by Sarah Ann Watts
Chapter 20: Fly Away, Little Bird
I erupt through the porthole in a bolt of feathers and manage to pull myself up from the hungry waves. Fighting for height, I reach the vantage point of the lesser mast. The ship is deserted, bound in frost as it was when I first saw it, enclosed in the side of a glacier. I look down upon icy decks.
Kras hangs from the netting on the main mast. I fly closer, afraid that he is dead. I land on his shoulder, my talons ripping through the ragged wool of the cloak he wears. He lifts his head and his lips twist in the mockery of a smile. Breath coils from his lips, and there are shards of ice at his feet. His hair is frosted and his brows and lashes. His skin is pale beneath a coating of ice.
‘Fly away, little bird.’ His voice is the merest breath of sound.
Maybe he does not recognise me; perhaps he is past caring, but I will release him from the ice. Already he is half-encased in it. With every breath he takes, the ice thickens and twists around him.
‘Who did this to you?’
He is not even looking at me, staring out over the frozen sea as if his vision has the power to burn a path through the fog and reach the far horizon. The rags of his clothing are mired in birdlime, and there is an open wound on his shoulder where the crossbow pinned him.
I try to reach him with my mind but the effort in this altered form is too great. I begin to peck uselessly at the ice, and he flaps at me with his bound hands, and then his eyes widen when he notices the silver chain that holds me. He breaks it with strength I did not know he had left, and the force sends me spinning to the deck. ‘Fly away, little bird.’
Bruised from the fall, my concentration wavers. The spell shifts, and I alter back into my human form. I pull myself to my feet drawing a ragged cloak of feathers around me, his feathers.
He spits a gobbet of ice and it tears my skin. I feel the warm blood rising then freezing against my cheek. ‘I said, fly away, little bird.’ His eyes blaze fury, scorching me. Encased in ice, he can’t reach me, but there is murder in his look.
The axes are stowed on the mast. I break them from their casing of frost and hack at the ice. It falls away in chunks. Kras watches me. I free his hands from the wire and give him the second axe then kneel to attack the ice that encases his feet.
The back of my neck is exposed, but I think he will not kill me until I have freed him. I hear the swish of the axe as it falls and have one brief second of fear, but he has joined me in hacking at the ice. Time slows to a crawl. It may be one hour or several before we break him free.
I take the ragged cloak of feathers from my shoulders and give it back to him.
‘This is no use to me. Keep it.’ Shamefaced, I pick it up and bundle it in my arms. ‘You will freeze without it, little sparrow. Put it on.’ His tone brooks no dissent.
I throw the heavy cloak around my shoulders. He looks at me, eyes beaded with frost. ‘Like I said, fly away, little bird.’
I shrug hopelessly. ‘Fly where?’
He gestures to a set of tracks in the snow. ‘Follow the grey children. They left at first light this morning. It should not take you long to catch up with them. Use the cloak and fly.’
He blinks. ‘I don’t feel the cold like you. I could live in that ice for centuries. Go on without me. You’ll die if you stay here.’
‘Then I’ll die.’ I don’t have to think about the words.
Kras’s face darkens with anger. ‘Haven’t you done enough to me? Follow your friends. You found this land of ice and snow for them.’
‘They left me.’
They left both of us. I heard them talking. They didn’t know how to bring you back and feared they’d kill you if they tried. Naraya said they’d killed you. They didn’t care about me, knowing I’d keep.’
‘Then we owe them nothing. We can wait for them to come back or we go on together. Find Kota Samur, look for the hidden city.’
He laughs. ‘There is no “we,” Kyran. I have no further interest in your quest. You’re on your own.’
The words push me away like a blow. I know his pride. ‘Then I will go without you. Here is your cloak. Take it.’
I use the axe as a pick to find purchase as I slide down the side of the ship to the powdered snow. Kras stands, looking down at me, and lifts one hand in farewell. I stow the axe in my belt; I may need it. I turn and trudge away from him, following the track the grey children have left in the snow.
All I want is to get away from that cursed ship and the accusation in Kras’s look. At least he is free. I did that much for him. Free to follow me if he chooses.
My feet slip and slide on the snow, and my blood is cooling. I wrap my arms tight around me to still the shivers, and I try once again to conjure an alternate form, the pelt of the wolf, perhaps, so that I can run over the snow. The ache in my leg reminds me that I will never run again, but when I think about the wolf it is as if someone lays a fur robe over me.
After a while my vision shifts and I’m on all fours, crawling through the snow, but I have the illusion that I am a wolf and the idea, foolish though it is, comforts me. I’m growing warm, and I know the danger. This is the slow creep of the freezing death, but I feel peaceful.
