Tyvia was a land of great natural beauty. He knew that this was true, knew that he had seen tall waterfalls and crystal caverns, had soaked in hot springs as soft rain fell above him. He had eaten the sun-warmed grapes, precious as diamonds, that grew in those pockets of volcanic heat, and then drank the deep red wine that was made from them. He knew a land where the cold could be bitter, but the thaws would always come. The rivers would swell and grow dangerous, homes and lives would be washed away, but when the water receded the Tyvians would plow their silt-rich fields. They would grow round melons and bright carrots and grain that would rise taller than the man himself. He had walked through those golden fields. He had sung the high, sweet songs with his fellow citizens as they swung their scythes at harvest, the children following behind to bind it up in sheaves. He had sung low songs to the rhythm of the hand drums while those with the strongest arms beat the grain upon the threshing floor. He had drank dark beer on a tavern patio under the light of a friendly moon, and the laughing woman in his lap had kept him warm even as the night air grew chill. All of this he had seen, all of this he had done, and more. And yet he could no longer believe his memories to be true. For in Utyrka, it was always cold.
Cold when the sun rose, and cold when it set. Cold when the wolves howled, and colder when they were silent. Cold standing out on the wide-open tundra, and cold in the salt mines half a mile underground. Cruelly cold even when the sun was at its zenith, its light reflecting off the snow so brightly that the man couldn’t even open his eyes. The man had goggles now, with thick dark lenses, to protect his eyes as he made his journey. He had a boiled wool greatcoat lined with fur, and a large fur hat that covered his ears. A woolen muffler was wound around the lower half of his face, capturing the warmth of his breath for a moment before the water vapor he exhaled became ice crystals in his beard. His hands and wrists he had wrapped over and over again with the torn pieces of another scarf, weaving the smallest strips between his fingers; the greatcoat was the largest he could find, and fit him snugly, but there had been no gloves large enough to cover his hands. All together, it was far more protection than he’d had in his ten years at the camp combined. But even so, the land itself laughed at him, and sent sharper winds to bite his skin. He had used the field glasses he had taken from the watchtower and scanned the world from horizon to horizon, and all he had seen was just the same. How could any man who stood where he did still believe in sweet red wine?
The glacier valley lay ahead of him, but how far ahead he did not know. The man had not expected the journey to take so long. He had not thought his resolve would falter. He must steel himself, push the cold and the doubt it carried out of his mind, and walk onward. For it would be an unforgivable thing to be granted this chance at escape and let it slip through his fingers.
Crouched at the man’s feet, the last guard was whimpering. So it had been all day. A foolish waste of energy; no matter what sounds he made, he would make this trek even if the man had to drag him through the snow. If the man had been in the last guard’s place, he would have attacked long before now, and either he would be killed or the chain that bound him would choke the life from his captor’s throat. Either way, the man would be free. The last guard had not fought, perhaps because he knew he would lose, or perhaps because he thought docility was his best chance at survival. The last guard still wanted to live; the man knew he was already dead.
It was time to move forward. He pulled the chain and the last guard whimpered louder, but he rose to his feet, and moved in the direction he was pulled.
They had left the camp a little less than a day before. Before that, the man had given himself three days of rest to prepare for the journey. He had eaten voraciously and well, shoving anchovies into his mouth and then sucking their oil from his fingers, and had followed up his meals with pot after pot of strong black tea made sweet with a syrup of dark cherries. He had taken the mattress from every bed in the sleeping quarters of the guardhouse and piled them on the floor, one on top of another, and then slept atop them all under the weight of so many blankets he could barely move. For ten years, even the simple pleasures of room and board had been denied to him, and the satisfaction he felt from his indulgences was so great that he took off the knife and let his mind go quiet.
But once food and sleep had restored him, he felt the pull again. Early in the morning he packed two waxed canvas sacks and placed each by the guardhouse door. He used the privy, and even considered washing his face, though ultimately he decided against it. He sheathed the knife and placed it back on his belt, taking only a minute to admire the coppery sheen that seemed to move like waves along its blade. Finally, he brewed a last pot of tea, and split the contents between two wooden canteens.
Then he kicked the last guard awake and told him cheerfully that his destiny was about to be fulfilled. The guard’s sleep-filled eyes opened wide when the man handed him one of the canteens, but the days of rest and plenty had made the man almost benevolent. The man hooked the other to his belt. He unlocked the last guard’s chain from the wall, and wrapped the chain’s end around his left hand three times. Through his makeshift gloves, he could feel the bite of the chain, and it felt correct to be the man holding the leash again. With his right, he grabbed both sacks and threw them over his shoulder. He gave the guardhouse one last look, and decided that he required no other preparations.
He opened the door, and they were off, out into the hard-blowing snow towards the place the knife told the man he must go. The corpses scattered across the yard around them were already long frozen.
