A Bird of Stone in A Sea of Flaming Ice

Odds and Ends
B Anders , H.T Phair

In an ocean of green, she ran.  A lone black shadow drowning in the oppressive heat of a lush landscape of emerald and jade. Summer felt eternal in the uncultivated lands, where time itself slept among silent stone monuments, crumbling and forgotten.

The woman called Noom was running away from trouble, but towards nothing better she was certain. Surrounded by vegetation that grew dense and deep with a foul, untamed abundance, there was no sound save the beating of her racing heart. In the miles she had covered since the coming of dawn, Noom had seen no other living creature in the vast plain of trees. In the places where she had sought to look, all she found were unnaturally quiet boroughs and empty thickets devoid of life. Like in the world beyond, an evil twilight had descended on the frail, ancient rain forest leaving precious little to sustain either bird or beast.  The silence depressed her, a constant reminder that better days were behind them all in this dying world.

Noom was young and nimble with uncommonly dark eyes and short wispy hair. Her body moving with a sensual grace: all sinew and lean muscle packed into a pair of thick soled lace-ups and leather shorts, the tattered remains of a filthy shirt peeking out from under the lapels of a rare lizardskin coat. Running like a saber tooth cat through the thick undergrowth, she deftly avoided the tangle of roots threatening her feet. The collar of her sleek padded coat pulled up high, wide cuffs flapping in the headlong rush, head tucked down low as she passed beneath the torturous vines reaching out greedily from the carnivorous sky. Run or be eaten, the vines seemed to whisper in her ear, and Noom was only too happy to heed their advice.

Turning a bend, passed a copse of rotting trees, she skidded to a stop. The jungle heat sicken her, made it hard for her to concentrate, to think beyond the next bend in the trees. A deep breath in and a quick bite of hard biscuit provided a second of normalcy to her panicked run. Her mad dash to evade capture has brought her to the veil of trees at the southern tip of the only lands she has ever known. Transmuted by perspective and space from a skin clad creature of blood and bone into an insignificant speck lingering before a finger of icy stone tittering precariously on the very edge of creation itself, she was struck dumb by the sight that spread out before her. A wide expanse of endless white stretching into the far horizon, but with another shore within view though just barely.  The length was another matter entirely. North to south there was no end to which a human eye could make of this lake, frozen long and wide and, perhaps, deeper than the core of Mannhiem, the world of men, itself.

Curious, she left the shadow world of leaves and stepped out onto the frozen ledge. Her booted feet sinking into the white crystals glistering like clusters of wet diamonds in the pale sunlight. Overhead the pregnant sky rolled with clouds so heavy with snow they were dark grey tinged with smudges of black. The air outside so crisply cold, it cut like a blade on the skin of her bare cheek. Pulling the coat tight against her skin, she securely fasten it, shivering with a chill driven deep like an icicle into her very soul.

She stood on a bony outcrop of rock overlooking the fabled Lake of Flames.  These were the frozen shores marking the boundary of the forbidden lands that fringed the edges of the world of men. Before her stretched the mist-world, Nifiheim, the realm of cold and shimmering ice that to weary eyes so strangely resembled, the glow of a flickering flame. An endless canvas of white on which the twin suns, Sur and Simar, overhead were forever painting in hues of red, and deep crimson orange.

Noom’s people believed that the suns were a pair of doomed lovers crossed by caste and clan. Sur was a seafarer lord, one of the chosen few that served the fish God, Cthagon. Simar toiled the land as a servant of the soil. Their union was forbidden, but they were young and drawn towards each other. Love blossomed and they embarked on an illicit affair indifferent to the ancient pacts between men and Gods that bound each clan to their place in the natural order. Fueled by the passion of their lust, each arranged to meet the other in secret liaisons under the cover of darkness. Until one day Simar grew heavy with Sur’s child, and they could no longer continue with the pretense. The lovers then attempted foolishly to flee together across the sky mountains to Jotunheim, the place between the worlds, where their names had no meaning, but no one can outrun the Gods. They were caught and cursed. Cthagon immortalised their love forever as two bright orbs that chased each other eternally across the empty sky, always together yet never meeting.

