis asked in disbelief.
“Bubbles,” he answered slowly. Sure enough, he could hear bubbles thudding softly against the underside of the ice pan, gathering together to form a pocket of air. “Something below us is moving!”
“Ha-ho!” Hektor heaved a hoarse laugh of excitement. “Mavis, quick – watch the edge of the ice!”
Mavis sprang into action. Readying his spear and raising his torch, he stared hard at the thin seam of water surrounding the ice on which they stood.
“There!” he said, aiming his spear at the westernmost edge of the ice. A gargling bunch of bubbles was squeezing up between the ice. Then, they stopped.
“It’s not coming to the surface?” Jamie groaned with disappointment, getting back to his feet. Mavis looked heartbroken. However, Hektor had not lost his spirit.
“What are you waiting for?” he pressed to his younger companions. “Follow them, lads!” follow the air! The beast will have to come to the surface to breathe soon!”
Jamie and Mavis came to their senses immediately. Raising their torches high to spread the light, the three men hurried onto the next ice pan just in time to see more bubbles appear at its far edge. Mavis paused as the ice shifted slightly under the sudden weight.
“Don’t stop, Hunter!” Hektor said hurriedly. “We cannot lose sight of the trail.”
“Run!” Jamie shouted, now feeling the intensity of the hunger in his stomach.
Mavis lead them onward. They scrambled and leapt from pan to pan, barely keeping up with the stream of bubbles that was emerging before them. They ran with torches held on high, ever westward, keeping balance with their modest spears. Once, Hektor slipped, but Jamie yanked him ahead before he could fall backwards into the briny abyss. After what felt like hours they came to a skidding halt on a huge pan of ice. It was rough and uneven, and looked like a small floating island made of smaller pieces frozen together. In a depression at the center of the ice drift was a large hole, smooth around the edges and roughly six feet across. Bubbles erupted furiously from it.
“This is it,” Jamie croaked as they hid behind a mound of snow.
“Ready your spears.” Hektor whispered.
“And keep your torches high,” Mavis added, “it might blind the creature and confuse it. We need all the surprise we can get.” The bubbling stopped, and they all help their breath.
After a second of silence something emerged slowly from the center of the ice hole. A massive head – like that of a short-snouted, whiskered bear – rose out of the water. It sniffed and snorted, spraying icy mist from its nostrils. It had large, black eyes and slick fur that was pale grey. It gazed curiously at the flickering torchlight for a heartbeat, and then disappeared below the water in a splash. The swile had gone.
“No…” Hektor groaned. Mavis swore and threw down his spear. Jamie got to his feet and kicked at the mound of snow they had hidden behind.
The three men jumped back as cracks form in the snow crust covered the mound. Jamie had thought it was ice but no – it was moving. It was alive! A rumbling groaning snort was erupting and steam was rising as the enormous swile before them shivered sheets of glazed frost from its back.
Mavis scrambled to grab up his spear as the other two men lurched at the animal, pressing with all their weight to puncture the thick skin of the water beast, now writhing before them. Mavis stabbed now too, and blood was running onto the ice sheet. The animal fought, but its life was over. Hektor drew back and gave a final stab at the back of the creature’s neck and the deed was done. A head the size of a man’s torso fell limply to the ice – tusks and all.
“Shit,” Jamie said, grinning with disbelief. Hektor roared with triumphant laughter.
“Behold, the mighty Hunter!” he sang, and pounded Mavis on the back. They rapped spears together and cheered and Mavis knelt down to start cutting off slabs of meat. They wouldn’t be able to take it all back to the shore – there was too much. But now they had food, real food. Mavis had loaded two chunks of warm black flesh into Jamie’s pack when around them, torches suddenly flared into life.
“The hell – who’s there!?” Hektor shouted, raising his spear.
“Show yourselves!” Jamie said, following suit. A muffled, amused sort of laughter echoed back to them in response.
“I offer you our most sincere gratitude,” came a man’s voice, calm and cold. “For this feast you have provided.” Mavis stood up, brandishing his knife and baring his teeth.