The man did not speak as they trekked away from the camp, and the last guard’s occasional whimpers were not loud enough to cut through the sound of the wind. The country around them was unrelentingly white, flat, indistinct, endless. Occasionally, the man or the guard stumbled over something hard hidden in the snow. The remains of a camp set in the lee of one hillock or another. The wolf-gnawed remains of the man who had made the camp, still near wherever he had set his fire, or crumpled in the snow wherever in their journey they’d finally fallen for the last time.
Without a compass or the knowledge of the stars, those prisoners would have inevitably become lost in the tundra, no matter how strong their bodies, or even how firm their resolve. And few men who had been broken in the mines still retained much of either.
Before he found the knife, it would have been the same for the man, even considering the sense of health and vigor his giant stature still conveyed. The land itself had done most of the work of guarding at the Utyrka camp. Some prisoners, worthy of respect, might still prefer to die frozen as free men than hope that after ten, twenty, thirty years of labor the magistrates would decide his sentence was at last fulfilled. The rest labored, and waited, and either cultivated hope or killed it. And not a one of them had made it to freedom in the hundred years or more since the prison camp had been established. The man would have to be the first.
So he pushed on, and somehow the last guard still followed behind him. They walked like this, the wind obliterating their footprints nearly as soon as they’d made them, until the sun touched the horizon. Night fell quickly in the north at this time of year. And already, even though they had been moving and in daylight, the man had felt the progression of the cold as it penetrated his flesh and took root there. So far, it had only reached the fat under his skin, as if he wore a second outfit made of ice beneath his clothes. If he was not careful, next it would sink into the muscle, and his movements would slow as his limbs grew heavy. When the cold reached the bone, his journey and his life would both be at an end.
There would be no sheltering cave for the man and the last guard to sleep in, but he had prepared for that. He chose the lee side of a tall rock, taller than the man and with a convenient log crack running down its side from slow centuries of water traveling down the rock’s porous face and expanding as it froze. The man dropped both his sacks on the ground, and from his first sack, the man retrieved a large piece of waxed canvas set with metal grommets around its edges, metal pegs, and a hard wooden mallet. He took the first peg and looped it through a corner grommet and the end of the last guard’s chain, then drove the peg into the crack in the rock with three swift smacks of the mallet, bearing as each did all the force of the man’s enormous arm. Which he swung all the harder as he felt the satisfaction of using his muscle for his own labor, after ten years at the pick-ax.
He took the last guard by his shoulders and sat him down with his back to the rock face, then stretched out the canvas and drove a new peg into whichever grommets reached the ground. The end result was no more than a cloth pocket against the rock face, but it was large enough to cover the last guard and the man, and help them hold on to the heat their bodies made, which the land seemed so desperate to steal.
The man reached back into the first sack and pulled out a small bag filled with strips of dried meat. This he thrust at the last guard. “Eat,” he said, but the guard’s eyes were glazed and senseless. The man dropped the bag in the last guard’s lap and left the tent.
Outside, he took up his second sack. The contents had frozen together during the day-long trek, but beating the bag against a rock a few times broke the pieces up again. The man dumped the sack out onto the ground. Long bones fell out, formerly arms or legs of living men, as well as shorter rib bones. They accounted for the murders of eight men in total; the man had thought it better to take only one from a corpse, in case the knife found the material from any one man unsuitable. He had had enough to choose from, after all. For that work, he had not used the knife, just cleaver and saw as befit the work of a butcher. He had not the time or patience to scrape away all the meat, however: that was what had frozen the bones together. But they were clean enough, he thought. He squatted next to the bone pile and chose a femur.
What came next was not mere butchery, but art; of that he was certain. At last, he was able to bring out the knife, and the high-pitched schwick the blade made as he unsheathed it excited him to his core. He set to work, scoring the femur with short cuts that, combined, looked like letters of an unknown alphabet. The man could not read what he had written on the bone, but that did not trouble him. All that mattered was the result. And when he carved the twentieth mark into the bone, it began to sing to him as the blade had done.
To the man, the bone-song was enchanting, almost hypnotic. But the wild predators of the tundra would not find it so. He carried the bone out ten paces south from the little tent and set it on the earth. Then he went back to the bone pile and set to work again. The next bone went ten paces north, the next west, and the next east, so the tent was at the center of the cross they made. When he had placed the fourth bone, their song grew louder, and each occasionally emitted a flicker of pale blue light.
Ordinary human bones like these, from bodies several days dead, did not have much in the way of power. Just one last tendril of the Void connected to the once-living thing while its memory was still fresh. But they would last through the night. The next bonework was quicker, a sequence of ten runes repeated on four ribs. These he brought with him into the small darkness of the tent.
The man squatted down and arranged the second set of bones. A diamond they made this time, more or less; what was important was that each end touched another. When he placed the fourth, they lit up with blue-white flames that rose up six inches, perhaps more, and held steady with barely a flicker. Warmth spread out from them faster than any earthly fire could have managed. The man was quite pleased, and turned to see if his prisoner was pleased as well.