Noom hated the story as a child, unable to comprehend an unforgiving world governed by Gods cunning and cruel as they were capricious. Now after all she’s seen and done, she found comfort in a tale about a God’s malice, anything to explain away the meaningless evil she’s had to bear. A distance away, lightning flashed from the angry sky at the border between jungle and ice waking her from her hazy dreamlike thoughts. The cold was making her tired and sleepy, but she has many more miles to run today. Shaking her head slowly to wake herself, she stared at the flash point where the rising heat of the land collided with icy winds in a savage struggle to control the wind. She’s never seen ice so cold the colour resembled tempered steel.

Without warning, the ledge beneath her booted feet cracked and she watched as it crumbled away into fine white power suspended in a vacuum of space. Her mind a complete blank, blind instinct kicked in as  tired feet scrambled frantically against the cold, hard ground to stop from falling into the deep snow covered bank below. Resistance was futile in the end. Losing her last foothold, she fell, arms reaching out in desperation to the open sky, before hitting the ground hard and tumbling with an echoing scream down the steep incline. Her fear addled mind unable to fathom what she has done until it was far too late. Her hands clasped tightly to her mouth in horror, she watched her breath transformed into ribbons of steam in the dry frozen air and snake upwards towards the ash grey sky.

She’s unhurt, but not for long. A moment’s indiscretion has betrayed her location to the men who relentlessly trail her steps. They were never far behind, that she knew. The pack of savages that hunted her through the green jungle were ruthless to a man. She could not stay still for long if she wanted to stay free, if she hoped to live to see another moon rise. Noom did not fault them that, it was the nature of the chase. She would do the same if their roles were reversed, if she was hunter instead of prey. Extract an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. She knew they would do what angry, misogynic men do to women in desperate times. Much more than spank her sorry hide, and feed her skins to the dogs when they finished sating their hatred with her soft, brown flesh. Noom quietly nodded to the Fates that it would be their doing that the men who pursued her, were among the fortunate few to survive the plague.  

Summer brought death to the glittering Imperial cities that sit on the coast; Venium, Aqonia, Mita. Jewels of an empire stricken and left to die when the bleeding sickness gushed forth like pus from festering wounds onto their great wooden docks.  It arrived on a breeze one clear morning not more than six seasons ago. A foreign iron clad ship bearing the mark of the red crescent moon on its rusted hull limped into a small fishing port she had been happy once to call home.

Believing that a booty rich in gold and spice was within their grasp, the town fathers gave orders to secure the listing beast at the center mooring.  There it was roped and boarded by half the local militia before the alarm was raised. In truth, one man’s boots hitting the deck would have doomed them all. Gold was not the treasure stowed within its hold. The belly of the ship harbored only a putrid pestilence fattened on the bloated corpses of rats and men. A Damned Ship captained and crewed by the vengeful wraiths of the dead.

She was with the fish wives that day, helping to lay out the salted remains of the previous day’s catch to dry in the sun, when word rang out about the iron clad ship. Her people were famed seafarers; fishermen, sailors, and traders alike. The people legends claimed crawled out of the great Cthagon’s scales as he dreamt the coming of the waters. Like the other seafaring clans that eked out a living along the coast of the great ocean that encircled Mannhiem like a serpent, Noom’s people were a proud race. Brave, industrious, and hardy they settled the furthest reaches of the northern coast, where the sea was wild and rich in oil fish and fat selkies. They thought themselves the true children of a God, a race apart from the wretched servants of the soil, fit only to till the thankless land like the beasts of burden they resembled.

Noom remembered laughing as she ran down to the docks to catch a glimpse of the exciting events unfolding. She knew that the militia would be out in full force to board and direct the salvage of the foreign ship as was their right. There was a handsome young recruit she had her eye on, he was tall and broad shoulded with a strong muscular build, the brother of a neighbour. Noom had seen him the few times, he had come pay his respects to her father, but she had been too shy to speak to him. She was nothing but a silly girl then, eager for any distraction to escape her soggy mother’s never ending lectures and the disgust of her married sisters.

