Whispers rose in its passage. Muffled voices kept quiet while it passed them, each turned to their neighbour fearfully, eyes wide with trepidation as they came amongst them – and left. Children were hustled inside from their play, windows were shut against a cold perceived, and nervous eyes watched between the shutter slats. Mumbled prayers were said, devotions and commitments renewed with a fervency not felt since they were first taken up. Stillness fell upon each village as they rode past.
As that black carriage rolled past.
In the silence of its passage, only the creaking of the wheels and the plodding of the horses’ hooves through mud-slick roads could be discerned. The very air grew unnaturally still, as if the earth herself was holding her breath. Trees and flowers drawing up and away lest they should be noticed by the wagon’s inhabitants. The rocks dotting the rolling fields grew cold and solitary, shepherding the warmth of the earth for another day. Clouds in the sky fled, leaving only a strangely wan sun to cast down its light, a sickly febrile light that could not seem to touch aught upon the carriage but for the red cross.
The red cross. Cross of the Questioners.
It was marked on either side of the carriage, over the door, and on the back just beneath the narrow window that wound around the width of the black shell. Black satiny drapes kept any light from shining within, or whatever lurked inside from being seen. Four men, dressed in black mail, the red cross, each arm equal in length, stained upon the rings, rode outside the carriage, faces as impassive as the dead. But what rode inside was known to all.
Myth and rumour surrounded them. Tales of their power were well known, but spoken in hushed whispers, or to frighten young children into obedience. Mothers could bring even the most obstinate of children to confess by merely bringing to mind these fabled priests of the Ecclesia. And most of the tales spoken could to be told to children, lest they never sleep again. Even grown men, doughty warriors who’d faced death upon the battlefield all their lives, would tremble in fear at the thought of receiving a visit from that black carriage.
And when the carriage rolled on past, leaving each new town in its wake, the villagers would all sing praises to their most beneficent Eli for sparing them the wrath of His Ecclesia. But always they had to ask themselves, for they would never speak of it aloud, for whom did they ride? To whom would they bring to bear for Eli’s judgement? But all that they could muster was a giving of thanks that it would not be them.
Still the carriage rolled on, leaving silence and disquieted relief in its wake.
The sky over the Great Barrier Range was leaden, an impenetrable fog of grey that stayed far up in the sky so as to avoid being pierced by the sword-like summits of the highest peaks. Treacherous winds blew, careening from icy face to icy face, curving around the rocks that jutted out from the glacial flow. And then they swept downwards through the valleys that were cleaved within the mountains as if the ancient spirits of his people had hacked at the earth with axe and shovel while drunk upon Foqo’s Fire.
Abafouq smiled at the thought, wishing he had enough ink to spare so that he could write it down when he returned to his cave. Digging the metal spikes and hooks he fixed upon his boots within the ice, he began to hoist himself once more up along the sheer wall of ice that stretched for several ells over his head. His cave, safe and usually warm, was somewhere below him in the swirls of mist and snow that held these peaks captive all the year long. Normally he did not venture upon the higher cliffs, preferring to let Guernef his Nauh-kaee keeper handle such tasks. But this was something Abafouq had to do himself.
This was rightly his task, and by all the spirits he would perform it.
Now any good Binoq with sense would not be out climbing a sheer face of ice whilst the winds were blowing hard enough to turn his skin to stone. But as he people had often been telling him, he did not suffer from an excess of sense. Sensible Binoq stayed in their cavern homes beneath the mountains, leaving the world beyond to the other races, men especially. Sensible Binoq did not indenture themselves to the beastly Nauh-kaee in exchange for knowledge of the outer world.
With a smile, Abafouq reminded himself that he did not suffer from a deplorable excess of sensibility. Lifting one arm, he wedged the pick within the ice wall, and lifted himself another few inches. He had wrapped himself in thick furs, many of which he’d tanned himself in the lonely hours sitting alone in the cave waiting for his keeper to return. Over his face he’d placed a mask made from two pieces of hide sewn together so that the leather would be facing both out and in. The eyeholes were narrow, but they were sufficient for his task. Thin wisps of breath snaked out through the slit he’d fashioned for his mouth.
Wedged the pick in his other hand a few inches higher, he mentally derided sensibility. As far as he was concerned it meant never asking questions or wondering about anything besides the next meal and pleasing the spirits of his people. While his way did have its drawbacks he begrudgingly admitted, such as forever being cold, and depending on the savage Nauh-kaee for practically everything, the rewards made it all worthwhile in the end.
