1 NarakSomething had been following him for days. It had been hard to tell at first. He had been mesmerised by what lay ahead of him, the endless white, the jagged contours of the frozen land, the dreams of impossible places, and he hadn’t looked back. He had walked steadily north, dragging the sled behind him, step by step, mile after mile. Further south the snow had been no more than ankle deep, but now, after a week of slogging north, it was getting deeper, knee deep in many places, and slowing him down. That was when he’d first noticed.
He came to the top of a long slope. Slopes were good because the unfettered wind swept most of the snow away, and he crunched uphill through a thin layer of powder veneered by ice, stamping each foot down in turn through the crust to be sure of a good grip. The sled skidded a little on the hard surface, but it was better than the deep toil of the valleys.
He looked back.
There was no life this far north, no animals, no trees, and the cold wind was truly bitter, but that meant that the land was pristine, the snow unbroken. He could see his own tracks stretching back for over a mile, the dark holes made by his feet and the barely visible grooves cut by the sled’s runners.
There were two sets of tracks. Narak’s eyes were excellent, better than human, and there was no mistake. Where he expected two lines stitched across the virgin snow, left foot and right foot, he saw four. It was a surprise. His first thought was that he didn’t expect anyone else to be in the frozen lands – there was nothing here that anyone would want – and after that came the thought that there seemed no attempt to hide the tracks. It would have been simple enough for a follower to walk in the same foot holes, and then a closer examination would have been necessary to detect their trail, but these tracked alongside his own as though they had walked side by side, as though he had an invisible companion.
He was also impressed that whoever or whatever was following him could match his pace.
The second set of tracks vanished into the broken, rocky ground at the foot of the slope, and did not reappear. He stood for some time allowing his eyes to quarter the area, trying to pick out a shadow or a trace of movement. He grew cold waiting, but nothing moved. There were only the rocks and the snow and the wind. There were a thousand places to hide down there among the frost shattered boulders. He considered going back down the hill, but it didn’t seem worth it. He knew better ways to discover his shadow should it become necessary.
He walked on.
He doubted that whatever trailed him was human, but then neither was he, strictly speaking. There were tales of things that wandered the frozen lands, things that were unnatural, things that walked like a man, but were not. It worried him, but not overly.
Narak was probably one of the most dangerous things abroad in this wasteland, and he did not think that he would be openly challenged, unless he was mistaken for an ordinary man.
That first night that he knew he was being followed he camped carefully, digging into a bank of snow and making sure that his blades were to hand before resting. He did not sleep. He needed very little sleep. Instead he sat and watched and listened.
He heard nothing but the wind. He saw nothing but the sparkle of starlight on snow.
The days were very short this far north, the nights long, and several hours before the thin, shivering light of dawn he rose from his seat and left the snow bank. He circled around his camp once in starlight, making a circuit about a hundred paces across, but he saw no sign of life. Only his own tracks of the night before broke the circle.
He took up the harness of his sled and began to walk again. Perhaps the thing that had been following him had given up. Perhaps not. Narak still had the hunting instincts he’d developed fifteen hundred years ago when hunting had been his profession and his father had brought him north the first time. Those instincts told him that there was still a presence behind him.
He continued to walk north, dragging the sled.
Seven days. He was walking about twenty-five miles a day now, though it had been more when he started. It was difficult to be certain. The cold was becoming more of a worry than he thought it would be. There were still moments during the brief days when the touch of the sun would melt water, but as winter deepened he knew that the days would grow shorter, the sun weaker. He was beginning to feel the cold, especially at night.
In all his years Narak had never felt the cold. He had assumed that it was part of being a god, an element of what Pelion had done to him when he had been deified God of Wolves.
His knowledge of his route came from dreams. For the best part of a year he had been dreaming dreams of snow and ice, of valleys and mountains, saddles and passes. The dreams were sent to him by a dragon. That is what he believed. He had seen the creature in his dreams, or to be plainer, he had been the creature, raining death and fire from the sky, and had seen his reflection in the calm waters of a lake.
His friends and allies, those that were still alive, did not know this. Most would have questioned his sanity.
His motives in coming north, in making this supposedly impossible journey, were something that even Narak had begun to question. He was doing it to save his enemy.
Why he would want to do this was a question he struggled to answer. For over a year now he had fought alongside the armies of the six kingdoms against the invading forces of Seth Yarra. He had killed many, and been responsible for the death of many more. Yet all the time he had known that he did not have to win. He only had to hold out until the spring, until this coming spring, and the Bren would intervene.
The form of that intervention was what troubled him. He had assumed that the Bren, the Night Folk who dwelled beneath the land, would join the forces of the six kingdoms and drive Seth Yarra from their shores. It is what he would have desired. The dragon had convinced him otherwise.
