Snow crunched beneath the heels of his iron-plated boots. Their steps echoed beneath ice-coated needles. A trail of footprints stretched back from his heels across all the leagues to Grænthlið.
Lonely footprints. Sigærd glanced back south along the line of prints. Nobody walks the North Road.
A low thump echoed through the trees.
The magii twitched and peered into the shadows beneath the pines. ‘Mighty Brjar, living heirs to Lyjós, Lord of the Heavens, watch over us. Keep us from the dark.’
Snow drifted down from a branch and across the road.
Sigærd snorted. ‘It’s jus’ snow, magii. Nothing here but snow hares and us. Wors’ case it’s one of those big snow wolves or bears. Prayin’s wastin’ your breath.’
‘I’ve no fear of wolves or bear.’ The magii peered through the trees. ‘There’re darker things in places as old as this.’
‘The matron of Járnviður’s orphanage would’ve loved you.’ Sigærd brushed the ice from his beard. ‘She used t’scare us all into line with that rubbish. Break the rules an’ the Devourers will feast on your soul forever, she used t’say. Ten years I’ve fought way down south, not seen anything of them or their monsters.’
‘Not yet.’ The magii rummaged under his furs and pulled out his wineskin. ‘Still, I hope you’re right. The Pale Men that fled to these lands and built this road, the cities and the stone circles told stories of awful creatures prowling here.’
They fled t’this miserable white place? Sigærd drew his cloak tighter about him. Definitely don’t want t’see where they came from.
Friadí sighed. ‘This weren’ worth the money, Sig.’ She tapped his boot with her bow and watched the magi gulp water from his skin.
‘You’re jus’ impatient.’ Sigærd grinned and tugged at the lock of blonde hair escaping her hood.
Ice lined the furs over her mouth and the white, goose feathers of her arrows bore countless, small spines of frost upon them.
‘It’s worse today.’ He poked at the faint patterns of ice spread across the soot-darkened iron plates sewn over his stomach and shoulders. The cold seeped through his stained, scarred leather gloves into his fingers. ‘It’ll be worse every day ’til we go south again.’
Eskos grunted and ground the bronze-tipped butt of his spear into the snow.
‘You’d have to dig for days to find them.’ The magii tucked the wineskin beneath his travelling cloak and furs. He fingered the frozen, ruined raven feather clasp the boy-jarl of Grænthlið had gifted him. ‘It’s been millennia since the snows first covered the stones.’
Eskos shrugged and the spear stilled in his hand.
‘Ready t’go on?’ Sigærd straightened his mail; the freezing metal seared at his fingers even through his gloves and he shivered.
Remember the gold, Sig. We take his gold, then we go south and live in the sun.
‘We’re almost there,’ the magii said. ‘The city of Frostrhringr lies beneath the snow and trees to our right—’ he gestured with one leather-clad hand ‘—and the stone circle is above us.’
‘Above?’ Friadí studied the trees with raised eyebrows. ‘Where?’
The magii chuckled. ‘You’ll see. We’ll likely be among the first to see it since the Pale Men abandoned the city in the Era of Myths.’
Eskos grunted and brushed snow from his bronze-scaled shoulders, pointing his spear south.
Sigærd grinned. ‘Soon.’
Friadí laughed. ‘We’ll get back to your sun an’ sand soon, Eskos. We’re near as used to the sun as you now.
The four of them continued through the trees, following the unnatural, straight line of slim-trunked trees and the sporadic, weathered, shadows of ancient standing stones.
The magii scurried through the snow. His rounded figure bundled through the small snow drifts.
Friadí cursed under her breath as she jogged beside him. ‘If I break an ankle, I’ll string him up for target practice.’
The trees grew sparse and slim. Bright light filtered down through their dark needles over unnatural-shaped mounds of snow.
‘Watch those bits,’ Sigærd said. ‘Don’t you want to fall into some old ruin and break your pretty neck.’
There’s always a better way t’die. He grinned and ran his tongue over his chapped lips. Our old captain’s rich an’ retired on the back of sayin’ that.
