THE WRECK OF THE BENT WING – Part 1
(A companion story to Book 2, The Voyage of the Unquiet Ice)
In the midnight darkness – the months-long midnight darkness of winter in the arctic – Celestine of the Misthrown came awake to a distant cry from outside the hut. The sound was faint and all but drowned out by the drone of the storm – but it was a human cry nonetheless, a wail of loss and loneliness and despair, cut off even as Celestine opened her eyes.
She knew immediately what it meant; somewhere out in the dark a man was dying – indeed, was by now already dead.
In a hope she already knew to be vain she glanced about the hut, her eyes just above the blankets, peering through the slit between the scarf wrapped about her head and the collar of her jacket. But it was just as she had known it would be: she alone had heard the cry. The other sleepers were undisturbed, their shapes – barely visible in the glow from the stove – curled into frigid balls beneath their bedding: Commander Gabriel in one bunk, Lieutenant Holaz in another, and Lieutenant Manchez in a third. The remaining cots were empty, now that the captain and the others had sailed away.
Celestine listened for any further human sound from outside, but there was only the wind to be heard now, its constant moan and hum scaling maddeningly up and down across the same range of notes. No, the poor soul, whoever he had been, was gone. Nor was there any point in waking the sleepers, or venturing out to search in the darkness. She had learned that lesson long ago. They could search all they wanted, but not even the man’s body would be found. He had been snatched away to oblivion, like so many before him.
And the thing that had snatched him – the demon of the winter darkness – would be gone too, leaving no trace of itself.
Still her ears strained. The wind wailed on, monotonous, so eternal a sound there on the isle that it was rare to even notice it anymore. This storm alone had been blowing for seven days without let, and while it was the longest of the winter so far, there had been many others before it, gale after gale after gale. It was as if each winter became only worse than the one preceding it, year after year, four of them now, in this hellish place.
Celestine sighed, shifting her misshapen limbs and her bent spine beneath the blankets in a useless quest for comfort. There was nothing to be done, not about the lost man, not about the darkness, not about any of it. Her only recourse was to seek escape in the forgetfulness of sleep, like everyone else, until the winter should wear away, and spring arrive, and with it come the gradual easing of the gales and the slow return of light to the sky…
She froze, for now another sound did come.
It was not the wind, or a cry – it was a distant clatter, as if something wooden was being tossed over. A crate or a barrel maybe. The noise repeated, unmistakable, the splinter of wood on stone.
Celestine shrank away, staring at the far wall of the hut. Her mind’s eye was out in the storm-black night, in the endlessly battering wind. There was only one place such a sound could come from. Beyond the shacks and tents, and alongside the humped graveyard, lay the storage dump, where the crates and barrels that had once held the Bent Wings’ supplies of food were piled, all empty now and waiting to be burned in the stoves.
She heard it again, wood shattering. But that shouldn’t be. The barrels and crates were firmly lashed down, secure against the wind – the crew had been taught that much during their first winter on the isle.
Which could only mean that someone was out there, roaming the dump, engaged in deliberate destruction.
Celestine moaned softly to herself. It was not one of the crew out there. No crewman would venture out during a storm like this, into the howling darkness and deadly cold, just to wreak havoc among the crates. None of the survivors, starved and dying, had such strength to waste.
No, not one of the crew… it was the creature that hunted the crew, stealing men away by darkness.
The demon of the ice.
It was still in the camp! Never before, after luring its victim away into the void, had the unseen thing lingered in the vicinity. But for some reason tonight was different. Tonight, it was out there still.
Why? wondered Celestine in her fear. What did it want? Was it unsated? Did it seek yet another soul to add to its count?
As if the tally wasn’t already dreadful enough! Eleven men this winter, by her reckoning. And nine the winter before that, and three even earlier, during their very first winter shipwrecked. The demon’s appetite only grew more terrible, it seemed, as the crew dwindled.
Yet even worse, in a way, was the fact that only Celestine knew it was happening. Oh, the disappearances were noted – but everyone else assumed that the missing men had simply wandered off into the night out of despair or madness, to die in the ice. And amid all the other deaths in the camp – the everyday deaths of starvation and disease – what were twenty more? After all, of the Bent Wing’s original complement of over two hundred and fifty crew, only forty-eight skeletal survivors now remained, clinging to life.
Celestine alone could not explain away the disappearances so easily. She alone had heard the cries in the darkness, so terrified, so hopeless. Something was carrying the men away as they died, she was sure. She had never beheld the creature, so could describe neither its shape nor manner of being, but she believed in it all the same: the embodiment of winter, and of night and cold; a demon that worked the will of the great white north; a spectre that was both indictment and executioner to the crew of the Bent Wing, for the crime of daring to come to this dreadful place, where no man should ever intrude.
A new sound came, closer now.
It was a ripping, tearing noise, followed by the wild flap of canvas, blowing loose suddenly in the gale.
Terror awoke anew in Celestine. It was one of the tents. But that too should have been impossible. The tents were abandoned and had long since been allowed to collapse, weighed down with snow. Indeed, they were frozen solid into the ground. To make such a sound, the canvas would have to be torn free from the ice, an act of superhuman strength.
But there – the ripping and wild flapping came again, as if a giant bird was taking wing in the darkness! It was the creature! It had come closer, into the main body of the camp. Closer to Celestine’s own hut.
Wake up, she willed the three sleeping officers. Wake up!
If only so they could hear the noises too, and prove that she was not mad, and that the thing was real, stalking out there in the dark.
For Celestine was still sane enough to doubt her own sanity. Starvation had afflicted her like everyone else, and she’d had her moments of fever and waking delirium. It was quite possible, she could not deny, that she was imagining the phantom even now, and always had imagined it, and that all those men who’d vanished really had merely wandered away.
But she could not be sure.
So – wake up, please!
But the three men slept on, and she dared not speak aloud to rouse them, lest the demon out there hear her too.
Silence again, above the wind.
Then – the worst sound of all.
From close by, just outside the hut, came the crackle of ice, sharp through the thrum of the storm. A distinctive noise. Much of the isle’s stony ground was bare of snow, swept clean by the constant gales, but every inch of rock was rimed with a thin, black frost – frost that cracked underfoot.
Especially if the tread was a heavy one.
Celestine listened in appalled fascination. The sound repeated. And again. Slow steps. Deliberate. Weighted.
She shrank further still into her bed. The thing was right outside the hut! The wind rose for a moment as if to greet it, lifting from a moan to a shriek, before falling away again. More steps came, passing along one wall, and then along the next, Celestine’s wide eyes following their progress helplessly. Now they passed directly by her bed against the rear wall, only inches away through the thin timbers, making her skin crawl, though she dared not move. The spectre paused, and her heart stopped – then the steps moved on. It was stalking a circle about the cabin. Slowly, purposively, as if determined to alert those inside to its presence with the sound of its icy footsteps.
What was it out there? What manner of apparition? It was an upright creature by the sound, walking on two legs, but the tread was too long, and too heavy, to be human. In Celestine’s mind it was purely inhuman. Taller than a man, stronger, and faceless in the dark…
It had circled the hut entire now, and had arrived at the door. There it stopped, and the wind roared again, then eased away. Wake up, she willed desperately of the sleepers around her, wake up! As if the mere fact of their consciousness would dispel the thing.
But the three men slumbered on.
The door creaked, pressing inwards.
It was latched, and firmly wedged to stop it knocking in the wind – but now a weight was pressed against it from the outside, and the timbers groaned as they bowed against the hinges. The pressure eased, and then returned, heavier than before, the wood groaning louder.
Celestine couldn’t breathe. It was going to come inside. It was coming for someone inside the cabin. Not her – of that she was sure, at least – but one of the officers, one of the heedlessly sleeping men. Maybe even Commander Gabriel. And no, she was not ready to lose dear Gabriel…
The groaning ceased. The door stood unyielding. Celestine dared a single intake of air to her starving lungs – then a thudding knock rattled the wood. Muffled, and yet immensely profound.
Once. Twice. A third time.
I have come.
It was a voice that was no voice. It whispered hollow, only in her mind. She shook her head witlessly. Go away. Take some other poor soul. But leave this hut alone, leave Gabriel alone.
He will be dead soon.
No. Not him. They would be lost without Gabriel.
All on this isle will be dead soon. Except for you.
No, it wasn’t real, it wasn’t real…
I will have a task for you then.
Celestine gave a choked cry of refusal – and in reply a furious hammering broke out, the brutal pounding of immense fists on the door. At the same time the wind rose to a thunder, and the timbers were shuddering, the wedges flying free, and then Celestine was screaming.
Now the others woke. Commander Gabriel was the first, flinging off his blankets to stare blearily at the juddering door, the blows continuing to rain upon it. Then Holaz and Manchez were sitting up bewildered in their cots. Gabriel, banishing sleep, lurched erect and crossed to the door, and even as Celestine cried out to warn him, No, he threw it back.
The wind screamed high, and freezing air blasted in through the opening – but beyond was only empty darkness.
There was nothing there.
Gabriel thrust his head out into the blackness for an instant, then withdrew it and slammed the door shut again.
‘How did this come loose?’ he demanded irritably of the others as he fastened the latch once more, then re-seated the wedges around the door frame. ‘Was someone fool enough to go outside?’
Holaz and Manchez only shook their heads blankly. Gabriel looked to Celestine, but she, bathed in a cold sweat of relief, could only likewise plead ignorance. The wind. It had just been the wind, rising suddenly and catching the door in just the right way to unseat it.
And the other, earlier sounds? The tents ripping away, the crates falling? Had they too been caused only by the wind, by some unusual and powerful vortex whirling within the greater storm?
It was possible, yes…
The two lieutenants had already rolled over to return to sleep, and Commander Gabriel, his face skull-thin in the dimness, took a moment to feed the stove before he too climbed painfully back into his cot and wrapped himself in his blankets. Outside, the gale boomed loud again, shaking the whole hut, but the door held firm, and the gust passed.