Noom was the despair of her distinguished family. Her father was guild master and her brothers masters of their own fishing fleets. She was young, intelligent, but unambitious and totally uninterested in the life laid out before her. Noom did not see the importance of her mother’s great social expectations. Marriage to the dim witted son of a wealthy cousin to bind the ties between the 2 branch families, the token children that would come soon after, and the never ending duties of a wife of a master fisherman.  Those were to her, the burdens of an orderly, respectable existence to endure before drawing her final breath as a withered old hag.

The first to be stricken was the infamous captain of the militia.  A giant of a man whose shadow literally blocked out the noon day sun. He was admired far and wide as much for the strength and skill of his sword arm as the fear he inspired in his enemies. The captain fell to his knees in a sudden spasm before sundown that first day in the market square. His head hitting the pavement stone hard before he keeled over in a pool of his own bloody vomit.

It took 4 men to carry him to the infirmary. There the apothecaries hooked him up to an infernal machine that took his pulse and bled him each hour to leech his blood of impurities. When he turned blue and cold despite their attentions, they hypothesised that his insides had rotted and suggested that the venom be drawn out from his belly with an arcane procedure involving the feather taken from a young pigeon’s tail. Despite their attempts to stem the malady, nothing they attempted worked. One after another they applied in turn the many salves and potions that sat on their overflowing shelves; eye of newt, and toe of frog, wool of bat and tongue of dog, adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting, lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing. All were equally impotent.

The apothecaries treated him in the end by taking a young pigeon, cut open from beak to back, and applied the still fluttering bird over the patient’s swelling body. Coupled with an incantation to the foul demons that ride the winds, they hoped to drain the patient of the noxious vapours that infected his body. The captain was dead by midnight. The next to die was the man who treated him. Beaten and tortured to within an inch of his life by the late captain’s personal guards. His bloody flayed body hung from the walls of the barracks as a warning. They later bashed his head in with a heavy rock as an act of mercy, but by then the rumor of plague was realised in the nearest city.

Soon night was indistinguishable from day as religious and civil decrees were issued for bonfires to be lit on every town square. The oracles divined that the cleansing flames would burn the diseased miasma from the foul and filthy air. Houses where a bleeding death had occurred were walled up by militia men. Both the living and the dead sealed together inside wailing tombs of stone. Mercenaries roamed the roads with orders to rob, kill, and rape on sight. Their prey were travellers fleeing towns and villages where the illness had taken root. The mantra was that no one was innocent and there was no action too extreme to be taken to stop the spread of the contagion.

In the end chaos was king. The wealthy sealed themselves in their castles to wait out the sickness with orgies of feasting and drink. The poor crowded into the overflowing temples crying out for salvation to deaf and indifferent Gods. Men were forcibly conscripted off the streets by press gangs at threat of death to dig the death pits that were filled continuously day and night. The dying and the dead buried by the thousands under a layer of sulphurous lime. It was the coming of dark times as the bleeding death claimed them all in a macabre dance; priest, merchant, king, child, and beggar.  No house was spared the suffering and few remained healthy amid the growing piles of corpses.

Noom lost her entire world to the sickness that leached out of that ship. Watched as each person she knew and loved got themselves killed attempting to flee or stayed only to stricken and die. Her father left for the guild house one day and never returned. Her brothers claimed he fell to an assassin’s dagger, but he could just as well have fled himself and left them behind. They never discovered what happened to him, but Noom prayed that he did not have to suffer. She watched in tears as a brother and his family disappeared screaming under the waves when their vessel was destroyed by the harbour guns seeking to stop the exodus of boats from the port. A sister hung herself unable to face the growing horror. The rest fled the house, when her mother was struck down by the sickness, leaving Noom alone with a baby brother to face the coming militia.