‘Frostrhringr!’ The magii stumbled to a halt half a hundred metres ahead in a patch of brilliant white and spread his arms.
Sigærd jogged to the gap in the trees and swore.
Sharp grey spears of stone thrust up into the belly of the clouds. Rivers of ice ground their way down from the gleaming white peaks down toward the line of trees. A field of snow stretched between the wall of blue ice and the fading tree line. Odd-shaped mounds and ridges crisscrossed it like the pink lash scars on Eskos’ back.
‘By the Adilar,’ Friadí muttered. ‘There’s so much snow. There’s so much white.’
The gods ain’t got anything to do with it. Sigærd shot her a fond look. You an’ your superstitions.
‘The circle’s up there.’ The magii pointed at the lowest of the peaks, little more than a thin, grey ridge flanked by sheets of ice. ‘The glacier’s grown to swallow the towers, but we should be able to climb up the ridge anyway.’
‘That’s a long way up, magii,’ Sigærd said. ‘If it’s some damn cliff, we’re not tryin’ it.’
‘A few hundred metres up, at least, but it’s not a cliff, just a steep ridge.’ The magii gestured at the lowest, nearest mounds of snow that stretched across the plain. ‘These were the buildings of the inner city.’ He pointed to a dune of snow almost ten metres high, barely discernible from land or sky. ‘Those were the walls.’
‘Ain’t there anythin’ else left?’ Friadí asked.
The magii frowned. ‘No, there’s no treasure. It’d be best not to disturb the ruins at all if we can manage that.’
‘Scared there might be draukr?’ Sigærd jested.
Friadí laughed, flashing her crooked teeth, and Eskos snorted.
Draukr are stories, magii. The only thing dead men do is rot.
‘Or worse,’ the magii muttered. ‘Creatures born from magic are terrible things.’
Sigærd snorted and loosened the blade at his hip, tugging at it until the frost gave. ‘Time t’go on?’
‘I’d like to study the stones of the circle for as long as possible before we have to head back south.’ The magii ploughed toward the tip of the glacier and the ridge. ‘At least a day or so to copy the designs down.’
Sigærd waded after him through waist deep snow, dragging his soaked cloak in his wake.
‘At this rate it’ll take another few days,’ Friadí growled.
‘Still more gold than we’d make so quick down south,’ he said. ‘Less chance of dyin’, too.’
She huffed the hair away from her mouth and licked her chapped lips. ‘If he paid us any less I’d leave him here. I haven’t felt warm in a week.’
The magii stumbled onto his knees. ‘It’s less deep here,’ he mumbled.
Sigærd smirked. ‘Really?’
‘Odd…’ Friadí pulled herself up alongside the magii. ‘Least we’re out of that deep stuff.’
Eskos poked the butt of his spear about until he found the ridge, then grunted and drew a square with its tip.
Sigærd squinted at his drawing, then turned to the magii. ‘Marketplace?’
The magi glanced round at the ridges of snow and frowned. ‘Temple. We’re standing on the roof.’
Friadí tested the snow in front of her. ‘Don’t temples usually have a hole in the roof? Or these old ones not the same as ours?’
‘An oculus? Yes.’ The magii eyed the smooth white ground and grimaced. ‘Tread carefully.’
Eskos went first, checking each step with his spear while the magii twitched and squirmed behind.
‘So you’ll tell us why you wanted t’come up here now?’ Sigærd asked. ‘There’s nobody else to find out abou’ whatever you’re after, an’ you’re already payin’ us well enough.’
The magii gave him an odd look. ‘We are here because of this…’ He tugged off his right glove, then reached inside his cloak, furs, and robe. A slim roll of paper came out in his fist.
‘Another treasure map…’ Friadí groaned and hurried to catch up with Eskos.
‘Map?’ The magii laughed and unrolled it. ‘This isn’t a map and there’s no treasure here I know of.’
A thick, rough, charcoal outline of a large rock and a sketch of the runes carved in bands around its width marked the page.