But the cry in the darkness that had first woken her? And the silent voice in her mind? Had they too been illusions?
Of that Celestine was less sure.
She heaved a sigh at last. The incident was over, and now that the horror of it had passed, the starvation fatigue was claiming her once more. She dug herself back beneath her blankets, and slept.
When she awoke the storm had blown itself out and silence reigned over the isle. Unusually, besides her, the hut was empty; the others were up and abroad in the night. Celestine ventured warily outdoors and found men gathered here and in there in the stillness, all staring at the sky – for the clouds were gone, and green curls of aurora were beginning to glow above the ice cliffs. It was the first natural light any of them had beheld in months.
Taking advantage of the illumination and the calm, Commander Gabriel now summoned a muster of the crew, and so the last sleepers were roused and all gathered in lines under the spectral sky to hear the roster called. Names were shouted and answered – but then came a name that was greeted first by silence, and then by the grim hardening of faces.
Celestine bowed her head. The missing man was a sailor named Erneste. She had not known him well, she remembered only a round face, once fat but now sagging with empty flesh, and a balding head. He had been sleeping with nine others in one of the barracks. None of his companions knew what had happened to him. He had simply vanished in the night.
‘Lost in storm,’ pronounced Gabriel, inscribing this on the roster, and Celestine knew there was no point in trying to argue otherwise.
Now they were only forty-seven.
But even as they all stood there, the aurora slowly flared to a new brightness in the sky, bathing the ice all about in a cold green light, and another result of the storm was revealed, a momentous one.
To the south, great ice floes had blocked the channel for the past three years, always packed into a solid, frowning mass. Now they had changed. Heaved and shoved about by the gale, they had cracked apart down the channel’s centre, opening a narrow crevice that extended south beyond view. Clear water glistened within, green in reflection of the sky.
Men ran tottering to the shore of the isle, crying aloud in feeble rasps of celebration and hope. At last, at last, the grip of the ice had relented. At last, the way south was opening again, the path back to the sea and to freedom. At last, escape might be possible, or rescue might come.
Celestine too stared in wonder, all thoughts of the winter demon banished. Open water! After three long years!
For the first time, she dared truly to believe it.
Against all fortune and expectation, her vision of four years past – the horrifying glimpse of the Bent Wing’s entire crew dead and frozen, herself included – might yet be proven wrong.
* * *
That vision had baffled her from the very beginning.
Celestine had always been able to predict death, of course. It was her one gift, and burden, as a scapegoat. But it had always been a gentle power, a hint of death only, a sad foreknowledge. The terror she beheld at the moment the Bent Wing separated from the other two ships of the Lord Designate’s fleet, and set out alone, was something far more immediate and brutal. A madness had come upon her, and she had fallen to the deck in a fit.
Of the rest of that day she remembered nothing. But she later learned that as the crew held back, watching her writhe upon the timbers, unnerved by their scapegoat’s display – such a terrible omen at the start of a voyage! – and as Captain Altona shouted at her in fury, it was Commander Gabriel who lifted her gently and took her away to her cabin, muttering soft words of comfort that she did not hear, lost as she was in her vision. And it was Gabriel who fed her sips of warm brandy until she passed from fevered seizure to the relaxation of proper sleep. But even then her dreams were haunted by ice-covered faces and blank frozen eyes and mouths filled with snow.
And yet, confusingly, when Celestine rose the next day and climbed fearfully to the main deck she found that the morning was bright and clear, that the Bent Wing was sailing north untroubled, and that there was no sign of icy death of any of the crew’s faces. Everyone from the captain down to the lowest seaman was quite normal and themselves again.
And that made no sense, for never before, when she had seen the grey death-cast come over a victim’s face, had that cast ever then gone away. Death could never be suspended or reversed.
What then was she to make of it?
Had she been mistaken, or misled? Had she concocted a fantasy of doom out of her own fear at the sudden separation of the ship from the others, and out of the lingering unease caused by her encounter with Axay? Who wouldn’t be disturbed by the things she had seen on the Twelfth Kingdom, and experienced in the warm waters of Axay’s pool? And after all, even Axay – the greatest of all seers – had not foretold their death in the north. Only that their sojourn would be a hard and prolonged one, and that Celestine herself would learn something there that she must pass on to another scapegoat…
Yes, Celestine decided as she stood in the sunshine: if the grey casts of death had vanished, then they had never been there to be begin with. No doubt there would be travails in the Unquiet Ice – such was ever the price of exploration – but there was no call for despair.
For the first two weeks of the voyage she was allowed to maintain this happy conviction. The crew, seeing that she was herself again, soon recovered their enthusiasm, and the ship made steady time northwards, the weather and the seas as fine as could be hoped for in the season, which was late winter. With every mile that passed, Celestine grew more confident that her vision had been only an aberration, an attack of overwrought nerves…
But then, one sunlit midday as she stood on the foredeck gazing over the bow, a strange sensation swept through her, a dizziness and nausea like seasickness, and the world changed before her eyes.
The glimmering blue sea turned grey and merged with a sky of the same colour; the mild conditions turned to freezing; and the wind that had been filling the sails suddenly vanished, replaced with a gelid stillness, the motionless air thick with descending pale flakes. It was snowing.
Celestine stared in bewilderment, turning a full circle where she stood upon the deck, but it was no illusion, it was real. The sun, which had been high in the sky only a moment before, was now only a pale nub low on the southern horizon. The snow fell on silently, muffling the world, the ship creeping forward under sullenly drooping sails, and all about rose dim shapes from the ocean, huge and hulking. Icebergs… they must be icebergs. Except they weren’t white, they were streaked grey and black…
Snow? Blackened bergs? What was this?
But then Celestine tasted burning, and realised that it wasn’t snow falling at all, but ash. It was raining ash, draping this strange ocean and its icebergs with a soft cloak that spread as far as she could see. And from the north, so faint as to be barely audible, and yet profound and disturbing, the only sound in all this dim quiet, came a never-ending throb and rumble…
Then, as quickly as it had come, the bizarre spectacle was gone. A warm wind seemed to blow it all away, and abruptly the Bent Wing was sailing in clear sunshine once more on a friendly sea, and Celestine was left to gape about in wonder at the day and the ship.
What had happened? Where had she been?
Nowhere at all, surely. It had just been some fantastic waking dream. There was no such place. Yes, the ship was bound for the Unquiet Ice, and would meet icebergs, but it would be nothing like that, so dark and still, with ash falling, and with distant rumblings from beyond the horizon…
After an hour of reasoning so with herself – and with the acuteness of the memory fading – Celestine managed to put the mirage aside, dismissing it as another projection of her own fears, nothing more. Certainly, it was no vision of things to come. Such foretelling was beyond her. She was no seer like the dreadful Axay. She was only little Celestine.
And for a while she was comforted.
But ten days later, another vision came.
By then, the Bent Wing was approaching the Latitude of Storms, and the fine weather of earlier in the voyage was giving way to more unsettled conditions, the swell rising, the sky clouding over, the wind blowing colder and more contrary, almost directly out of the north. On one such blustery morning, as Celestine was dressing in her quarters, sea sickness nagging at her stomach, suddenly the same whirling sensation as before possessed her, and the familiar walls of her little cabin dissolved and disappeared.
She found herself standing instead on the high deck, all alone, the ship seemingly deserted aside from her. The stormy weather had vanished. Once more, the Bent Wing was sailing slowly through a soft haze of falling ash. It was the same grey world of her previous vision. Only this time the ash was clearing away, as if whatever fire or cataclysm had caused it was ended now. The great hulking shapes of icebergs were fewer, and there was no ominous throb and rumble from the north anymore. All was silent, and yet for some reason the silence only increased Celestine’s unease.
Abruptly, north beyond the bow, the last curtain of ash drew away. The air cleared and the sky opened out, pale with arctic summer light. Celestine stared in awe, for ahead of the ship rose a titanic rampart of ice, miles high and stretching beyond sight east and west, dazzling white in places, streaked grey with ash in others. She had never seen such a thing before, but knew all the same what this must be – the fabled Ice Wall.
And lo – directly in the ship’s path an immense chasm had opened in the Wall, a channel extending away northwards into the Ice. Why, it must be the very passage in search of which they had set sail, the legendary North Way, the route that might lead even to the pole. The Bent Wing need only enter the chasm and follow it north to make the great discovery – but dread took hold of Celestine. No, no, she thought, don’t go in there, please…
Then it was all gone and she was back in her cabin, staring-wide eyed at the walls as the ship rolled and creaked.
Axay, she thought, shaken to her core. Axay had done this to her, cursed her with these freakish hallucinations. She had never known such visions before visiting the Twelfth Kingdom. Yes, during that embrace in the waters of the well, Axay had given her this power, had changed her.
On the one hand Celestine was angry, for what right did Axay have to do any such thing to her, un-asked?
But at the same time she was awed.
To be able to see the future!
Except – had she truly just glimpsed an event that was to come? And even if she had, what was the point of it? Was it a warning? Was there something she was meant to do? Should she alert the captain? But of what? There had been no overt danger in what the vision had shown her, no peril to the ship, only a haunting strangeness. Indeed, far from danger, if the Bent Wing could find the passage in the Ice Wall, it would mean triumph.
Celestine shook her head, which had started to ache. She wasn’t ready for this, not prepared for such responsibilities. It had been bad enough knowing who was soon to die – but to know everything, to see the future in all its fullness, and to have to decide what to do with that knowledge: she could already imagine the burdens such a power would entail.
A wise scholar might have been able to accept it. Or a king, with councillors to advise him. But Celestine was not wise, nor a king. Better then to see nothing at all, than to carry the weight of such judgement alone. Take back your visions, Axay – she willed – I don’t want them.
