The First Winter, Chapter 2: The Ice In The Sky

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Several days later, most of the ponds and streams in the forest had completely frozen over. Once the weather cleared, the morning air was cool and still. The old woman brought her young charge out to skate on the ice for the very first time. After a wonderful day of exploration and exertion, the pair returned to the small house and sat down to enjoy a stew of small game and root vegetables. As they finished their meal, Ailin looked up at her grandmother and said, "Auntie Nem, I wanna hear more of the story about the hero and the winter!"

Auntie Nem laughed and cleared the cookware away, letting the cauldron of stew keep warm over the hot coals in the fire. "Alright, child. I think you've earned the next part with the help you gave me in preparing this wonderful stew." She settled herself in her rocking chair, spread a blanket over her knees, and leaned close to the fire.

"After a long and lonely climb, Arnd reached the shores of the Heavenly Sea...

He had heard many different tales about the great Sea in which the Sun, the Moon, and the many gods and spirits swam. The plainsfolk told of an immense pool of deep, blue water, ruffled by the celesial currents which aided the heavenly bodies in their daily movements. They said that the sun would boil the water as it passed through, and that the great gouts of steam which bubbled forth and made their way down to the sky below to become the clouds. Arnd was puzzled by this explanation until he saw the first of the great, boiling geysers in the Hot Plains of the north, and then he understood.

The People of the Forest, their feet wrapped in leaves and their skin painted with oils and pastes, said that the Sea was like a great, winding torrent coursing through the heavens, carrying the celestials in their everlasting course from day to night, and that the spirits of those who were loved in life were carried by it to their final rewards. It is for this reason that they too sent their dead down the river on rafts of soft heather and fragrant flowers. Of course, the only water in the forest is the river, so this tale held little surprise for the hero.

In the courts of the lion-goddess of the desert, their tale was very different. They told of a twisting, violent sandstorm, forceful enough to blow the very Sun and Moon on their course through the sky. Only the Celestial Schools and their lord Tentei Mure could swim in this torrent. They said that the scales covering their skin kept the blasting sand from flaying their flesh from their bones. They used this to explain their practice of hanging criminals from tall posts during the windy season, declaring that if they were innocent, the Celestial Schools would claim them before they could be killed.

Arnd had heard these tales and many more, but none of them described the sight that awaited him at the top of his dizzying climb. Spread out before him, as far as he could see in every direction, lay a wave-torn and lightning-lit ocean. Huge rolling waves, their tops curling in on themselves, made the surface into a series of immence peaks and valleys. The sight of it was so amazing that it was not until he fell backwards, craning his neck back to see the top of the massive wave beside him, that he realised that the water had frozen as hard as stone. It must have happened so suddenly that not only were the spraying tops of the waves carved in exquisite detail, the bolts of lightning were frozen in the air above. Their harsh glare was bright on the ice's surface.

He was not sure how long he simply stood there in awe before the chill spreading through his fur cloak reminded him he was lying on the frozen sea. His eyes were dazzled by the glare above, and the surface beneath his feetwas slick and treacherous. He slipped as he tried to stand, and even he had to walk softly to stay on his feet. Never had his travels brought him to a place of such harsh and uncaring beauty.

Soon, the tears freezing in his eyes reminded him of his task, and he quickly used the dagger Loekdal which was given to him by the king of the dwarves to carve lenses from the frozen sea around him. Its water was frozen and black as the night, and so he used them to shield his eyes. Even the knife, the killer of gods, met some resistance in the heavenly ice.

Wrapping his face in leather cut from his cloak, he strode across the frigid wastes, keeping the darkest part of the storm ahead at all times. After a few hours, or maybe days, he could see the darkness ahead much more clearly, and he was astonished to see the lightning, frozen in the sky, being drained away into the night sky."

There was a hush in the small cabin, the winter air quiet and still outside. Soft snoring and the crackle of the fire were the only sounds for a long time. Then, Ailin, assuming her grandmother had fallen alseep, rolled on her side and did the same, smiling to herself and dreaming of ice and lightning.
In the second of three parts, the great hero Arnd discovers that things are very wrong, indeed.
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