‘One of them standing stones,’ Sigærd said. ‘I hope it’s special enough t’be worth the trip. You’re payin’ us either way.’
The magii’s face darkened. ‘I hope it’s not, but it’s why we’re here. The first men to follow this road to its end since the Era of Myths.’
‘There are footprints,’ Friadí called back to them. ‘Two sets.’
Sigærd and laughed at the man’s pale face. ‘Not quite the first after all, then. A couple of bandits won’t be any trouble for us, though.’
‘How old are they?’ the magii demanded.
Friadí squinted at the prints and surrounding snow. ‘An hour or two. An’ the ones that made them were wearin’ a lot of armour; these prints are pressed deeper into the snow than Sig’s.’
Sig tracked the line of the marks and glanced up at the ridge. ‘They’re goin’ the same direction as us.’
‘Competition?’ Friadí asked.
‘This is the only drawing.’ The magii rolled his sketch up and tucked it away. ‘Only two other men have seen it since I found it buried in our library: one took it on faith, the other refused to listen.’
‘Treasure hunters, then.’ Sigærd shrugged. ‘They won’t be worried about us once we head towards the ridge an’ away from the ruins.’
Eskos nodded and started across the temple top again. The tapping of the spear butt through the snow thudded just out of time with Sigærd’s heart. Friadí stalked alongside him, placing her feet into the footsteps of the treasure hunters, her bow low and ready in her left hand.
Sigærd fixed his eyes on the stone circle, a row of dark points on the ridgetop. Friadí’s right, we ain’t makin’ it up there today.
‘The footprints have stopped,’ she murmured.
‘What?’ The magii stopped dead in his tracks.
Sigærd’s nose crunched into the man’s skull. White-hot pain flashed up in his face and his eyes watered. ‘Maybe they fell into the oculus.’ He upped his nose with one hand until the pain stopped. ‘Let’s carry on.’
‘No,’ Friadí said. ‘They just… stop.’
Sigærd peered past her feet at the unblemished mounds of snow. ‘They must’ve covered their tracks.’
Eskos grunted and frowned, pointing his spear at their own footprints.
‘I don’t know why they only covered half,’ Sigærd said. ‘Don’t even know why they bothered hiding them at all.’
‘Scared of monsters?’ Friadí joked.
The magii flushed.
A dark blur hurled itself from beneath the snow and smashed into Sigærd’s side. The breath whooshed from his lungs as he rolled to his knees and clawed snow from his eyes. He pressed his free hand to his throbbing ribs. The sharp edges of his shattered ringmail dug into his skin. Blades clashed and scraped close by.
Get up. He staggered to his feet and drew his blade. Don’t die here In the snow so close t’retiring.
A bright crimson splatter spread from Sigærd’s feet to Eskos’s sprawled form. A notched, green-tarnished greatsword protruded from the chest of his friend. A dark figure in angular armour stood over him.
Eskos. Sigærd swallowed a rush of sour heat. Fuck. Fuck! We were so close t’retiring somewhere nice in the south. So fucking close!
He levelled his blade at the figure. ‘You’re dead.’
It stepped forward and hissed. Cold, stale air rushed over half-rotten lips and the stink of the grave engulfed him.
Draukr. Sigærd choked back a bitter laugh. Fuck me.
The gaunt, stark figure loomed over him, clad in greening-bronze from its toes to its empty, weeping eye sockets and shrivelled skin. Grey fog drifted from its wounds and hung about its withered face. A hint of long-decayed features hovered in the mist.
A second, smaller figure slithered from under the snow. Friadí ducked its spear and danced round its sweeps. The magii clutched Eskos’s short blade with both hands and shuffled backward.
The first draukr reached for its two-handed blade. Thick, grey mist trailed from the gaps in its flesh and between the partings of its bronze plate as they moved. Sigærd leapt forward and sliced at its outstretched arm; it twisted away and dragged the slim dagger from its waist.
‘No you don’t,’ Sigærd grunted, closing the gap and swinging again.