But the choice was not to be hers.
A month passed, and found the Bent Wing still labouring against adverse north winds, trapping them in the southern reaches of the storm latitudes. Winter was gone by then, and spring well advanced, the captain chafing at the delay; he’d hoped for swifter progress. And one night, as Celestine tossed restlessly in her sleep, her bunk swaying and pitching with the heaving of the ship, yet another vision was granted her, her fourth in all.
It came in the form of a nightmare.
In the dream, the Bent Wing was now deep within the great chasm that Celestine had spied in her previous vision. Mighty cliffs of ice rose mile upon mile on either hand. But they were no longer sailing north towards the pole, instead they were sailing south, retreating towards the open ocean, and doing so in fear for their lives, hurrying as best they might, fleeing…
The nightmare did not at first reveal. All Celestine knew was that the terror lay somehow in the dark waters of the channel. But slowly she became aware that there was a sound in the chasm, faint initially, then swelling to a terrible rush and hiss that came from everywhere.
It was the sound of nicre, seething.
The sound of ice forming.
Now Celestine saw. Directly ahead of the ship, white masses were building themselves up from the waterline, growing with impossible speed, hissing vastly as they climbed. Icebergs, newly formed and immense, blocking the channel. Horror took her. There was no way out, no way out, and overhead the sky turned winter-black, and from below came the most awful sound of all, the ruinous grate of the keel upon stone…
Celestine opened her eyes to the darkness of her cabin, her hand pressed to her mouth to silence her scream.
A ship wreck. She had seen the Bent Wing running aground, she had felt it. They would be trapped in the channel in the Ice, and wrecked, and they would all die in the lightless winter of the arctic. Her first vision, the one of the ice covered faces and snow filled mouths, was true after all.
She must warn the captain immediately.
They must turn back.
Her thudding heart steadied a little. Wait. Wait. The nightmare had felt real, no doubt, but maybe it was only a nightmare. She’d had nightmares before, after all. Never so terrible as this, but frightening nonetheless, and yet none of them had turned out to be visions of the future. Could she really demand that the captain abandon the voyage, and abandon his dreams of discovery and fame, for the sake of what might be just a bad dream?
And yet – what if it was no dream?
The dilemma that was prophecy! For how could she know the truth of it, until the future had actually come to be?
She would delay, she decided at last. She would wait until they reached the Unquiet Ice, and the Ice Wall. If any of the happenings of her visions actually eventuated – the raining ash, for instance – then she would at least know that her foresight was genuine. Then she would act.
So the voyage continued. Still, however, the winds remained unfriendly. Upon setting out, Captain Altona had hoped to reach the Unquiet Ice within three months, so that they would arrive in the arctic in late spring, with all summer ahead to explore. But so slow was their progress due to adverse gales, it was in fact already early summer by the time they cleared the storm latitudes, and so entered the eerie calm of the Unquiet Ice.
At first, it seemed to Celestine gladly that her visions would be revealed as illusions and no more. The arctic sky was clear and the sun shone bright and cold, low in the south. No ash fell, and the first small bergs, when they were sighted, shone white and sparkling upon a blue sea.
But before her fears had truly eased, and before they came to the Unquiet Ice proper, a change came over the sea and sky.
First, a low rumbling began to emanate from far in the north, the sound dull but continuous, like faraway thunder. Then a vast cloud rose slowly from beyond the northern horizon, building to the upper atmosphere, whereupon it spread south in a great canopy, passing over the ship, until even the sternward sun was lost, and a grim twilight settled over the ocean.
Finally, ash began to rain down.
Celestine watched it fall, her mood one of bleak confirmation. The scene was exactly – exactly – as her vision had painted it.
Was it time to talk to the captain? The problem was, Altona and his officers took the ash as a good sign. Those who knew the Twin Isles spoke of similar ash falls that came from the fiery mountains there. Hence, this grey rain might well mean that mountains of flame existed somewhere in the Ice too. And if that was so, than maybe they had formed an entire island in the arctic, maybe even the fabled North Land of the pole itself!
Altona would never turn back from such a prospect, Celestine realised in dismay, on her say-so alone – not without any obvious danger present. So she held her silence over the following days as the Bent Wing crept forward through the ash. She only waited to see if her next vision would be confirmed; the arrival at the Ice Wall, and the discovery of the great chasm. Maybe at that terrible sight the captain would quail, and could then be convinced.
They went slowly, the wind never more than a breath, and at times failing altogether. The grey rain eased now and then, but the pall in the sky always remained, the world permanently grey, the ocean an undulating mat of floating ash. At length, they began to encounter mountainous icebergs rising from the mire, the denizens of the true Unquiet Ice, but their flanks were black instead of white. More strangely, they were silent and unrolling. It seemed that for once this infamous region of toppling bergs and seething nicre had been subdued to quietness. Perhaps, theorised the officers, the ash coating the bergs interfered with the natural processes. In which case, the grey rain was doubly a boon, slowing their passage maybe, but making it safer.
All the while, the rumble and throb from the north grew louder, interspersed with distinct booms and crashes, still muffled by distance, but obviously of immense force. Few on board doubted by this time that some great volcanic upheaval was taking place ahead, and some began to mutter of the dangers in straying too close to such a cataclysm.
But then, after a fortnight of the ship crawling north towards the sounds, the din reached a thudding crescendo, like the gunfire of a great sea battle culminating just beyond the horizon – before abruptly, over a few short hours, fading away to murmurs, then to silence.
The officers nodded sagely. The eruption must have blown itself out, and now the fires were dying down again, as often occurred with the volcanos on Red Island. Soon, no doubt, the sky would clear too.
And so it proved. The next day, just as Celestine had seen in her vision, the ash rain thinned and the light grew, and when the final grey curtain drew back to clear sky, there, waiting, was the Ice Wall.
Amazed cries rose about the ship – but Celestine merely gazed at the ice ramparts in silence, for she had beheld this wonder before. And yet her vision was not confirmed in full, for there was no great chasm opening there. The Wall held unbroken for as far as could be seen, east and west.
Celestine took hope. It seemed her foresight was not correct in every detail…so she need not act. Not yet.
Altona now turned the Bent Wing west, sailing slowly along the foot of the ice cliffs. He was searching, Celestine knew, for the warm currents that were rumoured to be flowing in the arctic, and which would lead – so those same rumours said – to the legendary North Way. But for many days nothing appeared, the Wall only towered unbroken on their right hand. The days became weeks, and summer ran towards its end. Still Altona pressed on, vowing that he would circumnavigate the north entirely if need be, so determined was he to be the first in all history to pierce the indomitable Ice.
In the finish it was not until summer’s very dying days, fully six months since setting out, with the pale sun sinking ever lower toward the horizon, that at last the testers reported that the water around the ship was growing warmer. They had found the current they sought, a fact evidenced in the following days by thick fogs. Expectations rose, and the watchers in the high rigging strained their eyes. And finally one morning, as the ship cleared a bank of heavy mist, the cry was raised, exultant – and Celestine’s heart sank.
Far ahead, the Ice Wall was rent asunder.
Cautiously, the captain brought the ship up to the awesome opening: a threshold four miles high on either side, between which a chasm ran away beyond sight, its end lost in the gloom cast by its own walls. The channel was at least as wide as the cliffs were high, and the waters within were clear of all ice, fingers of thin fog curling there as if in invitation.
Encompassed by dread, Celestine hurried to the high deck. Enough. She must speak now. The ship must not enter here.
She found Captain Altona in excited consultation with his first and second officers, Commander Javier and Commander Gabriel. ‘See how the water in the channel steams,’ he was saying. ‘It must have been warmed by the very volcanic cataclysms we observed as we arrived in the arctic – and thus is the ice opened. We are fortunate indeed to visit at such a time, when the fires are stoked hot. Else-wise, we may have found the way shut!’
‘We mean to go in then?’ asked Javier keenly.
Altona nodded. ‘To do so is precisely why we have come, and this chance must not be wasted. When the fires are quieter, the channel will no doubt freeze over once more, which explains why the fabled North Way has been glimpsed before over centuries past, but never found again when ships return in search of it. Our time may be short. We must not delay.’
They hadn’t noticed Celestine as she’d come up. Now she intruded to stand directly in front of Altona, looking up at him askance – for she was barely half his height, and bent besides. She shook her head vehemently, forcing out rare words. ‘No, Captain. We must not go there.’
Altona considered her in puzzlement. ‘What’s wrong, lass? I know it’s a daunting prospect, such cliffs of ice and all, but we’re a sound ship and crew, it’s not beyond our skill to venture in.’
She shook her head again. ‘We will be trapped in there. Caught in the ice. The ship will be wrecked. I know it.’
Javier and Gabriel exchanged unsettled glances, but Altona frowned at her. ‘Are you trying to say you’ve foreseen this?’
Celestine nodded intently. ‘We must turn back!’
The captain’s frown hardened. ‘Really, lass, I’m disappointed in you. In all the years we’ve sailed together, you’ve never made any pretence of being foresighted – so why do it now? You’ve always been a simple and honest soul, and all the more worthy a scapegoat for it. I’ve never asked for magic from you. Leave such superstitions to the foolish, I say. If you’re scared by yonder cliffs and what lies within, then there’s no blame to you – for they are frightening indeed. But don’t claim your fear to be prophecy!’
Celestine groaned in frustration, turned in plea to the other two men. The first officer now matched the captain’s disapproving stare, but Gabriel – her friend Gabriel – met her gaze more thoughtfully.
‘Sir,’ he said to the captain, ‘I know nothing of prophecy. But this channel may not be as open to us as it appears. You suggest that its waters are warmed and kept ice free by fiery events further within. But as we can see by the clear sky, and by the absence of thunder from the north, whatever event raged when we first arrived in the arctic, it has passed now, and its fires have cooled. So will not the waters in the channel now also begin to cool? And if they do, then ice may return there, and catch us if we are unwary.’