The 3 of them were walled up alive in the house. They survived on well water and what little food remained, but survived they did for months on end on a diet of gruel supplemented with dried beans and salted fish. The baby was the last to go. He was just a boy of 10. She nursed him as best she could.  Sang off key as she mopped the blood that sweated out each pore. He died like the rest, an empty husk coated in a crust of red. She upped and left after that. Her mother’s last gifts to her “idiot” child was a mother’s tearful blessings and the location of an old smuggler’s tunnel that led from the basement of the house into a nearby cove. There was nothing for Noom to stay around for but death and the stench of too much rotting fish forgotten in the sun.

Noom clutched her prize tighter to her breast. A side of bacon stolen off a hunters’ fire. Even a child knows that what she keeps in the satchel over her heart has more value than a string of the finest pearls in this stricken land. Hunger drove her to steal the meat, not greed. She was many things but never a thief. That is until she decided in anger and rage to take from another’s abundance to fill her emptiness.  

She stumbled across their encampment while out foraging for wild roots and berries to supplement her meager store of dry rations. The light of their fire drew her near inspite of the risks.  She watched from the shadows as they butchered their splendid catch. A wild pig they had run down a few hours ago in the sunlit woods of the lower forest. Noom had heard the stories about hunting packs of wild men and their devil dogs. Black hounds so furious and keen, they could bring down prey as large as a river buffalo. Noom knew the men as nomads, headhunters who roamed the eastern reaches of the uncultivated lands. A clan of pale skinned men with thick red hair pulled back from chiselled tattooed faces and roughly braided down their muscular backs. Their bulging arms adorned with iron bands, glistering bare bodies girdled with leather loincloths. Telltale necklaces of animal and human teeth slung round their necks.

There was meat enough for all, but these men were not willing to share for a few handful of sea biscuits. Noom was a stranger in their lands, a seafarer far from home in the northern coast. The nomads had never seen a woman such as her with olive skin, dark eyes and hair. She fascinated them with her strange garments and speech. They took her merger offerings for fair trade and pushed her to the ground. Straddling her, a young hunter with a mouth full of teeth filed to a point, savagely ripped her shirt to the laughter of his pack. She knew what they wanted, but she did not want to play. She wasn’t going to whore herself to men who smelled worse than horses. She swiftly punched him in the face and pushed him off, hoping to run back into the trees. But, his companions surrounded her and pummelled her with their fists. They didn’t hurt her much. Their blows rained off the coat that protected her arms and neck, their punches soft against her thick, close-fitted garment. All the same, she thought deception the better of valour so she feint injury and curled herself tight into a ball on the forest floor. Roaring now with mirth, the men then turned on one another, fighting among themselves for the right to fuck her first. They thought her nothing but a stupid woman; easy entertainment for a night. While they were distracted, she bid her time. Slipping a pair of silver knives out of her sleeves, she stabbed the man nearest her in the groin and the next man in the eye. Metal tearing through leather, flesh, and bone with a satisfying crunch. Without blades, they were weak and unskilled in a fight. She lifted the meat out of the pot as she ran passed the fire, kicking the scalding contents at the legs of the men behind her.

Noom taunted them as she ran, calling all manner of insults on their clan and their bearing. She had hoped to draw the men out into the darkness of the sleeping forest. Without their numbers, she knew she would have the advantage in any fight, but the men were no fools and stayed close to their campfire until first light. They too had heard stories of a woman from the north, stronger and faster than any nomad with the uncanny ability to see in the night with her cat-like eyes. So they waited and count the hours to the next sunrise, they knew very well that she could not outrun their dogs. In retrospect, she might have done better just to run and not tease them.

A bitter chase ensured that continued longer than she believed any sane soul would follow. She should have paid more attention to her mother’s old advice to bite her anger and not let it sway her to foolish action. It was dangerous in these brutal, lawless times for a woman to bruise a man’s ego. It was certain suicide to bruise the ego of an entire nomad hunting pack. Still, Noom well knew that sanity itself was the first victim of the bleeding death. There was precious doubt that, like the other lost souls who lived through the horror of the plague, she lost what little remained of her mind fighting the terrible hunger that soon followed.