The draukr turned his blade aside with its bracer and stepped inside the reach of his blade. Sigærd stepped back and hacked at the creature’s side until the dagger broke beneath his sword with a metallic ping and half the blade spun away into the snow.
He forced the edge of his longsword deep into the draukr’s ancient stomach plate and wrenched the whole piece of bronze free with a twist of his arms. It hissed and caught Sigærd’s arm, then drove the broken hilt of the dagger into his mailed forearm.
He wrenched himself free, gagging at the wave of stink that came with him freeing his blade from the wounded draukr. Sigærd glanced down. Bright scratches marred the iron rings on his arm. Least it held.
One of Friadí’s white, goose-feathered shafts sprouted from the creature’s shoulder and it snarled, snapping it off.
‘They won’t feel pain,’ the magii cried. ‘You’ve got to destroy the body so it can’t trap the wraith within anymore.’
A second arrow struck the small of the draukr’s back and it staggered forwards into Sigærd’s reach.
He took its right arm off at the elbow with a single swing. ‘Not so fucking tough.’
The draukr lunged. Sigærd side-stepped and hamstrung it.
He kicked his crippled opponent out of his way, then froze. Blood poured down the curve of Friadí’s throat onto her chest.
She pressed her fingers to the gushing hole below her chin. ‘Sig… Adilar… protect you.’
Devourers take these fucking corpses. He clenched the hilt of his sword. Twenty years we fought. Twenty years. And we were finally going to live in the sun together.
The draukr rumbled, tugged the white-feathered shaft from its ruined temple, and advanced towards the magii. Glinting eyes of thick, grey mist peered from its decayed eye sockets.
The magii threw up his hands, dropping the bronze blade he’d taken from Eskos, and a sudden heat washed across Sigærd’s face. The draukr burst into flames and staggered forwards, then crumpled into the snow.
‘Well done, Baldr,’ Sigærd said. ‘Well fucking done.’
‘Magic,’ the magii whispered. He stared at his hands and smoking sleeves like one of the Adilar themselves stood before him. ‘So strong…’
Sigærd took the head off the shoulders of the other draukr in three vicious swings and kicked the body away. The grey mist seeped from its flesh and condensed into a humanoid shape, then dissipated in scattered wisps.
Vatte. He slashed his sword through the what remained of the wraith. Devourers take you, fucking ghost.
‘We shouldn’t have agreed t’take you here,’ Sigærd said.
‘This is more than you realise,’ the magii said. ‘Magic’s been waxing for years while we paid little heed as to why and now the foes of the Adilar are returning. I’m sorry, Sigærd, I am, but I must reach the pillar.’
Sigærdstared at where Friadí’s blank eyes stared up at the sky. Fuck your Adilar. Fuck them and their foes. She always honoured them, and look what they fucking did. Nothing.
The cold returned, hungrier than before, biting deeper, slicing through his cloak and furs like a knife. Snow swirled down out of the sky. A few lone, huge, white flakes the size of a wine cork’s end.
Sigærd grit his teeth and pulled his cloak closer about him. ‘Let’s get this done, magii. I never want to see snow again.’
A third figure stepped from the snow like a man out of water. Its eyes burnt as bright as stars, white as bone and cold as the moon in a face of fissured, fractured ice. Endless hatred gleamed there, naked aggression loomed in the tilt of its hoarfrost-bearded chin and the lean of its snow-shrouded form.
Sigærd fought off a stab of panic. That ain’t a draukr.
The magii froze. ‘A child of magic…’ The horror in his voice was thick enough to curdle Sigaerd’s blood.
Heat leapt from the magii’s fingers. Flames washed over the creature.
It stalked forward through the gout of flame, leaving no mark on the snow. A blade of ice stretched from its closed fist, as long as Sigærd’s outstretched arm, but as thin as a coin and as clear and sharp as shattered glass. The sunlight reflected from its edge into his eyes in bright, stabbing lances.