‘Then we will be wary!’ retorted Altona. ‘Rest assured, gentlemen, I will not risk this ship rashly. But there are other perils besides rashness, for it’s always easy to imagine difficulties and raise doubts. What’s more important is that we must not let timidity rule us when a once-in-a-half-millennium chance beckons, and we stand on the brink of great discovery!’
The captain’s tone was reasoned – but Celestine could glimpse a wilder passion in Altona’s eye, a glint that she recognised as an explorer’s madness. After the long voyage and search, a fabulous prize and fame unending awaited him now, if only he braved the channel.
She made a final effort, daring to address her captain as she had never dared before. ‘Fool. You will lead us all to death!’
‘Silence!’ Altona roared. ‘Scapegoat, you will leave the high deck immediately! And if you speak a word of this to the crew, I shall confine you to your cabin for the remainder of the voyage!’
Celestine bent her head. It was too late. Altona would be deterred by no objection, no matter how valid, nor by any prophecy. Not because he didn’t believe them, but because he would not believe.
She turned away in defeat, the weight of the long winters ahead already settling on her unready shoulders.
The future would be what it would be.
And so they sailed into the chasm.
In the black mood that now descended upon her, Celestine found nothing of beauty to behold in the great channel. The louring ice cliffs did not impress her, nor did the width and depth of the waters. She could not share in the growing anticipation among the crew as the miles and days passed, and as it seemed that this path, winding ever into the heart of the ice cap, would surely lead them to the Pole, and to the discovery of the Age.
She merely waited for the inevitable disaster.
Three days in, and forty miles from the sea, they came upon the first intimations of such: a small island, set in the middle of the channel, the sight of which filled Celestine with a vast unease. She had never beheld it in any of her visions, but somehow it was loathsome to her.
The captain, however, was quick to hove to and put a boat ashore, for this was the first land they had sighted since leaving the Kingdoms. But it was soon apparent that the isle was not the fabled North Land for which Altona sought. It was only a narrow spit of stone a hundred or so yards long and no more than fifty wide, quite bare of any life or warmth.
After a disappointing hour there, they bid the useless isle farewell, raised anchor and sailed on. But only a half day further north their progress was slowed more severely when the weather turned.
Already, in fact, conditions had become grey and cold, for the arctic autumn was deepening, the light leaching from the sky, and within the great chasm little of it reached the surface of the water in any case. But now the first heralding storm of the coming winter blew up. A gale wind, freezing, came cascading down the cliffs from the heights of the ice cap, and the air turned thick with a blizzard of stinging snow. The Bent Wing was beset, and in the close waters of the channel it was all the crew could do to hold the ship at anchor mid-stream and not be run against one or other of the walls.
For eleven interminable days the storm blew, with a violence that seemed almost too fantastic to believe – though they would become all too familiar with such storms in the years ahead. By the time it dissipated, leaving behind a battered, icicle bestrewn ship, and a chastened crew, the last light was gone. The arctic sky had faded from pale pink to a cold, twilight blue, and there was a black sheen on the waters of the channel.
It was a foretaste of true winter, and warning enough for most on board. Mutters below decks, and even in the Great Cabin, declared that it was surely time to retreat to warmer waters, at least until spring came. But Captain Altona, his mind still afire with the promise of discovery, only raised sail once the storm was gone, and pushed on northwards.
But his determination was in vain. Not five miles further north, the ship came round a slow bend and found that the black waters ahead had turned white. The chasm itself still ran on, wide and open beyond sight, but at the waterline a jumble of jagged shapes broke the surface; ice chunks, incipient bergs, just beginning to grow. They were only thinly spread at the forefront, but they thickened northward into a solid pack.
Altona reluctantly lowered anchor and called a conference of his officers on the high deck. Celestine too attended, although with little hope now that it would make any difference.
‘Obviously,’ said the captain, ‘the way ahead is blocked. But that should not surprise us. After all, summer is gone, and winter nears. It is only to be expected that the channel should freeze over.’
‘Do we retreat then?’ asked Commander Javier.
‘Not necessarily,’ Altona mused. ‘One alternative is to wait here through the winter until spring comes and the channel thaws again. It would be cold and dark, no doubt, but we are well provisioned for exactly those conditions. And other ships have survived such trials unscathed.’
‘Other ships,’ said Celestine blackly. ‘Not us.’
The captain bridled – but Gabriel forestalled him quickly. ‘Sir, if the channel is closing over purely because of the season, then you may be right. But as you said yourself – it’s likely these waters were opened only by the volcanic activity we observed earlier, and thus are freezing over now because that activity has died. If so, then the ice will not melt come spring, but only when the volcanic fires rise again. And who can say when that will be? Surely it would be safer to retreat to the sea and spend the winter on open water, then return here in the summer and see what there is to be seen.’
Altona hesitated. Gabriel’s advice was sound, but Celestine could see that the captain did not welcome it. He did not want to give up the channel, and the pole, no matter the dangers. He was going to refuse, she was sure…but then came a sudden commotion from the waters ahead.
All eyes swung north. One of the young bergs, already grown to the height of the lower spars on the ship, had overbalanced and was rolling with a great din of groaning and cracking. It sent out waves as it toppled, waves that set the other bergs nearby rolling and cracking too, until suddenly the whole ice field was in motion and tumult. An unearthly roar swelled to fill the chasm, amplifying in echoes back and forth between the cliffs.
‘Perhaps,’ shouted the captain, with a nod to Gabriel, ‘the better part of valour may well be to retreat for now. We will return when the sun once again shines here. All hands, prepare to come about!’
And so the Bent Wing turned away from the ice and back towards the safety of open sea. They went steadily at first, confident that the channel was freezing from the north alone, and that bergs lay only at their stern. They passed by the stony little isle once more – again, a shudder of premonition chilled Celestine’s bones as she studied its naked shores – and pressed south. But a few miles further along, small bergs began to appear. At first there were only a few of them, new born and slow growing, floating close by the ice cliffs where the water was coldest. But they increased southward.
Alarm gripped the crew. Might ice block their escape? The great chasm, which had seemed so wide and inviting when they had entered, felt narrower now, and darker – and endlessly long. The officers fretted and made calculations of their chances as they hurried the ship as best they might. The water was only just cold enough, nicre had only just started to grow: if the freezing held off only a day or two more then they could still win free…
The bergs thickened, but the way was not yet shut, and by the third day of retreat even Celestine dared to hope that despite all she knew they would escape. Indeed, standing on the forecastle amid a crowd of eager watchers, she was sure that in the twilight gloom she could see the towering walls of the chasm opening out to open sky only a few miles ahead.
But at water level a mist hid the surface – and suddenly the Bent Wing’s bow grated hard against ice. The ship shuddered, moved on, then hit ice again, more heavily this time, and lurched to a stop.
‘Let go sail!’ came the cry, and the men aloft hurried to ease canvas before the ship drove itself to ruin against the obstacle.
The Bent Wing drifted backwards, and in the sudden quiet a soft hissing sound rose, like falling rain. Ahead, the mist seemed to swirl upon itself in the gloom, as if driven by interior winds, but then the shadows resolved themselves to the watchers on the foredeck: they were not swirls of mist at all, but hulking shapes of ice, grey as stone in the twilight, rising as high as the upper spars already, and growing, always growing.
They formed a wall across the channel, already so closely packed that they could not topple, but only grow higher.
‘Launch the boats!’ was the dispirited command from the high deck. ‘Prepare the lines! We must go back!’
And so they retreated, towing themselves laboriously away from the ice blockade, north again along the channel until they had sea room enough to raise canvas once more. It was soon accomplished – but what was the use of it? Where was there left for them to sail now?
‘We must hope that some portion of the channel remains unfrozen through the winter,’ said Altona when the officers were gathered again, his jaw set hard against any admission of error. ‘We can survive for many months, as long as the ship itself is not crushed by ice pressing too close.’
To Gabriel he made no apology, and his only acknowledgement of Celestine was a warning glare that said no talk of wrecks or death. And indeed she held silent, for what was the use of warnings now?
Grimly, the Bent Wing sailed north for three days, and so returned to the vicinity of the little isle, where they dropped anchor, for the waters there – seemingly warmer than elsewhere in the channel – were clear yet of bergs. Also, the presence of land, however bare, was some comfort. At least to the rest of the crew. Celestine now considered the isle with open dread.
Long, terrible months followed. Autumn darkened to the full night of winter and the cold became brutal. Even in the most sheltered corner of the ship it was inescapable; topside it was unendurable. Storm followed storm, howling gales avalanching down the great cliffs. The ship was soon reduced to a ragged apparition of icy decks and tattered rigging. The crew looked no better, wrapped stiffly in ever-thicker bundles of clothing, and yet frost-nipped every man, faces drawn and black from the smoke of the fires below.
But the worse danger came from the waters of the channel. The icebergs advanced steadily upon the isle from both the north and the south. By the approach of spring, only a few miles of clear water remained. As light returned to the narrow sky high above, men watched the icebergs eagerly for any sign of thaw. But as the spring advanced, week by week, their hopes were ground away to nothing. The ice did not thaw or retreat.
Instead, it kept advancing. The advent of summer slowed its progress somewhat, but even so, by summer’s end, and by the approach of their first anniversary since entering the channel, the open water extended no more than half a mile about the island. That they faced another winter in their prison could not be denied – but worse, there was little doubt now that the bergs would soon fill the remaining gap, threatening to crush the ship.
‘We shall ground ourselves on the isle,’ said Altona to his officers, their expressions already gaunt and hungry after a year of short rations. ‘And hope that we rest high enough to escape the ice’s grip.’