Such as, to know and to see, both of which Abafouq would do this day.
His spiked shoes left a long trail of deep cracks within the ice wall as he proceeded upwards, complemented by the holes his picks dug, the leather wrongs wrapped firmly through loops within his shirt sleeves to keep them from slipping. His shoulder ached from the exertion as he pulled himself up along that wall. Abafouq several times stood on the empty air, metal wedged within the ice, to simply catch his breath, and to let his muscles settle. But he could not stand for long, as after they would settle, they would begin to harden, stiffening as if laced with ice themselves.
The scintillating colours of the ice tower shimmered in the grey day, subtle light playing across them, reflected from other distant peaks, casting a warm incandescence through the veins of frozen snow melt. Having grown up on the lesser slopes of the Tabinoq range just north of the dense Åelfwood, he was no stranger to such a sight. But even in the lands of his people it was a wonder to be treasured and admired, sculpted by craftsman to capture the light of the sun and the stars with even greater variation. It was not to be climbed and defaced in so brutish a manner as he was doing.
But, Abafouq consoled himself, it was a necessary sacrifice. By Midsummer’s eve the wall would be as smooth and clear as if it were newly calved from the womb. He would not be here to see it of course, not this season. His chapped lips cracked in a secret smile, as if another might be watching, and he feared they would note his introspection. He had always been chastised for it amongst his elders, receiving a sharp crack on the elbows from the herders’ crooks when his mind wandered away from his eyes.
Glancing upwards, the Binoq could see that the rim of the ice wall was only a few hand spans above his head. His smile grew wider then, open, firm in his victory over the mount. With renewed vigour, Abafouq scaled the last foot, digging his ice pick within the lip of that wall as it curved out across the jutted rock that came to its peak. It was a long spire, wreathed on either side by sloping floes that fell away with the chiselled rock. Scrambling over that rim, Abafouq leaned back against the last shard of rock, weather into a craggily perch upon which he could sit if he wished the wind to fling him into the wide gorge beyond.
Abafouq dug his heels within the ice at the rock’s base, Slashing a small hole into the ice encrusted summit with one pick, the other wedged into that ice at his feet for balance. He did not waste any time in marvelling at his triumph over the vaulted peak, nor did he take a moment to admire the landscape that stretched into the gray horizon around him. It only took him a moment to chisel out a long wedge into the ice. Gripping this handhold, he huddled in close to the rock, breathing heavily, only then letting himself rest.
The wind was intense at this height, the white granules of ice he chipped free whipping away along that cold air to circle about him several times before descending down into the vast gulfs below. In every direction he turned, the nearest peaks stood like sentinels, watching further into the grey mist that hung over the Barrier Range like the foam in a beer stein. The very thought of a frothy mug set him to shivering. How long had it been since he had been within his people’s halls to enjoy such a brew?
Up on that slender peak, he felt the loneliness of ages descend upon him. He stared out at the desolate white void, the spires straining upwards as uncaring as the stars in the sky. Beyond them the world faded into dull grey, as if nothing beyond the mountains had been made yet, still waiting for the breath of Tequ to bring them into being. All the world was the screeching of treacherous wind, the bitter cold of glacial peaks, and the unremitting endlessness of stone and ice.
Abafouq looked down from the jagged horizon and down at his hands. The backpack he’d carried up the ice wall weighed heavily upon him know, as if he’d just picked it up. Curling about, still gripping the handhold as the winds buffeted him, he slid the backpack between his leggings, bracing it against the rock. With short nimble fingers of one hand, he undid the lacings, the strong almost frozen from the cold. Pulling the top open, he wedged out an iron brace, and jammed it within the crevice he’d fashioned earlier. Taking the back of his ice axe, he hammered the brace within the ice until it was sunk firmly within.
The brace was attached to a length of rope that still huddled as if warding out the chill within his backpack. He gave the end of the rope a firm tug, but the brace held. Satisfied, Abafouq uncoiled the rope from his backpack, revealing that the other end was sealed within a round stone that was as large as both his fists pressed together. Unlike the native grey stones that forced their way towards the sky, this was one black, taken from deep within the mines dug by his people under these mountains.