The magii whimpered and forced another gush of ref fire from his hands. His sleeves burst into flame.
The creature stepped into it and opened the magii’s throat with a contemptuous slash. Water trickled down its face, then froze again; its veil of snow dripped from its fingers and ran down its gleaming, crimson-spattered form. White eyes burnt with fury beneath the thick brows of an icicle-smooth skull.
Another figure appeared behind it, then another, until Sigærd lost count. A host of cold, clear swords and burning white eyes rose from the plain of snow.
There’s always a better way t’die.
He struck out. His blade clashed against the creature’s clear sword, showering bright, blue sparks across both their faces. A second and a third strike slithered off the unnatural edge, then the creature twisted his battered blade aside and he jumped back.
Frost spiralled from nicked edge to the scarred hilt of his sword. The blade burnt with cold and numbed his hand even through his gloves.
Fuck. Sigærd tried to force the cold out of him and threw a glance over his shoulder. It’ll fucking outrun me, it’s swinging that ice around like a kid with a reed. I need a headstart.
He locked blades with it again and tried to force it away. It shoved him back through the snow and loomed over friends’ bodies.
Grey mist crept over his companions’ forms, sinking and seeping into them like they were inhaling smoke. Friadí’s fingers curled, her body shuddered, then she stood to stand in mist-eyed silence beside the creature. Eskos and the magii rose behind her.
‘Damn you,’ Sigærd hissed.
He lashed out with all his strength.
The creature’s blade of ice sheared through his with a burst of blue sparks and carved a line of searing fire down his face. Sigærd staggered back and clapped his hand to his burning cheek.
‘Fuck,’ he snarled. Blood ran into his right eye and blurred his sight. ‘Fuck.’
It swept forward across the snow and brought its glittering blade down at his collarbone.
Sigærd swayed aside and took its fingers off with the stub of his sword’s blade. ‘How’d you like it? I hope it fucking hurts.’
It lunged forward. No blood ran from the severed fingers groping toward Sigærd’s throat, nor anything like it. He flinched back and struck out with the broken hilt, carving a thin line through the smooth ice of the creature’s face. Half-severed, ice-cold fingers seized his outstretched wrists.
Feeling fled from the touch; the cold burnt so deep his arms slackened and the broken hilt of his blade thumped into the snow.
The glittering blade regrew in the creatures other hand.
‘Oh fuck,’ he murmured into the soft caress of snowflakes on his sticky, stinging face.
Adilar know I’ve not been a good man. He kicked and writhed and squirmed, but the creature’s grip didn’t budge. But I can be. I’ll be whatever I should be!
The clouds parted above his head and bright sunlight came down upon his trembling limbs. The creature steamed in it. Little wisps of mist rose from its body and from the length of its gleaming weapon.
Sœlyn’s light. Sigærd stared as the sun’s warmth soaked into him. The Adilar heard me.
The creature watched water drip from its frozen blade, then lunged and thrust its blade through Sigærd’s ribs. Cold pierced deep into him, ripping the breath from his lungs. It twisted the blade, then pulled it free.
Sigærd stumbled back and sank into the snow, clutching at the wound on his chest. The clouds closed back over the sun.
‘Always a better way t’die,’ he whispered. Red spilt through his fingers no matter how much he fumbled and the cold spread across his chest like frost across mirrorglass.
Friadí and Eskos watched him bleed with eyes of silver, the red still bright as silk upon them.
We wanted to fight and live in the sun. He stared back at the pair of them. Despair clawed at him, thick and dark as pitch, cold as the creature’s hands. And in the end, it’s here in the snow.
‘I hate you,’ he hissed at the thing that had ended him, at its fellows in the snow, and beyond it at the cloud-covered heavens. He raised his chin and let his fingers drop from the wound. ‘I hate you.’
Sigærd blinked. The snow, sky, creatures, and his fallen friends seemed to pale together as the dark crept in from the corner of his eye. Threads of grey mist twisted along his limbs.
‘So much white,’ he whispered as Friadí’s figure faded away.