So the Bent Wing was brought in to sit upon the gently shoaling shore of the island. But all precautions proved futile. By mid-autumn, the channel was a mass of ice all about them, and the ship’s hull was firmly gripped. That grip alone the hull might have withstood, but over the following weeks the whole ice sheet itself began to move, and in doing so slowly shoved the ship hard against the isle’s ungiving spine. Over a period of two helpless months, the crew could only watch and listen in horror as the hull’s timbers groaned and grated against stone, flexing terribly, arching further and further –
Until the Bent Wing’s back broke.
A great rent opened in the keel – and that was only the beginning. The ice sheet shifted direction, and then did so again and again repeatedly through that long awful winter, gradually grinding the ship into ruins.
The crew lingered on board for as long as the vessel provided them shelter, but when at last the whole right flank split away, exposing all decks to the open air, Captain Altona gave the long-dreaded order.
In darkness and savage cold, the two hundred and fifty crew – for there had been no deaths as yet, although there was much misery and sickness – set about building a camp on the northern half of the isle, which still rose clear of the ice. Some of the men were housed in tents, heaped about with snow, others were accommodated in three dormitory barracks, fashioned by the carpenters from spare timbers. A fourth, smaller hut became home to the officers, furnished in mock finery with relics from the Great Cabin.
But when this hut was complete, Celestine received a rude shock. Altona announced that he did not want her to reside there, even though it was customary for a ship’s scapegoat to always share accommodation with the officers. ‘Room can be made for her in one of the barracks,’ he declared at the final meeting of the officers to be held on board the Bent Wing, not even looking at Celestine. ‘I won’t have her pestering me with her predictions of doom and disaster all through the confines of winter.’
This provoked an uneasy silence and many worried glances among the officers, but as ever, it was only Gabriel who would challenge Altona directly. ‘Sir, what has Celestine done to deserve such exile, other than report as her heart has urged her to report? Perhaps she is foresighted, perhaps not, but surely you yourself are now risking fate’s condemnation, to banish your own scapegoat from your company. A corner can easily be made for her in our hut, and a strung blanket will keep her from your sight, if you so insist.’
The captain fumed a moment, but the alarm on all his officers’ faces could not be ignored. ‘Very well,’ he snapped at last. ‘But a single word of prophecy from her and she goes, fate or no fate! Unless, that is, she wants to speak of brighter times, when we will be free again.’
Celestine nodded stiffly to Altona. There was little danger that she would speak to him ever again of any foretelling anyway, when he would only ignore her. But in truth no visions had come to her through all the year previous, and she had begun to wonder if they would ever return. Maybe the power was lost, seeing that she had failed to make any use of it.
If so, it was one mercy at least.
She’d had enough of the future.
With the camp now complete, and everyone installed, there was little to be done throughout the rest of that second winter other than to wait for the coming of spring – and meanwhile attend to the boats.
For this was their last hope now. The ship’s four boats had been saved from the wreck, and the two largest, each of them fourteen-man cutters, were handed to the carpenters to be decked over and given half-cabins and masts, so that they would be ready for voyaging on the open sea. They could never carry all the Bent Wing’s crew, of course, but they could at least bear a smaller party home to the Kingdoms to summon a rescue mission.
‘We have supplies to survive another year at least,’ said Altona to his officers in their little hut, a fire crackling in the stove as a gale blew in the darkness outside. ‘And maybe longer, if stretched to the limit. Time enough for messengers to reach home, and for a fleet to come after us in reply. So take hope! The boats will set forth at the first light of spring; going by water if the channel should clear, but if not, then we shall fit rails to the craft, so that they may be dragged over the ice by their crews to the sea.’
The officers nodded determinedly. But Celestine only hunched in gloom in her corner, staring at the wood burning in the fire, the bones of the very ship that had brought them there. She saw little hope in those flames, only false trails, leading nowhere. And that very same night – night according to the hourglass, at least, for all was eternal darkness – as the gale wailed to itself, and everyone slept, death made a first visit to the camp.
Celestine alone heard it, a forlorn cry over the wind, the sound of a man lost to some mortal enemy. She struggled from her bed and woke the others. But when the men ventured out into the moaning blackness they found nothing, only returned in puzzlement, annoyed that Celestine had disturbed their sleep. The captain muttered at her balefully, shaking his head, and she subsided, abashed. She must have merely dreamt the sound.
But when the roster was called the next day, one man was missing, though no one knew where he had gone, or when.
It marked a turning point. The dying had begun, and would never really cease now amid the tribulations of hunger and cold and overcrowding in the tents and barracks. In all, twelve men would expire that winter. Nine of them would do so in their beds, but twice more before spring came Celestine heard the despairing cries in the darkness, and twice more at muster a man would be reported unaccountably vanished.
Lost wandering from the camp, wrote the captain of these men in the ship’s log. But Celestine was not so sure. The cries she’d heard in the winter night had sounded so haunted, so unwilling, the cries of men taken from all warmth and hope, as if dragged away by something that left no trace.
But at last the light returned with the dawning of spring, and the boats were readied to embark finally on their mission for home. Alas, the sun brought little warmth with its reappearance, and the northern fires still slept, so the channel remained frozen over and tightly jammed. Thus, when the boats set out, they went overland, on rails, across the ice.
It was a sizeable expedition in its own right, a party of some forty men under command of the first officer, Javier. But even with the boats set on skis, and with twenty men to pull each craft, it would be a fantastically difficult journey just to reach the sea. The ice was no level snow field, it was forty miles of plunging crevasses and jagged pinnacles that rose as high as five hundred feet. And then there would still remain a long voyage at sea, three months at the least, in tiny craft never meant for such a purpose.
Nevertheless, it was with high spirits that the boats set forth, under the pink sky of the arctic spring. Celestine watched the two teams for an hour as they slowly climbed the first of the ice ridges to finally vanish into the whiteness. She wondered – could there be a chance after all? In the winter darkness she had despaired, but when life remained, when men were willing to struggle so bravely to survive, was it right that she deny hope?
A summer of impatience and expectation followed, agonising in its slowness and mocking in its brightness, for the light only served to illuminate the wretchedness of their situation: the frozen wreckage of the ship, the pitiless heights of the ice cliffs, the drab camp. It was almost a relief when the light began to fail again, ushering in their third autumn since entering the channel; the darkness at least hid the desolation, and the passage of time meant that the prospect of rescue drew closer. If all had gone well, and the boats had reached open water, then they should be home to the Kingdoms by now. Why, a relief fleet might be in the arctic by the dawning of next spring!
But had the boats got through? That was the imponderable question. Although Commander Javier had been ordered to send ten of his men back over the ice to report if they’d gained the sea, no such party had appeared, and those in the camp were left to merely wonder: was there truly hope or not? The boats may have met with disaster long before reaching the ocean – or they may have attained the sea and launched successfully, only for the return party to come to grief on its way back across the ice.
There was no way to know.
The uncertainty was the worst thing, even among the other horrors of that third trapped winter, and those horrors were many. Rations were at starvation levels now, no more than scraps of powdery biscuit and slivers of rank salt meat. No one, Celestine included, was ever free of the gnawing in their guts, or the aches in their joints, or the deathly lassitude in their limbs, a weariness that was itself like pain. Scurvy was rife, and every face grinned from its wrappings with blackened gums and foul breath.
And yet here was a strange thing: for all that Celestine was old, and little, and a woman, and cruelly bent by her infirmities, she was aware that she was less debilitated by starvation than were most of the tall, strong sailors that surrounded her. She suffered, oh yes, but somehow a reservoir of strength remained in her, while it steadily failed in all others.
By late winter, men were dying at the rate of two or three every week, wasted with hunger and disease. A new and loathsome difficulty now arose – for there was no nowhere to bury so many corpses on the stony isle. They could only be laid out in an area specially set aside, hard and frozen, until a rare snow fall should come and drift against them in burial.
Also, nine times that winter, Celestine – and Celestine alone – was woken in the night hours by a lonely wail from the darkness, and nine times the roster revealed another sailor vanished from the isle.
After the ninth, the captain gave a stern lecture to the survivors, arguing against despair, and against throwing their lives away in suicide or in attempts to cross the ice alone. And in the waking hours, Celestine could almost believe that this was what had really happened to the missing men.
But in her bed, when all others slept, and the wind howled in the blackness outside, she knew the truth. The men had been stolen away. And she had even come to suspect the reason.
They were being punished; the missing men, the entire crew, all of them. Punished for their presumption, for the captain’s arrogance in daring the chasm, for their very presence here in the arctic, trespassing where no human was ever intended to exist. The great frozen north had recoiled at their effrontery, and in its anger had summoned from its endless wastes a spirit of retribution, a demon of the ice, a spectre of the winter darkness, to hunt down the intruders and to claim them, one by one, as a price and a penance…
Thus passed the winter. In all, over fifty men died or disappeared during the months of darkness. Adding that to the forty who had sailed away in the boats, and to those who had died in the previous winter, not much more than half the crew remained alive on the isle to greet the return of the sun. The count on the first day of spring was one hundred and thirty-five souls.
This depleted company faced a dour truth as the slow brightening of the season progressed. There was still no sign of any thaw in the channel. The ice reared as high and jagged and solid as ever, so escape remained shut to them, and only rescue could be hoped for. But if rescue did not come, then this would surely be the last spring for everyone on the isle.
Helpless, they could only wait. All through the spring months, men watched the ice ridges overlooking the camp, pleading silently for figures to appear there, rescuers bearing food and news of a ship waiting at the mouth of the channel. But no figures appeared. Instead, the dying only continued. Nothing else changed until the early summer – and then it was not in the form of a rescue from the south, but rather a stirring in the north.
A familiar rumbling awoke there, a deep, guttural rousing of vast force, a thunder that shook icy showers down from the surrounding cliffs. Everyone in the camp understood what it meant. The northern fires were reigniting, their epicentre not far away now, north across the ice cap. Ash climbed into the sky and rained down, draping the camp black.