He first made sure that his boot spikes were wedged solidly into the ice on the summit. Once he’d satisfied himself that he was not likely to be plucked up on the wind and cast down into the fathomless depths of some black gorge, he leaned over the rim, and began to lower the black ball of rock down along side the ice wall. Despite the mittens he wore over his hands, he could feel the subtle warmth of the rope, a magical artifice he’d created with his keeper’s help some time ago. It would preserve the rope in the worst of elements, but not melt the ice it touched.
The rock did not reach the sloping ground at the base of the ice wall. The ground gave way to a twisting path that wound sharply along the side of the mountain peak, and eventually fed out onto the lower passes where his cave was set. Of course, Abafouq did not want the rock to touch the pass just yet. The rope went taut when he finally let go, but the brace held, keeping the stone aloft. It swayed back and forth, swinging around the corners of the ice wall, dragging the rope along the rim, but the ice was smooth and would not damage the rope.
Satisfied, Abafouq slung the now empty backpack over his back once more, and reclaimed his axes in both hands. He stuffed one down into his belt, and took the rope in that hand, sliding down it, tiptoeing with the spikes on his boots along the ice wall. It took him barely a tenth of the time to go down the wall, taking only a few minutes to carefully descend the last few feet beneath the stone pendulum.
When he finally set his foot upon the mostly flat path that would take him home, he felt a great surge of relief. Glancing up at the wall of ice, he reached out one gloved hand to steady the rock. The wind was not so merciless amongst the thicker clog of rocks, but he still felt it tugging at his jacket and hood. The stone was heavy, but held firmly in place by the brace. It would remain there for some time yet as well. His heart soured as he realized that, but knew it had to be.
Shifting the empty backpack about on his shoulders, Abafouq began his descent along the winding empty trail. Most of it was natural, worn by the wind and the groaning of the Earth. Some of it he had cleared, along with Guernef’s help, when he’d first come to this lonely mount. The path circled down along the ever widening mountain, ever turning to the right. In his right hand he kept the axe, ready to anchor himself should the winds grow deadlier.
But as the minutes trickled by, and as the jagged peaks rose higher and higher against the grey sky, Abafouq knew that he could safely make his way back to their cave. Their home was set back within the mountain itself, with a small mostly flat promontory before the entrance. Both the Nauh-kaee and Binoq were marvels at shaping stone, and so over a small ravine where the ice had broken free and slid down along the slopes, they’d erected a small bridge. With a smile, he put his gloved hand to the trellis and gave the stone a firm pat. Every day he had come out and freed it from the chocking ice, so had the wind died it would have been safe to stand upon the railing.
Crossing over to the promontory, the edge of which he did not dare venture upon, so sudden was the drop that the merest of winds could have plucked him from the ground and sent him hurtling into the depths, he stepped to the front of the cave. The entrance was wide, and hung with several layers of animal hides, the thickest of which was the white bear fur that neatly hid the entrance during most of the winter. Abafouq slipped underneath their weight, enjoying the sudden rush of warmth that met him as he entered.
It was not so much warmth as it was a lack of chill. The stone of the cave was still cold and unfeeling, but the air inside was warmed by life. The scent of freshly killed meat came to him as he shook off the ice that clung to his jacket and leggings. Set within small indentations worn from the rock were two flames, licking up along a pile of blackened stones. A secret of the Binoq people, one that he had brought to the Nauh-kaee’s home he was proud to say. Pulling his mittens free, he held his hands before the flames, feeling the warmth fill them, his knuckles loosening.
The entranceway was large enough, as his keeper was easily thrice his height and twice his width. It curved downward, stone steps worn from use, glistening from ice melt in the shape of giant paws. The sconces continued as the cave twisted back within the heart of the mountain, providing dim illumination, and little warmth. Abafouq waited several moments with his hands before the flame before continuing on, letting his eyes have the time to adjust to the sudden darkness.
Abafouq knew that his keeper Guernef was likely home. There had been no meat within the cave when he’d left a few hours back to see to his task. Feeling his chest fill with pride, the little Binoq strode down the steps until they levelled off and opened out into a wide chamber. The sconces were more numerous and larger within, casting a pleasant glow about the rocks, dancing up to the rounded dome of the ceiling were they highlighted the different veins of rock wedded together. A small stone table was set against the wall, while in the room beyond bedding of hay was resting, brought in the spirit’s only knew how every summer by his keeper.