She can still recall the women in makeshift stalls selling soup made from the bones of rats for coins of gold. The ratcatcher wives made roaring business where ever they went. The product was tasty and the ingredients fresh. Noom liked the taste of rat bone soup but inflation quickly outpaced her collection of coins gathered from dead men’s purses.  When there were no more rats to eat, the hunger saw parents butcher and eat their own children. It was son against father, brother against brother.

The old religions found fertile ground in the decaying cities, where their dark fruit sprouted and spread, poisoning all who came in contact. Flagellation as a form of penance became commonplace as young men drunk on opiates openly slashed and mutilated their genitals to bring forth the end of days. The forgotten names: Yogoth, Aoth, Notep were spoken again in reverence and awe, while  from blood flowed as free as wine in hideous ceremonies where new born babes were cooked in copper pots stewed in their own mother’s milk. It was the age of death and oblivion.

The hunger sucked the light out of the world leaving nothing behind but dry brittle bones. Yet, unlike so many of her compatriots, Noom could not bring herself to lay still and die. Something deep within her burned with a fierce defiance that demanded action, any action at any cost, to live another day. Hope was the poison in her blood.

Confronted with the frozen visage of the Lake of Flames, even Noom doubted if her courage would be currency enough to pay survival’s price.  She knew the story like it was tattooed into her soft, brown skin. She heard the legend as a child on her mother’s knee, when there was someplace called home and someone to call mother. Eyes and ears wide open to a tale told for countless generations of an Evil that lived in a cauldron of fire sleeping beneath the ice at the border lands.

Eons ago when the Old Ones still walked among men, a great bronze bird with wings of stone and claws of iron spewed forth from a high mountain peak in a hailstorm of fiery ash. The unnatural spawn of fire and ice, nurtured deep within the molten womb of a mountain. It was a monster unleashed upon an unsuspecting world by a Goddess in a pique of anger for the lost of her mortal lover and child. It heralded an age of undreamed of darkness.  The demon bird consumed all that stood in its path with an evil breath. Long was the list of kings that met their doom and the foolish heroes that followed soon after them. The Fire Bird laid waste to the fertile southern valleys until Fro` the Snow God, awoke to the cries of his people. He trapped the evil in its own bubbling stew pot beneath a mile of ice. Men say he pissed the ice, but Noom knew the ice was too rich, too clear to be anything other than tears wept by a heartbroken God.

Noom began stirring, willing stubborn legs and arms to move. She has lingered too long in a futile effort to gather strength in a body too starved of nutrition to provide. The hunting pack was close, and she needed to make haste. She could already hear their angry shouts and the baying of the hounds, smell the stink of their hunger, and their hate. She has no real choice. Run or greet the next dawn as a side of salted “pork” hanging off a butcher’s hook. She dashed out onto the ice, her booted feet slipping and sliding on the cold smooth surface. Running for her life towards Fro`s mountain home across the abandoned expanse. She was half way there and gasping for air to feed her burning lungs when she stopped for a moment. Looking back over her shoulder, she allowed herself a tiny smile. For the first time that day, she believed her luck would hold and that she might just get away.

The hunting pack had reached the edge of the woods along the far shore where they waited restlessly not daring to venture further. The Lake of Flames was a sacred and ancient taboo for their clan. A cowardly superstitious lot by nature, the hunters huddled in small groups to confer amongst themselves. They were confused and frightened by the harsh brilliance of the crystal lake, save one rider who tired quickly of the delay.  He spurred forward and whipped his horse into a frenzied gallop. He was young, headstrong, and brave. He would not let his prey, no more than a girl, escape so easily across nothing more than frozen water. All watched in horror when the ice cracked with a thunderous clap. The horseman skidded to a stop, man and mount motionless on the shattered surface. All stayed quiet, waiting to see if the ice will hold more than the weight of a man. A heartbeat passes and yet another, the thief slowly counted off the seconds with the fingers of her hand, muttering a quiet prayer to the freshly falling snow.

