Chapter Seventy-Two

His feet, knees, and hands were frozen to the ice. He leant over the ice, peering into the depths below.

He wanted to hammer on the ice, smash it with his axe, but in these dreams he was but a passenger. A pupil. His teacher lay beneath the ice, frozen but somehow speaking. Her lips moved, and he listened, but he could not understand the lesson.

“When you are ready, you will know me. Are you ready, Renir?”

“You are a witch.”

“I am. I always have been. You have come a long way. Are you ready?”

“I don’t know! How can I know?”

“You can’t spend your life not knowing, Renir. Do you think you chose your path?”

“Are you saying my journey chose me? I made my own decision.”

“Fate is a strange creature. It pulls men — and women — into its wake. Sometimes it has to drag them, sometimes they swim to the surface. Look to where you are, Renir.”

Renir thought hard — in his dreams he was always on the surface, looking down. Was he floating? Was this fate, this dream? Every time, the same dream, the same…was it always so?

A little light dawned on him. He found the ice melting under his feet. His hands were warmer. Water now pooled around him.

“I am on top! I am swimming!”

“You are…now. Are you ready to relinquish a little control? Are you ready to know?”

“I am swimming on top of fate! It is just a sea!” he giggled to himself, not listening to her, his guardian under the sea.

“The sea is a harsh mistress, Renir. Sometimes it pulls you under, no matter how hard you swim. It can change in an instant…listen to me!”

The power of her voice drew Renir back from his fascination with the melting seas.

“I am listening. I understand, now. You were swallowed by fate, you held me above its currents, pushed me from the undertow…” Understanding was dawning on Renir. He strove to push it away, but the witch pushed him harder.

“It pulled me under, Renir. I would not have it do the same to you.”

“Then I will pull you free. Just show me your face.”

“It is for you to see.”

“Very well,” he said. He felt his stomach cramp with fear — strange in a dream, perhaps, but the chill (no longer freezing) he felt from the melting ice was real, his apprehension no less chilling than the snow falling atop the frozen sea…no less frightening than the face beneath the ice.

“Will I still be able to swim when I come below?”

“Do you want to?”

“Very much. I am afraid to come down there.”

“It is just a matter of release. Men are often pulled below. Some men can make it to the surface again. I surrendered long ago, from birth. If you would, see me, know the past…understand your future.”

His stomach gripped him with bands of iron. What was it worth? Freedom from fate, or understanding the grand design, for surely there was a purpose…he had always lacked purpose, but would he be able to surface again, to breathe sweet air, to float?

Fear could pull a man under in the sea, he knew. It could leech strength from muscles, tighten a man’s chest.

Would he be ruled by fear? He never had. Now he knew.

And the sea was suddenly fluid again. He took a deep breath and plunged below.

He took her in his arms, her face swimming in the currents. He felt the tug of the water, pulling him deeper, but he kicked out with all his strength. It tried, he could feel it. It was like hands grasping at his shins, dragging, immensely powerful. But he was waking…waking…

And as his eyes opened, he was smiling. He had brought her smile with him, into the waking world.

“I take it this dream was a good one?” said Drun, watchful eyes boring into Renir’s.

“I think it was,” said Renir. “I have brought a friend back…”

Drun smiled, and then the world shifted with a terrible crack. The ground shook wildly, and Renir plunged through the sudden rend in the ice with a scream. The tent fell away into the crevasse, tumbling down the drop of forty feet, and the other men were taken five feet away on the other side. Renir held on, over the gap. His toes sought for purchase, his fingertips gripping the sharp edge with rapidly failing strength.

“Renir!” Drun cried, throwing himself flat on the ice, grasping Renir’s wrists.

Drun pulled with all his strength, but he was an old man, and Renir had packed on muscle over the last few months. His hands could not hold the younger man. His fingers were slipping, as were Renir’s, their grasp on ice slipping, until he only held on by his fingertips…then Drun began to slide toward the gaping tear in the ice. Renir turned from Drun’s face, looking down at the drop. He could not survive the fall, and even if he could, he would never leave the bottom. He felt all the fear he had never felt then, in one moment. His bladder loosened, and he had a moment’s happiness at the sudden warmth it brought.

Then he screamed again, only now noticing the shouts of alarm from the other men, as a massive, shaggy white face loomed over Drun’s shoulder, seeming to leer at him, with huge eyes and fearsome teeth.

Drun turned and everything happened at once. His grip gave way, Renir felt the sudden lurch of gravity’s grip on his insides, and a giant clawed hand caught his wrist in an unshakeable grip, dragging — almost throwing him onto the solid surface. He landed with a thump, his teeth clacking together painfully.

The beast reared, at least seven feet tall. Renir scrabbled back on his heels, sure he was going to be eaten. The beast merely looked at him, and then at Drun. Shorn had leapt the crevasse and stood before Renir, prepared to fight, if necessary, to the death for his friend.

“No!” Drun shouted forcefully, holding out his hands in a gesture of peace.

Stupid old man! Thought Renir…but the beast was making some kind of gestures, and Drun hands were shifting, too. The beast nodded its head, warily eyeing Shorn, and now Wen who had taken up a place beside his old pupil.

“It is friendly,” called Drun. The ground shifted again and Shorn stumbled.

The beast seemed unaffected by the grumbling ice beneath it. Renir’s relief was evident.

“What is it?”

Drun turned his attention from the monster, his hands moving before he did so, to Renir, and the other warriors.

“It is a Terythyrian — it has no verbal language, but communicates with gestures. It does not understand us, either, but its signs are similar to a race I have encountered before. I had my suspicions, but this confirms it. Everyone — meet Icewalker.”

“Well, thank it, I suppose…” said Renir, somewhat unsure of himself. He stood, rubbing some life back into his hands.

Drun translated. The beast roared, making Renir jump, but he stilled himself. He trusted Drun, even if he did not trust this creature.

Drun laughed, and his hands flew in strange shapes, while the beast watched. Then both their hands were making patterns in the air, as if deep in silent conversation.

“They have seen our enemies,” Drun said, his voice taking on a serious tone. “Our enemies are theirs. They, too, have suffered at the hands of the Protectorate. They will help us. Gather up your things. We are leaving.”

“Where are we going?”

“They will show us the way, and take us there. Their warriors will accompany us…look to the horizon.”

They looked, and there were hundreds of the shaggy white creatures, mere outlines in the snow, on the horizon.