And yet in the darkness, hope burned anew. For after some weeks of these continuous eruptions, currents could be heard surging in the channel, beneath the ice pack. Wafts of steam broke forth, then the ice itself began to crack and shift. A desperate expectancy glowed in the eyes of the officers and crew, white amid their ash-blackened faces. After all, they had two boats yet; if the channel should warm and open, then another attempt might be made to escape in search of rescue, even at this late hour…
And slowly, through the last month of summer, as the northern fires burned without let, a way did indeed open. But in mockery of their hopes. South of the isle, the ice pack settled and fractured somewhat, yet still held firm. It was only northwards that the floes finally split apart, revealing black water beneath, and a clear channel – north, where they did not want to go.
The Ice was merely taunting them.
They would never be released.
Autumn came, and the ash haze grew blacker still, as light faded from the world. By then, a mere eighty-nine of the crew were still alive. All of them knew that there would be no surviving the coming winter. It would be their fourth in the ice, and the final, if rescue did not appear.
Darkness hid the camp once more. It had become hideous anyway, a ruin of ice and ash and corpses, the tents abandoned and collapsed, the survivors not numerous enough now even to fill the three barracks. Discipline still held among the men, and an ordered routine of duties and watches was still followed, but beneath it a febrile, terminal lethargy threatened. Why suffer and strive, what mattered rank or duty, if all were to die, and die soon?
In the northern sky, meanwhile, lights danced. Glows flickered above the ice cliffs, sometimes with the sheen of aurora, shaded red or green, sometimes with the sombre orange of fire and burning. Volcanic thunder throbbed ever and anon, and Captain Altona took to staring for hours into the north, watching the dancing lights, a madness rising in his eyes.
At midwinter, he surrendered to it.
‘I will go north in search of the pole,’ he declared to a meeting of the officers, the few that were left. Sixteen had set sail with the Bent Wing, and their hut had once been uncomfortably crowded. Now only seven remained. Three had gone on the expedition with the boats, and six had died in the last year of starvation, their cots removed one by one. The survivors were themselves little better than skin-clad skeletons, awful to behold.
Gabriel – one of the living, to Celestine’s gratitude – spoke in bitterness. ‘North, sir? You will throw your life away so?’
The captain, his eyes bulging from his ghastly face in manic certainty, rebuked his subordinate. ‘No, to stay here would be to throw life away. Rescue will not come, and we will never escape southwards now. North at least we know there is warmth. You’ve all seen the lights. Fire burns there – and where there are fires of the earth there may be dry ground too, and perhaps living things. Perhaps even the great North Land awaits us.’
Gabriel shook his head. ‘Whatever you find at the pole, should you reach it, it won’t be life. The arctic is a dead world. Have you not felt it over these many winters? Life is hated by the Ice. Your duty lies here with your crew, Captain, not in mad quests for non-existent lands.’
‘You speak of what you cannot know, Gabriel. I have seen it in my dreams, and smelled it in the air. There is solid ground to the north, and I will go there, and take all who think likewise, as many as the boats can carry.’
‘Both boats, sir? Surely you must leave us at least one – for what if the channel should open after you have gone?’
The argument raged weakly for some time, Gabriel striving to make the captain see reason. But Altona’s mind was fixed; in despair he had seized on the old promise of a secret land at the pole. Celestine listened on, scarcely caring. Let the captain go if he wanted, let them all go, everyone was going to die anyway, whether on the isle, or lost in the ice northwards.
In the end, it was decided that Altona and two lieutenants would take a crew and one of the boats north, leaving the last boat behind. ‘But understand,’ added the captain to Gabriel, ‘I do not consider that I am abandoning the crew or our mission; rather I am fulfilling our mission, and it is you who are standing aside. To that end, I will take the ship’s log with me, as is fitting. Celestine too, as the voyage’s scapegoat, will sail with us.’
Celestine started in surprise; this she hadn’t expected.
Gabriel too was taken aback. ‘You would want Celestine at your side? After all but disowning her these last years?’
Altona glanced at Celestine with studied coolness. ‘She has a duty to perform like any other of my crew. Her place is with the captain. And at least she has held her tongue since our imprisonment here.’
‘An imprisonment she predicted,’ Gabriel reminded.
‘Guessed at,’ replied the captain. ‘No more.’
Both men were looking at Celestine enquiringly now, Gabriel as if he was silently urging her to refuse the voyage, the captain as if he was daring her to do so. Almost she did refuse, if only to annoy Altona. And yet … why not go? The captain was deluded in his quest, she felt sure, but he was her commander after all, it was indeed her duty to be at his side. And if everyone was to die in any case, then why not seek out the last mystery of the pole before death came, or hurry death along in the attempt?
She shrugged, and was about to nod, when–
In an eye blink the officers and the hut vanished from around her, and she found herself somewhere else entirely, somewhere cavernous and dim, and – most incredibly of all – somewhere warm.
She stared, shocked, but at the same time surreally calm, knowing what was happening. A vision had gripped her, her first in four years, even more instantaneous and complete than those that had come before. The time, past or future, she did not know; but the place – a huge domed chamber – was revealed to her with vision certainty: she was no longer in the Ice, but upon the languid waters of the Golden Millpond, on board the Twelfth Kingdom, in the uppermost audience hall of the Sea Lord, Ibanez the Third.
Before her, seated in couches set about a low table, were six people. One of them – an old man Celestine had never seen before, but who exuded authority – was surely the Sea Lord himself. Four of the others – two naval officers, a girl with a scarred face, and a nondescript boy – were strangers, and even her vision sight told her nothing of who they might be. But the sixth Celestine knew in person, and she shuddered, recognising the wheeled chair and the black gauze curtain, and knowing what lay beneath.
The Twelfth Kingdom’s scapegoat sat slightly apart from the others, who were bent forward, staring at an object on the table. In the dreamlike manner of the vision, the object itself remained hidden from Celestine, but fragments of debate came to her, talk of lost ships and sons, and fleets searching. Then the Sea Lord rose to argue some point more forcefully.
‘A vital discovery… ’ he seemed to insist, his words fading in and out of Celestine’s hearing, ‘…force to my hope… trapped in the ice… rescue… a swift ship… a great gulf in the Ice Wall… alive within it.’
The others did not seem to share his certainty, but at length, after further debate, one of the naval officers, a short and somewhat stout man with a stern face, bowed his head and said, ‘I will go then.’
Hope, long abandoned, flared in Celestine. A rescue! These men were discussing a rescue of the Bent Wing! And they knew exactly where the ship was, trapped in the chasm in the Ice. They knew. So the boats that had set off from the camp over a year ago must have made it after all, first to the open sea, and then all the way home to the Kingdoms, delivering the news of the wreck to the Sea Lord. And now Ibanez was sending a swift rescue ship!
She listened eagerly to learn more, but around the Sea Lord’s table the discussion had moved on to other matters. It seemed to be in regard to the boy, and whether or not he would sail with the ship. Why such a trivial matter should concern the Sea Lord, Celestine couldn’t guess. The boy himself seemed of humble stock, and quite undistinguished.
Then apparently everything was settled, and the officers and the girl and boy rose to depart. But at last Axay stirred and spoke, and the words cut through to Celestine clearer than all the rest.
‘One last thing, my Lord. A word with my fellow scapegoat.’
Everyone turned to look at the girl with the scarred face. Celestine stared too, understanding. Of course. A scapegoat!
Axay addressed the girl coldly. ‘It takes no seer to divine the truth about you, it is evident in your every pose and gesture. Nevertheless, I will not shame you with it now, for indeed it no longer matters. You have been caught up in a greater fate than you bargained for. You have not the gift of foretelling I know, but even so, a true scapegoat you will become.’
The girl herself – she was very proud in her manner – seemed repelled by this speech, but to Celestine it was a revelation, as if Axay had been speaking to her directly from across time and distance. This was the other scapegoat whom Celestine was one day to influence. The girl. And she was coming north, to the Ice, and to the camp, on a rescue ship.
Hope flared brighter. What else could this mean other than that Celestine herself would survive to meet the girl? Indeed, in the grip of her vision foresight, Celestine felt it as a surety; she and the girl would come face to face here on the isle – and the boy would be there too, whoever he was.
She was going to live!
And with that, in another heartbeat, the vision was gone. Celestine found herself hungry and cold again, back upon the freezing isle, in the dank little hut with the officers, her body bent with a thousand pains. The seven men were staring at her, their faces shockingly thin, as if she’d never seen them before, compared to the full-fed faces she had just beheld.
‘Well?’ demanded the captain in impatience.
Only an instant had passed in her vision state, Celestine realised. The captain was still waiting for an answer regarding his trip north to the pole, as to whether she would go with him. But no, not now, she couldn’t go with him now, not when she knew she was going to live to be rescued after all.
Indeed, maybe they all would live to be rescued.
She shook her head in sudden earnestness at Altona. ‘No, Captain, please. I won’t go. And you must not go either.’
He sighed in irritation. ‘If you’re about to produce another prophecy of disaster, save your breath. The worst that can happen is that we die in the attempt – and death is certain anyway, if we remain here.’
‘No. No. Rescue is coming.’
Altona became suspicious. ‘Rescue? Now you’re telling me that we are not all doomed after all? You’ve changed your mind?’
She nodded again, putting all the belief she could into her eyes, to convince him. ‘The Sea Lord is sending a ship! I saw him.’
‘You saw him.’ The captain’s tone was scornful. ‘It doesn’t matter what I decide, does it? You are bent on thwarting me from the pole. First you say we will all die if I do not turn back: now suddenly we are all to live, but only if I stay here. What is it that has made you hate me so?’
Celestine could only shake her head helplessly. Hate him? She was trying to save him – but once again, he had shut his ears to her. In a flash of memory she saw, as she had seen four years earlier, the grey cast upon his face, his skin withered and dead, parched as if from desert heat.