In one corner there was a small hearth, though no fire burned within it. Wood was scarce enough on the high peaks, and Guernef could only carry so much back with him whenever he ventured into the lower passes for game. The source of the smell was apparent though, hanging as it was on a spit in the empty hearth, the skinned thigh of some small beast, a boar perhaps. The fat had already been sliced free, and was coalescing in a small stone ewer. It would be poured out over the sconces to renew their flame each evening.
Seated behind the table, looking at him fixedly with black eyes upon white, the pupil’s never wavering, was his keeper. Guernef the Nauh-kaee, the Kakikagiget of his people, the Listener of Winds, was waiting for him black beak closed and white feathery plumage freshly preened. The long thin tail curled about his hind paws, the tuft at the end lifting and falling back down as if mirroring the beat of his heart. Otherwise, he remained as motionless as the mountains themselves, an implacable force that only time could change.
“The stone is set,” Abafouq said then, refusing to let that avian stare unnerve him. “The thaw will bring about its falling.”
Guernef continued to stare, almost as if he had not heard at all. Were it not for the tip of his tail, a stranger would have been forgiven for thinking the Nauh-kaee had turned to stone.
And then the beak turned swiftly, as if it had ceased to be in one place, and sprang up in another, pointing towards the cold fire-pit. “I have brought you the evening meal.” Though no blood stains showed upon the obsidian beak, Abafouq knew that his keeper had already eaten.
Smiling warmly, Abafouq set the backpack down in one corner, and then proceeded to light the fire, spilling a bit of the grease upon the embers, striking the flint to set them aflame. All the while the Nauh-kaee remained quiet, watching him with fixed eyes. When he’d first come to live in the high passes of the Great Barrier Range, or the Tabinoq as his people called them, he’d been constantly frightened by that stare, as if he were a mouse being studied by a hungry eagle. Over time, he’d begun to notice subtle differences in the set of eyes, feathers, beak, and the plumed ears that graced his hawkish head. However, even the Binoq could not read his keeper’s stare that night.
When Abafouq had satisfied himself over the burning of the flame, warming his hands before it for several moments, before taking up the spit and turning it slowly, he glanced back at the Nauh-kaee to discover that his attention was still firmly rooted upon his charge. That there was something on his mind was evident, but that it could either be contemplation on the weather, or preparing an announcement that Abafouq was to be thrown back to the snows from whence he’d been plucked, he could not guess.
It had been five years now since that day. A terrible winter storm had raged all about him as he’d trekked ever northwards into the biting wind, trying his best to scale the mountains. His fingers and toes had been numb, face frigid, ice clutching at his clothing and to his hair. And when he thought he could go no farther, a Nauh-kaee had descended before him, curious he supposed, perhaps hoping to make an easy meal of a foolish Binoq as well.
And then when he’d called out the rites of friendship as the ancient Åelf had taught him, the startled beast had flown away, leaving him once more lost in the clogging whiteness. For a moment his heart had sagged within him, giving over to the final cold that had been threatening to claim him for days. He’d travelled so far beyond the realms of his own people, sent by that very Åelf himself, and all to be left to freeze to death by that lofty avian race he’d sought.
But his moment of despair did not last long, for soon, the Nauh-kaee returned with a few more of its brethren, and between them, they lifted him high into the sky, carrying him across the mountaintops to their Kakikagiget. For a time, Abafouq had feared they meant to drop him from such a height, as if his speaking their solemn rites had been an act of blasphemy deserving death. But he convinced himself otherwise when he was not released from their firm grip. After all, if they wished him dead, they’d had only to leave him in the snows.
But when he was brought to the Kakikagiget, he was brought inside and warmed within a bed of hay. He was fed thick broths by the Listener of Winds, and slowly nursed back to health. It took over a week, though he could not well remember those days. Throughout them all, his keeper had never once spoken, but only cared for him as if he were a sick animal, a prized ram valued only for his breeding stock.
Abafouq continued to turn the spit, his hand gripping the leather bound handle tightly. Five years now he’d lived with Guernef, the Kakikagiget. Though he could understand his keeper’s speech, no other Nauh-kaee would allow him that honour. It had been longer still since he had spoken with any of his own kind. His only conversations with any remotely resembling the Binoq were his short messages back and forth between the Åelf, and their fellow watcher in Metamor.
Glancing up, he could still feel the scrutiny of the great beast’s eyes. Finally, Abafouq asked, “What is on your mind?”