The ice groaned but remained intact. A triumphant shout rang out from the shore amongst the assembled pack that the lake has frozen solid to the bottom. The men unleashed the dogs and rushed forward helter skelter to join the lone horseman in the chase. They could all see that Noom was now caught like a lone deer on the open ice, easy prey for the picking.

The rider urged his horse on faster towards her. The man meant to claim his prize before the day is out. Another wretch’s scalp to add to his trophy belt and the bragging rights to the kill. The horse skidded on the icy surface and stalled unwilling to proceed further despite the rider’s furious curses. Noom braced herself as the dogs gained ground, she knew she could not outrun a pack of devil hounds, but she was not going down without a fight.

A dog lept, snarling with teeth bared going for her throat. It was a small female with tits heavy with milk. She could have kicked it away with a booted foot, instead she struck out without thinking in rage and frustration and sliced the black beast from ear to ear with her silver blade. The animal was dead before its body hit the ice. The hot blood sprayed out in an arc, steaming as it rained down on the frozen surface.

A low, pain filled moan echoed across the valley from the mountain in warning as a mighty column of fire shot skyward from the very bottom of the lake. Blazing an opening through the ice the flames allowed a monstrous talon claw to break free of its rapidly melting prison. The woman tried to shout out to the rider, tell the man to turn and flee but her warning came too late. She should never have allowed herself to give in to her anger, allowed it to sway to her foolish acts of violence. It was wrong and now there was a great price to pay. There was nothing she could do but close her eyes and turn away, as the great claw snagged and dragged both man and horse screaming and thrashing beneath the surface of the ice. As sudden as they appeared, the flames receded back into the dark leaving the ice cover melting in their wake.

The pack froze in its tracks. Several pairs of eyes nervously scanned the empty horizon for movement. All grew quiet, save for the whimpering of dogs and the muttered prayers of frightened men. A battle cry echoed from the mountain as a towering column of fire surged up through the ice in mocking reply. Noom watched in horror as a great bird broke the surface. A bronze monster soaring towards the freedom of the open sky with a mighty flap of its great stone wings. The force of the impact sent a score of men and beasts howling to their deaths into the now burning sea of flames. The few that remained at the rear scampered for home; lucky to be running for their lives.  

Noom stood facing a wall of flames, the last living creature on a plateau of rapidly breaking ice.  Not alone, at second glance. A crying pup, barely a dog, hid shivering between her legs. She pushed an insistent wet nose out of her shorts as the great bird swooped to return and perch on the edge of the ice fissure, the bronze of its feathers still wet from its rebirth. Noom was transfixed as the bird slowly unfolded its massive stone wings. They were wide as a tree was tall. She watched as it regarded her with cruel golden eyes; hateful enough to be human. She would run, but for the fact she could no longer feel her legs, no longer move to avoid a great wing that swatted her down like she was less than a fly.  Noom and the pup hurtled across what remained of the unbroken ice surface. The creature loomed closer to toy with its kill. Noom turned with a newly bloodied face, left cheek wounded in the shape of a snowflake, to face certain death. The monster recoiled in fear and broke off the attack, taking to the skies with its great wings once more. Noom clung to the pup as she watched the bird circle low once, twice before heading off into the tree line at the far shore and disappearing with a piercing cry into the black smoke billowing from the burning lake.

Dusting off her skins, Noom realised she could not return from whence she came. The ice was melting away leaving a sea of fire. No way to go but onwards towards the other shore. She felt no grief in her forced departure. There was no new loss for her to mourn. She had her skins, her knives, a furry new friend, and a grand adventure for the telling.

“That is if I can live long enough to tell it and there is anyone left in the end to listen,” she said sadly to the pup and he seemed interested enough to listen.

She staggered to her feet and calling out to the pup to follow, they made their way slowly towards the mountain of endless ice to face the wrath of the Snow God, Fro`.