He was a dead man. It was too late. She drew herself up formally. ‘Go, if you must, and die there. But I will not.’
Something glittered in Altona’s eye. Anger yes, but deeper than that, a doubt, a fear. Then he shrugged sharply. ‘Have it your way. I won’t force you. But your own hope will fail; that much I foretell for myself!’
So it was that when Altona and his twelve crew finally set off northwards in their little boat, Celestine stayed behind with the last sixty-four survivors. And just four weeks later – though those same four weeks meant the deaths of seventeen more men – the greatest storm of the winter rose. It blew for nine days, and as it blew the demon of the ice claimed another soul, seaman Erneste. But when the storm passed, the ice pack lay fractured.
Opening the way south at last.
Even so, rescue did not immediately appear.
An entire day went by, according to the hourglass, and no ship drew up, no boats. Patience, men counselled each other. It was a three-day sail from the open ocean to the isle; rescuers could arrive no faster than that, even if they’d been waiting at the mouth of the channel.
And if they existed at all…
Celestine had been certain of it when the ice first opened. But as she watched the empty waters, doubts began to gnaw at her. After all, her previous visions had all shown events that had not yet happened, that were weeks or months away in the future. But if her vision of the meeting on the Twelfth Kingdom was the same, if it was a thing of the future, then that would mean the rescue might not even have set out yet, and that meant it would be three months at least before any ship could appear.
And yet, she argued with herself, that couldn’t be, for no one would be alive here on the isle in three months. Celestine included. But if she was dead, how then could she meet with the scapegoat girl, and tell her whatever it was she was to tell her? It was impossible. No, Celestine must be alive when the girl arrived, and therefore the girl must come soon.
But the wait was maddening. A second day passed, then a third, and still no vessel appeared, and with every hour others drew closer to death who might yet be saved; already one man had died since the storm. So what was delaying the rescue ship? Perhaps the channel was not yet open all the way to the sea? Perhaps a last mile or so of solid ice still blocked entry, hindering the rescuers? If so, such ice might take weeks yet to melt. Too long!
When a fourth day passed with no sighting, Celestine was decided. They could no wait no longer for their saviours. They must go to meet them – a small party at least – in the last of the boats.
She went to Gabriel. He had ordered the signal bonfire – long since allowed to go out – to be lit, and was standing by it for warmth, studying the waters of the channel, his face haggard with hope and anxiety.
Pointing south she said, ‘We cannot wait. We must go.’
The young commander was an old man to behold now, and turned his rheumy, weary eyes to her. ‘I’ve been thinking the same. I’d hoped that a ship would come – but even if a rescue mission has indeed been sent for us, they may be blocked still by ice at the channel’s mouth, and waiting for us there. But it is forty miles! There are few if any of us left with strength to row so far, or to survive for several days in an open boat in this cold.’ He sighed. ‘Nevertheless, we are lost otherwise. We will attempt it.’
By then, a second man had died since the storm. Of the forty-five survivors, Gabriel selected the dozen who were the strongest – though the word was laughable when addressed to the crippled, cadaverous shapes assembled on the shore – and launched in the last boat.
Celestine went with them, even in dread of the cold and discomfort that was certain to lie ahead. She could not stay behind, could not bear the thought that, should this boat disappear like the others, she would be left to linger in ignorance on the isle with the last of the dying.
South they rowed, following the narrow crevice that had opened amid the ice pack, a lesser channel within the greater chasm. Above, the sky flickered palely green, and the ice cliffs loomed to their cruel peaks. Nothing hindered them, but their progress was painfully slow, for the rowers, their hands ulcerated and clawed, were barely able to hold the oars. Nor was there a wind to raise any sail: the air was still, and yet chill to the uttermost, as sharp as knives on any exposed skin and through their rags of clothing.
Exposed as they were in the cramped boat, there was no defence, no way to get warm. The cold sank like poison into already wasted limbs. Twelve hours south of the isle, the first rower fell dead at his oar.
Voice flat, Gabriel ordered the man thrown overboard. Then they pressed on – for what else was there to do? And after three days of utter misery, including the death of another rower, his body cast into the waters like the first, they at last drew near to the mouth of the channel.
The rescue ship was there, Celestine assured herself feverishly. And even if the channel was closed at its extremity, she and Gabriel and the others would not be prevented, they would find some narrow way through the ice, or over it if need be, to reach salvation. She searched ahead in the darkness for a glow against the ice cliffs that would mark the ship’s presence, its bright lamps burning, and warmth and hot food waiting below decks…
But there was no glow. All they met at the last was a rampart of old ice stretched across the channel, the same bergs that had formed here four years ago to trap them, still jammed together in place. Only a mile beyond, it could be seen in the dim aurora light, the cliffs opened out to the sea.
In an agony of exhaustion and frustration, they rowed back and forth across the face of the ice barrier, searching for any gap. In the gloom, they lit a lamp they had brought with them, burning the very last drops of their precious whale oil, in the hope that its bright glow might either illuminate some concealed passage in the ice, or betray their presence to rescuers beyond. In hoarse, ruined voices they shouted as best they could, in case those same rescuers, waiting on the further side of the rampart, might hear.
But no answering shout came, and they found no hidden gap in the ice. Instead, Gabriel suddenly gave a dismayed gasp, and rasped an order, ‘The lamp, quick, turn it on the berg there.’
The sailor with the lamp obeyed, casting the bright beam onto a great flank of rotting ice that rose from the water – and Celestine felt her whole world tilt in horror. For there, encased deep, but emerging now as the ice broke up, were a pair of large, elongated shapes, damningly recognisable.
Boats. Two boats.
And hunched upright in the craft, or splayed in hideous poses nearby, were the men who had crewed them. Hollow faces stared back in the lamplight, eyes blankly white, mouths yawning silently.
Dead, long dead.
Celestine gazed in incomprehension. It was the two cutters that had set out from the camp nearly two years ago, the Bent Wing 3 clearly indentified by the name still visible on its prow, the Bent Wing 4 less so, as its bow had been sheared off at some point and lost.
But both boats? She didn’t understand. Her vision had shown her that a message had reached the Sea Lord! How could that be if at least one of the boats hadn’t made it home to the Kingdoms?
And yet here they both were, along with their dead crews. How had it happened? Had some bridge of ice collapsed as the boats struggled towards the sea, plunging both craft and all forty men bodily into an icy fissure, there to freeze and die, and be held in place until now?
It didn’t matter. All that mattered was that no message had ever reached the Sea Lord. Celestine’s vision had lied. No ship had been sent, no one knew where they were, and there would be no rescue.
Gabriel, unbent and dauntless through all the years of suffering and starvation that had gone before, now lowered his head. ‘Turn out the light,’ he said. ‘Turn it out. It’s no use to anyone here.’
In darkness thus they turned and began the slow journey back to their hateful home on the isle. But if the journey south had been hard, the retreat north was torment unending. The aurora light in the sky died, and they rowed in a blackness relieved only by the palest of starlight, and the cold was crueller then ever, now that all hope was gone.
Death rode in the boat with them. Another rower fell lifeless over his oar within an hour of turning back; two others, too weak even to sit at the oars now, quietly expired while curled up in the bow. In all, by the time they spied the black sliver of land ahead in the channel, crowned by the wreck of the Bent Wing, only five of the original crew of twelve yet lived.
‘Not a word of what we found,’ croaked Gabriel to the rowers. ‘Not a word of it to those in the camp. I will not even record it in my journal, lest the other officers read of it there. I will simply say that we found no sign in the south, good or bad. We cannot destroy the last hope of those still alive here. After all, we can’t be sure, even now, that rescue won’t come.’
The rowers nodded in abject obedience.
But it made no difference. Celestine did not know who spread the news, but upon their return a final, irrecoverable despair settled over the camp. Everyone understood that they existed without purpose now, that they fought against cold and hunger and pain for no good reason.
And hence began the final round of dying.
They had left thirty-one men on the island when they’d rowed away south. Only twenty-five still lived when they returned, in addition to those from the boat. They were so reduced now, and spread so thinly through the camp, that already the isle felt empty of life, that their own pale shapes, shambling wretchedly about the ruins, were no more than ghosts. All official duties and routines were now abandoned, no watch was kept looking north or south, and each man was left to prepare for the end as he might.
Commander Gabriel did so by taking up his pen. Bent over the table in the officers’ hut, he laboured day by day at his journal, recording almost all that had occurred since the ship had become trapped in the ice, so that if rescuers ever came, at least they would know what had happened here – but he had no hope anymore that he would meet those rescuers himself.
Celestine felt the same for her own part, but in anger more than in despair. She had been betrayed. Her visions had lied to her. Misused her. What had been the point of any of it, the warnings of death and then of rescue, and of the coming of the other scapegoat, if in the end she was only to starve anyway? Why had Axay given her these accursed powers, if they were only to torture her with doomed foreknowledge and vain hopes?
Well, she had been misused enough. She would endure no more. Whatever Axay’s purpose had been for her, she rejected it now. Indeed, she rejected her entire function as scapegoat, as seer of death, and as defender of the crew’s fortune. She would be none of those things any longer, she would be plain Celestine when she died. Weary and old, but herself.
And yet she did not die. Life continued to beat in her frail, aching limbs, burdensome though life had become.
Instead, around her, one by one, the others passed.
In the officers’ hut, where the air was freezing now, as no one had the strength to keep the stove fully stoked, the first to go was Lieutenant Holaz. He expired in his sleep and had frozen solid before the others even realised. It was only by great effort that Gabriel and Manchez managed to move his body outside, to prop it obscenely in the graveyard. But when Manchez died the same way four days later, it was beyond Gabriel to move him alone – Celestine was too weak to help – and so the corpse was left to lie in the cot, a silent companion, as Celestine huddled in her bed, and Gabriel wrote on.