He had been shown preparations deep within the earth, armies of such size that they vastly overmatched their supposed purpose. He had seen with borrowed eyes that the Bren were driving tunnels far beneath the sea so that they reached the homeland of the Seth Yarra. He had seen it. In his dreams he had stood on a hillside and looked down upon a Seth Yarra city, and he had looked through the eyes of a Bren Ashet, a messenger.
The Bren were preparing to wipe Seth Yarra, all of them, from the face of the world.
Part of Narak applauded this. If they were gone they could not invade the six kingdoms a third time. His people, his forests, his wolves, would all be safe. Safe from that particular threat at least, and it was a grave threat indeed.
Yet another part of Narak was horrified at the intended slaughter. Over the centuries he had come to believe that men were tablets upon which ideas were written. It was surely possible for a man to be evil, or damaged by his life beyond redemption, but for most there was a possibility to erase what was written, to correct mistakes. To slaughter men for the ideas that they espoused, for some taught misapprehension, seemed the very thief of justice.
Narak was not so blind to himself and his own deeds that he did not recognise his own failings. He was guilty of such deeds that if scale were ignored, could be compared to those intended by the Bren. His own abrupt nature had led him to kill the innocent, to rush to judgement with his blades, to surrender to the passion of revenge.
It made this frozen quest twice as foolish, and twice as necessary.
He crested a saddle and looked ahead across the icy waste. This view was familiar from dreams. The sun had just come up behind him, and his shadow reached five miles across the snow, far, far greater than the creature that cast it. He had guessed that the trek would take him at least sixty days, and perhaps as much as ninety. There was a lot of walking ahead of him.
He carried on down the slope for two hundred paces and then stopped, turned, and waited. There was no way that his follower could know that he had stopped. He was quite invisible from the other side of this low hill, and he had not given any clue, had not paused at the top to look back.
Time passed. It seemed that his ruse had not worked. If the creature behind him was matching his pace it should be in sight by now. He slipped the harness and abandoned the sled, drew the twin blades that he wore strapped to his back and walked back up the slope. There was more than one way to catch a fish.
It was standing a hundred paces the other side of the top. Narak stood and stared. It was a thing like a man, but certainly not a man like any he had seen before. It was white, a clean white that blended with the snow so that its shape was difficult to see.
It did not run away. It did not make any move at all, but stood like sculpted ice and returned Narak’s gaze.
“Who are you?” Narak demanded. “Why do you follow?”
It said nothing. Narak walked down towards it until they were separated by no more than a spear’s length. From closer it looked stranger. Its skin was an unnaturally unblemished white. Its eyes were blue, but it was not the blue of ice. There was fire within it, the blue fire of burning marsh gas, bright and constant and edged with yellow. It stood a head taller than Narak, wore no clothing and had no hair or fur to protect it. It had eyes, but Narak could not see a mouth.
“Answer me,” he said.
The creature’s face split, cutting open as though sliced by a blade, and suddenly there was a mouth. “Liranel en berand, porfenner,” it said. The words meant nothing. The voice was flat, but clear as an ice bell.
“I do not understand your tongue,” Narak said.
“To proyect,” it said.
“Proyect? You mean protect? To protect?”
“To protect what?”
“I do not need your protection.”
The white man-thing stood and stared at him. It did not reply.
“I suppose you’re going to follow me whatever I tell you,” Narak said.
Again it did not reply.
“Why would you want to protect me? Who sent you?”
No answer. Narak toyed with the idea of attacking the thing, just to see what it did.
“How can you defend me?” he asked.
By way of a reply the thing flexed its arms and suddenly there were blades in its hands, or blades had grown from its hands, or perhaps its hands had become blades. It was too quick for the eye to follow. Each blade was four feet long, and the same ice white as its hands. However dangerous this thing was, it was certainly fast.
“How can I trust you? Why should I?”
“I have not killed you,” it said.
“You have not tried,” Narak countered, but its words pricked at his confidence. This thing had no pride or bluster. He could detect no emotion at all.
“You know who I am?” he asked.
“You are Narak, Pelion’s Wolf God.”
Not a case of mistaken identity, then. “And who are you? You have my name, but I do not have yours.”
“I do not have a name,” it replied.
“Everything has a name,” Narak protested. “Even dogs have names.”
The white creature closed its eyes for a moment, and Narak realised that up until that moment it had not so much as blinked. So why had it closed its eyes? Was it thinking? The eyes opened again. They were quite inhuman. There was no pupil, no iris, just a fluttering blue rimmed with yellow.
“You can call me Avatar,” it said.
Copyright © Tim Stead 2013