The last guard’s eyes were still glazed, but he had managed to bring a piece of dried meat to his mouth. Half the meat had even made it past his teeth, while there rest jutted out like a cigar past the guard’s lips. The man stood and stared at him, attention arrested by the odd sight in front of him. Was the guard chewing the meat? Sucking on it? Did his jaw move at all? Was he awake, asleep, dead?
The man realized how little he had looked at the guard at any point in their journey thus far. He must have been fair-skinned, before the sun and wind both beat his face red as a Gristol apple. Wide pale eyes, with long girlish lashes. Cheeks still full and round, and only a few days’ growth of beard along his jaw. A youth, then, and perhaps even a comely one. The man pondered briefly all the crimes which might send a handsome young man to Utyrka, but as a guard, rather than a prisoner. Petty thieving, tumbling the wrong man’s daughter at the wrong time, one too many drunken brawls that spilled from the tavern into the street. And behind him, stern parents, with money, desperate to see their boy set on a straightened path. Two years in the cold, they had thought, and oh how we will miss him, and how he will hate us. But he’ll learn, won’t he, that life is not a joke or a game. He’ll thank us for it, later.
The man shrugged. Or perhaps it had been nothing like that. Perhaps he had been a cutthroat who had charmed the right magistrate. It hardly mattered now.
At last, the guard’s eyes blinked and then closed, and he sucked the rest of the meat inside his mouth. Not dead, then, so long as he did not choke himself eating. His imagined parents could be heartened to know that their boy had not come to nothing after all.
The man sat down, grabbed the little bag of jerky from the boy-guard’s lap, leaned against the rock wall, and set to work on it. When he was finished, the blue-white flames grew smaller, though their heat remained. As the man watched them, the flames seemed to warp before him, their color changing in rhythm with the beat of his heart. It was only minutes before he fell into one of the deepest slumbers of his life.
The Void drew him in, and then left him to fall through eternity. Mocking laughter buffeted him so strongly he felt as if his body would break into a million separate pieces, and then those pieces would break, on and on until nothing remained of him or the world as he knew it. The warm hum of his blade drew him back to life.
He woke with his full body shuddering, and a sense of urgency gripping him to his core. He jumped up and dragged the last guard to his feet by the collar of his overcoat. The guard screamed, far louder than the man would have thought him capable of, and launched himself at the man, gloveless hands clawing for his eyes. The man put him down with a lazy backhand that sent the boy’s head banging against the rock wall behind him. He fell to the ground and grasped his head in both hands, but the man could see that his pale eyes were lit with malevolent fire.
Blood ran down the man’s face, and he laughed with unbridled joy. So, the last guard had a spirit after all! And he had been so disappointed in his choice before. He dug into his sack of provisions and pulled out a small bottle, uncorked it, and then grabbed the guard by the jaw. “You did well! And now, a reward.” He did not even have to hold the boy’s nose, for his mouth gaped open wide enough for the man to pour the high-proof liquor in. The guard choked and gasped, but more of the alcohol went down his throat than spewed out into the tent. The man beamed. A true Tyvian. “Again,” he said, and this time the boy gulped the liquor down as if it were water from the fountain of life. The man was not even angry that so little of the bottle was left for him. He poured the last drops into his own mouth, then threw the bottle at the rock wall and laughed again. His dream had been cruel, but the light of day favored him. He pulled out the peg holding the last guard’s chain to the rock with nothing but his hand, then wrapped the chain in its familiar place around his left palm. Destiny awaited!
The last guard was drunk and his eyes still burned, but the journey was almost ended. The man lifted the guard easily and threw him over his shoulder, and in this fashion they exited the tent and headed out on their journey once again. The guard did kick a bit, and even made a move for the man’s large fur hat, but another knock about the head soon set that right. Nothing could ruin the man’s high spirits. There were so few miles left to go.
The wind blew, the cold bit, the wolves howled. But the man’s knife hummed as well, so warm and loud he was sure the guard could also feel it. Even when he had to push through snow drifts near as high as his waist, the man did not flag. His previous doubts were forgotten. He had chosen well. And when he reached the lip of the glacier valley at last, rather than drop him the man went to his knees and laid the guard out softly on the snow.
“You did well,” he said again, pushing up his goggles and searching for boy’s eyes. “It was not a waste.” The man was not sure the guard understood, and suddenly it was important that he should. He grabbed the guard again by the head, forcing him to meet his eyes. “It was not a waste.”
The man felt sure that, behind those drunk and weary eyes, there was a flash of understanding. He dropped the last guard’s head and let the boy fall back into the snow. When he drew out his blade, the humming was so loud the man was sure the guard heard it too, heard it and recognized the call as all men must. The man laid the blade gently above the guard’s iron collar. He was no man of words, and besides, he had said all that was important. The guard was crying now, but he did not move, and for a moment the man watched in fascination as the tears began to freeze against his cheeks. Then he pushed the blade down, and when it met the bones of the last guard’s neck it truly began to sing.