“You have not yet told any of your intentions,” Guernef responded. His squawking voice was of course completely unintelligible. Yet the words, the meanings, were plain to him within his mind, as if he heard his own voice superimposed upon those avian cries.
Abafouq nodded thoughtfully, hands still stirring the spit. The meat was beginning to warm now, turning from pink to a rich brown along the outside. It would be longer before it was cooked enough for him to eat. “No,” he admitted, “but why must I?”
His keeper’s eyes narrowed ever so slightly, reproachfully. It was at those times that Abafouq felt much like a pet or a child being scolded. It was then that he knew he would always live amongst the Nauh-kaee at their sufferance. “Knowledge is the key to all struggles. They must know.”
The Binoq felt a tremor in his heart, as if the hides had been blown away from the entrance, and even now, chill air filled the cavern. “I wanted to surprise them.”
Guernef rose a bit further back on his hind legs, the long white-scaled talons on his forepaws scraping over the stone table. “You wish not to be ordered otherwise. You fear that Qan-af-årael will tell you to stay.”
The cold clutched further around his heart then, and the lights within the room dimmed slightly, Abafouq was sure of it. He stood still for a moment, before remembering his meal, once more turning the spit, no longer able to meet his keeper’s eyes. Heat filled his cheeks and his eyes. It took him a moment to realize that he was crying. He turned away, facing the fire pit fully, so that he would not show tears to the Nauh-kaee.
“Yes,” he admitted, his voice tight. He rubbed his tears away with the back of one hand, hoping no more would come. “Yes, I fear that.”
The shrill squawking behind him made his flesh tense. “That matters not. You must send word to Qan-af-årael at once.”
He stared at the meat, keeping the spit in place. The outside was almost completely browned. At long last, as the flush left his cheeks, and his heart slowed, he nodded. “You are right. I will send a message tonight.” Steel came into his voice, and his teeth bared, “But I will go to Metamor.”
He felt something heavy press against his back. Abafouq turned on his side, and found himself face to face with the Nauh-kaee, the beak and cold eyes terribly close. One of the beast’s wings was pressed against his back, thick feathers almost embracing him. “Yes, I believe you will. I still intend to go with you.”
Abafouq felt a small smile creep over his lips. Though the creature was terribly alien, and sometimes seemed no more than another monster, he had been the Binoqs only companion for five years. “I would be glad to have you accompany me on the journey.”
Guernef leaned back then, his ears folded back against the side of his head. “I must fly.” And with that the Nauh-kaee turned and padded up the entranceway, his talons scrapping the stone softly, as if they were covered in down. Abafouq watched him leave, seeing his wings pulled in tight, long tail gently swaying back and forth in the cold air. And then he was gone, leaving only the shadowy darkness of the corridor behind.
He resumed turning the spit once more, pondering what sort of message he could send. Even after the meat had finished cooking, and he had supped, he still was not sure what he would say. It was not until he set the greased parchment upon the table, and had heated the end of his stylus that words finally came to him.
“I wish to go to Metamor ere the Spring should end. What would you have of me while I am there?”
Satisfied, he rolled the script as tightly as he could, the burned runes clear upon the page. Abafouq moved back within his small chambers, and slipped beneath another heavy curtain of bearskin. A slender staircase winded upwards through the rock, leading to the rookery where he kept the few sparrows. The chamber was warm, despite the narrow crack that led out to the air.
Inside the cage were two birds, huddled close together, pecking at a bit of the feed that littered the bottom. Lifting the metal clasp that kept the cage closed, Abafouq reached in one hand, gripping the leg of one of the two. It chirped in surprise, but did not peck at him like it’s mate sometimes was wont to do. With steadied fingers, he wrapped the message in the clasp at its ankle.
Once satisfied that his message was secure, Abafouq took the sparrow and set it down on the rocks outside its cage. He resealed the metal clasp so that the companion would not think to escape, as it had tried to do before. The bird hopped about a few moments, gaining its bearings once more. It then appeared to finally notice that it was outside the cage, spreading its wings, and then leaping to manoeuver through the crack.
Abafouq watched it until it had disappeared out into the grey air. He sighed as he watched it go, his hands resting upon the cool stone. His own escape would be longer in coming. But it was coming, he reassured himself.
With a heavy but resigned heart, Abafouq climbed back down the stairs, determined to rest his head upon his hay pallet. Perhaps a bit of sleep could warm him the way his meal had not.