In my mind I’m hunting my prey over the snow, and I’m strong and can run again. The tracks have faded, but I plough on, seeking shelter. There are dark rocks ahead, and they give me something to aim for.
The circle of stones looms like a sanctuary. I scramble across fallen rocks and scree, climbing higher until I come to a ledge on the side of the mountain and the entrance to a cave.
I stumble to the edge and see there is a glint of fire. I think maybe I have found the Guardians, but the cave is deserted. I’m wary. I have no choice but to seek refuge. I collapse, panting, by the embers of the fire.
* * *
When I wake, the embers are almost extinguished, but torches burn in sconces, trailing clouds of smoke as if they are almost out of fuel. Beyond the mouth of the cave, there is a curtain of falling snow and banks of snow driven across the rocks at the entrance.
I’m lying curled beside the dying fire with a fur over me, the pelt of a wolf. My mind is clear, and I’m thirsty. There are icicles within reach, and I break off a fragment and let the chill dissolve upon my tongue. I feel quite warm, in no hurry to brave the outside; but the fire will soon be out.
If I want to live, I must find fresh fuel. I pull myself to my feet and find that, although all my muscles ache, I can move quite easily. It would be folly to leave the shelter of the cave. As I watch, snow falls in a flurry from the overhang at the entrance, laying a snowdrift for me to climb over or through. The sky is grey, laden with falling snow.
I seize one of the torches to explore further, drawing the fur around me to keep warm. Memory returns like the claw of a talon across my heart. Surely I left the cloak of feathers with Kras?
I search the cave from end to end, there is a sandy floor swept clean, a hearth stone, brackets in the wall that stand empty. There are no footprints but mine. One single log remains, and I throw it on the fire in a flurry of sparks. For a moment I think it will go out, then there is a sudden draft of air from the cave entrance, and the flames rise and begin to feed upon the log.
Maybe those who occupied the cave before me left in a hurry, stripping it bare of supplies. Surely there should be some sign of their presence? Otherwise it makes no sense to find this lonely shelter lit by fire where there is none to tend it.
My eyelids are heavy, I’m warm and I feel myself sliding towards sleep. I rouse myself with an effort; this could be my last sleep. Lighting a torch from the fire, I explore the cave. It goes back farther than I think possible, narrowing until finally there is only a narrow half-door leading to darkness.
There is a stone door ajar, so heavy I can’t shift it further, and what lies beyond is an unknown invitation. I lift the torch. It seems the torch still has an hour or two of life left in it. The walls beyond catch the light and send back a myriad of reflections that reach to infinity. My hand touches cold glass, and now this mystery is too great to leave unexplored.
I turn sideways to slip through the gateway, and it is as if I enter the gallery flanked by an army, all wearing my face, though in truth the passage is so narrow on either side that my sleeves catch the walls, and I can feel condensation running round the smooth surfaces, soaking though my clothes and casting wavering shadows.
As I look to either side of me, I notice that my face alters. The image to the left is younger and to the right I look older. I hold onto the wall to calm my sense of dislocation and confusion. All the faces to the left grow younger as I look further and to the right they grow older. There is the sense that if I could see far enough in either direction I would see my cradle and my grave.
Even as I strain to look beyond, darkness closes in and my hand brushes against cold stone. I remember the tales I read long ago in the temple, passages that wind between the worlds where the initiate may find a light to guide him, the living flame of the Sun Goddess, who gave her name to the city of Keroessa.
I’m stooping, a hunched figure, the walls closing in on me. I know that I must go on rather than go back, mad though it seems to go further into this darkness of my own will.
I creep forward, my torch flickering, winding ever further and deeper into the heart of the earth. I’m sweating now and my palms are slippery as I feel my way down, clinging to the rock like an insect.
The light is shrinking as my torch dies, a slow glimmer fading so gradually that, as my eyes adjust to the darkness, I scarcely notice until the last flicker dies away into a glowing dot. Even that seems to linger until, soft as a breath, it glows white then grey and crumbles into ash.
I’m alone in the dark but I keep going on, crawling now, leaving the torch behind me. I can almost breathe the darkness now, feel it against my skin like a caress and, if I opened my mouth, I could drink it. I wonder what this darkness would taste like on my tongue and I’m aware how parched my throat feels and how thirsty I am.
Eventually, for there is no sense of progress through the dark, the stones begin to level out beneath my knees and hands. After a while I can see a faint glow as if some creature at the centre of the earth has awoken and is opening a lidded eye to look at me. There comes a time when I can see my hands in front of me as I crawl.
There is no going back and the passageway is widening until I can stand, stooped and then upright again even as the light grows to the size of an apple, then the moon, then a doorway to a lighted room. There is no door, only a stone lintel. Finally I step forward into a round chamber.
Copyright © 2014 by Sarah Ann Watts