“You will leave us,” he blared at the faceless taunter, hidden behind tattered scarf and blackened hood, “this beast is ours. We’ve earned it!” More cruel laughter. More torches lit up. Jamie was trying to count them now. Nine. Twelve. Sixteen. More and more faces lit up, all wrapped in scarves and wearing coats of dark leather, greasy and tattered. Nineteen. They carried short spears with long, evil blades and their eyes glinted with something that seemed like hunger. Twenty-four. Twenty-five.
“Mavis,” Jamie said, hushed, “look around.” But his friend was shaking with anger.
“We will leave you this beast now,” Hektor said, slowly but with commanding tone. “We will go-”
“No!” Mavis was livid. He waved his knife in the air. “YOU will leave now. Leave us be!” Hektor put a hand on his shoulder.
“We will go now, to hunt elsewhere.”
“Mavis, Listen. Let’s do what Hektor says, let’s go now.” Jamie could hear his own voice shaking, with anger but stronger was the fear. The crowd gathering around them was blocking the way they had come. The would have to run for it but… He peered back over his shoulder at the Western Ridge looming over them, outlined by pale blue moonlight.
“Go?” The cruel voice sifted through the drifting snow to them. “That is fair. We do not wish to do harm. But tell me – where will you go?” The half circle of figures moved closer. Each had a spear – some had bows. “Where do you call home?”
“We come from the capitol,” Hektor announced with some convincing authority. “We will move southward to hunt, out of your territory. Take this meat, consider it a token of peace.” Jamie could see that Hektor was gripping his spear tightly – preparing to throw it if need be.
“The capitol?” The man pulled down his scarf and spat onto the ice. He smiled, revealing yellow, jagged teeth. “Ah, so you are scampering away to the great city of the north,” he said mockingly. “Tell me, hunter-men,” he raised his own spear, “where does your allegiance lay? To Lhorrenhelm? To the High Keeper?”
“Aye,” said Hektor, “to the High Keeper.” Jamie held his breath. He hoped Hektor knew what he was talking about.
This seemed to satisfy the grinning man. He slid a tongue across his crusted lips and paused for a moment. “It seems you have found yourselves in a state of happy consequences, my hunter-men.”
“What?” asked a rasping voice from one of the other figures. This one sounded like a woman. “Just let them run off?” She pulled her scarf down as well, revealing a face smeared with tar and littered with iron rings. “These swine?”
“Not empty-handed, Shalsa,” said the grinning man. He turned back to the trio standing before the dead swile. “You will deliver us a message, hunter-men. You will leave this beast and you will take our message to the capitol. To the High Keeper. You will do this.” He offered his ugly smile again. The woman named Shalsa did not look pleased.
“This one had best leave his spear on the ground, as well,” she said, pointing a jagged blade at Hektor. “His voice is smooth but his eyes say ‘kill, kill.’ The capitol does not send hunters this far north in winter. They came for us, not swiles.”
“Now, now, Shalsa. These ones have value to us, not like the last.” He pulled a small cloth bag from a pocket.
“What is your message?” Jamie asked, eyeing the bag.
“This,” said the grinning man, swinging it back and forth. “Take this directly to your High Keeper. I want you to lay it at her miserable feet and tell her this: The Oyen is with us.” He tossed the bag to Jamie’s feet. “Hear me, scruff? The Oyen is with us. Can you handle that?”
Jamie nodded, terrified, and picked it up.
“And now,” the man said, walking backwards to where his comrades stood, “you run.”
The trio started backing away, slowly.
“He said, RUN!” shrieked Shalsa, and at that second six spears flew through the air, stabbing into the ground at their feet. The three men tore off, scrambling as fast as they could across the ice as more spears and arrows grazed threateningly close by them. The slipped and fell, climbed to their feet and ran and fell over and over again, and all the while they could hear the crowd’s laughter and Shalsa’s shouts of “RUN, SWINE, RUN! RUN!”
They didn’t stop until they collapsed onto the rocky western shore, gasping for breath and wincing at the pain in their feet and lungs. They spent the night there, nestled uncomfortably among the boulders and watching the torches burning a mile away out on the ice. Jamie was fitful, waking up every few minutes and staring off into the night, expecting to see toothy grins and tar-stained faces laughing in the darkness. In those moments where Jamie was awake he could see Hektor staring stone-faced at the torchlight.
The night was long and cold.