Then, some two weeks after they’d returned from their doomed voyage to the mouth of the channel, with barely a dozen of the crew still living throughout the camp, Celestine woke from a thin sleep to find Gabriel sprawled stiffly across the table, his journal and his final words thrust away from him in seeming disgust. Dead, she knew, even before she went to feel for a pulse in his outstretched wrist. Dead of disappointment.
So she was alone. Oh, yes, a few still lived, curled in their beds in the other cabins, but her last true friend was gone. And she could do nothing but let him freeze in his position, her second silent companion.
And what did it matter anyway, if the dead kept her company? She would be dead herself soon. In fact, she longed for it now. There was still wood available to burn in the stove, and scraps of food to be hunted out around the camp maybe, but she made no effort to move from her bed. Let the cold and hunger take her quickly; living was the worse fear. There was a time when such a surrender would have shamed her. She had never been one to yield to difficulty. But she knew, in her anger, that she had no cause for shame. She had given her all. The voyage was finished, all the lies had been told, there was nothing more that anyone or anything could ask of her now.
But she was wrong about that.
It was a cry, once again, that woke her – from a sleep she had hoped would be eternal. But no, life pumped dimly in her yet, and with a groan she opened her eyes to the darkness and cold of the hut.
The cry… it had been no more than a strangled moan, a frightened, solitary sob from somewhere outside, but she knew what it meant. The demon had returned and had claimed one of the last survivors, the victim, whoever he was, too weak even to give full voice to his terror.
It was amazing she had heard the sound at all over the wind, which was beating about the hut. A storm must have blown up while she slept; maybe it had been blowing for days, and she’d slumbered all that while, for it felt that her dreams had been haunted by gales, and that from time to time she had opened her eyes to see the shadow of Gabriel hunched over the table, never moving, before falling into uneasy sleep again.
Footsteps crunched in the ice outside the door.
She was too tired for fear now; the ice spectre had called for her finally, and she would welcome its embrace.
A single knock, gentle, came on the door.
Come out, said a voice that was no voice.
She was imagining it. It was just the wind, shifting the door. She had no foresight, saw no visions, heard no voice. There was no such thing as the demon. She could stay in bed and die and suffer no more…
But she had to know. She peeled the icy blankets back and with a grimace forced her stiffened legs to move, her back to straighten. She stood, swaying, her breath a mist in the dark – although it wasn’t so dark in the hut now, she realised, even though all the lamps had gone out. A light seemed to be shining around the edges of the door. She went to it, unfastened the latch, and pulled the door open to greet her summoner face to face at last.
There was nothing there. Only daylight, nearly blinding after three months of night. She squinted out at the world, tears starting in her eyes and freezing on her cheek. In the sky, shredded cloud was hastening away on the wind, the last of the storm, and through the rents in the overcast the fundament was a pale, distant shade of salmon.
It was the approach of dawn, of spring. Somewhere far beyond the ice and the black sea, the sun was rising once again.
Come, beckoned the voice.
But come where? Didn’t the thing realise? She was weak, near death. She couldn’t go searching through the camp.
Come. Not far now.
Celestine gave a sigh. But the call was irresistible, so she hobbled forth into the wind. Then she faltered, for in the approaching dawn the ice cliffs to either hand were palely illuminated, and though they had always been there as shadows in the winter dark, to behold those four-mile-high walls of ice by cold daylight was another matter. A weight of loneliness crushed her, and she stared about at the camp, cowed. Was anyone else still alive?
Anyone at all?
Come, commanded the voice, remorseless.
The demon seemed to be behind her. Shuffling slowly, the wind buffeting her at every step, Celestine rounded the hut and looked. And there it was, waiting for her at the very northern tip of the isle.
Even now, she could not quite tell what shape it was. Shreds of chill fog were scudding low across the waters of the channel, sweeping over the isle, and the thing might have been only a temporary thickening of that mist into a figure, ethereal, fading and returning with each gust of wind. Or was it just that her dying eyes refused to focus? Celestine blinked and for a sane, stunning moment, the spectre was gone. Then it was there again.
Come, little one.
She limped towards it, feeling ever more diminished as the thing loomed taller and taller, inhumanly so. Empty holes in the mist might have been eyes, and they gazed down at her with immortal detachment.
I have your task ready.
For all her fear, Celestine frowned with resentment. Task? No. She was too tired. She wanted only to sleep now, forever. And anyway, why should she do the bidding of this creature of the ice? It was her enemy. It hated all mankind. She had listened to it murder her shipmates, one by one.
They came to me in the darkness, yes. But I did not kill them.
Oh? Then what had killed them?
Their lives they took themselves, venturing in their despair or delusion into the frozen wastes, where their bodies lie even now.
No. She had heard their cries…
Is it not proper that the cries of those who die alone be heard by one who herself is loneliest? It has always been your gift, little one.
Celestine shook her head stubbornly, not meeting the demon’s empty eyes. It was trying to trick her, trying to deny what it had done.
I am not what you think I am.
For some reason this shook Celestine profoundly. She looked up in dread at the tall shape. What then? What?
I am that which all scapegoats serve. They are my special concern, for they are my instruments. But you in particular – you I have guided all your life, to bring you to this point, for it is necessary.
Necessary? Awful guesses rose in her, tantalising…
You know my name, Celestine.
Understanding took her then, a chill deeper than any wind, and she gaped that she could have been so blind. Now she saw the truth.
This was no mere spirit of the ice sent to torment her. This was the master tormentor of the whole world.
The voice that was no voice might have been smiling, but the mist face was blank. You must hurry now. The other scapegoat comes, and you must prepare the message that she is to receive from you.
Hurry? Despite everything, a last flicker of hope flared in Celestine. Was the girl with the scars nearby then?
No, dear Celestine. Nine months will pass before she stands were you now stand. You will not be rescued.
Despair settled again, and a fearless bitterness. Well, if she was not to be saved, then what was the need for any hurry?
Because you will be dead soon.
Celestine almost laughed. Fine then, she would die, and gladly. And the shape of mist could find someone else to do its bidding. Go wake one of the others, she told it, turning away. Leave me be.
There are no others. You are the last.
The last? Oh… oh no, she had not wanted to be that, not the last. She paused to gaze around at the camp, the pathetic tents, the huddled cabins and huts. She pictured all the corpses lying cold and sightless in their beds, or unburied in the graveyard, no one moving anywhere. Then she stared up at the unbearable cliffs, and thought of the great white plain that waited atop them, the ice cap, four miles high and hundreds across, empty…
You must prepare the message.
What message? she asked in irritation.
The one who follows you is no true scapegoat, not yet. She has no foresight or vision of any kind. It will not be until she stands at this place that she begins her transformation. It is you who will be her guide, who will show her the way. And that will be north, to the pole, where the captain awaits her.
The captain? Then he lives?
There is no one living within half a world of you, Celestine. You are alone in the Ice. But to the pole the girl must go, and the boy with her. But she will need to be told. She will need a message from you.
An unutterable weariness sank into Celestine. How could she pass on any message if she was going to be dead? You have chosen the wrong servant, she told the shape in the mist. You should have asked Commander Gabriel. He could have written it down. But I cannot write.
No. This message must pass from scapegoat to scapegoat. And you need not write with words, or with ink. And so saying, the shape seemed to place the image in Celestine’s mind of what was required, of a sign that would survive here through the coming months, defying wind and storm.
She shrank away, appalled. No. That was not a fair thing to ask. That she should spend her dying strength searching up and down the barren isle in search of stones that could be pried, with terrible effort, from the ice…
It is the only way.
It was madness. Why should she undertake such an ordeal? If she was destined to die, then what was it to her if this scapegoat girl found her true way or not? Was there any reward in it for Celestine?
There is no reward. But if you do not do this, then the searchers will not go to the pole, and many things will never come to be. Ignella of the Cave will remain blind, and Dow Amber will never find the answer he must.
Ignella of the Cave? Dow Amber? She knew no such names, no such people. They weren’t real. The shape wasn’t real. This was all a fantasy, a delusion of her dying mind. The arrow would mean nothing.
Nevertheless, said Fate.
Nevertheless. The compulsion was a goad, biting in her mind. Even exhaustion and proximity of death could not override it. With a moan, Celestine turned to search. She found the first stone only a few yards away, and after some long moments of digging at it with her fingers – she had to remove her gloves to do it, and the ice tore at her flesh, leaving her hands bloody from the first – she pried it free. Then she turned, holding it up.
The shape was gone. Only the ice cliffs watched her, and the empty camp of corpses, and the remote, freezing sky.
Even so, she was undaunted. She placed the stone exactly where Fate had stood to issue its command, then she turned in search of the next stone, and the dozens of others she would need.
How long the labour lasted she could not say, for there was no one left to observe the hourglass in the officers’ hut. She existed in a limbo of twilight and pain and unending cold. At some point the wind died away, but too late: by then, frostbite had turned her face grey, and her hands too, though the fact was camouflaged by blood from digging in the ice.
None of it was important. Only the arrow mattered now, slowly taking shape as she placed stone after stone. She had ceased even to wonder why she was building it, knowing only that it must be built, that it was the summation of her life, that there could be no rest until it was done.
Eventually, she thought to look up to the north – the direction her arrow would point when it was complete – and beheld a wonder there. The volcanic fires must have awoken again, for fantastic clouds were towering into the sky, so high they glowed red from the sunrise far away in the south. And a constant rumbling – how could she not have noticed it before? – throbbed in the air and in the stone beneath her raw, frozen feet.
She took it as a sign that she was doing right, and turned back to her task, though she could barely hobble upright anymore, and indeed was soon forced to crawl over the icy ground in her search for stones.
She was weeping, she realised at some later time, though she felt no sadness, nor even much pain anymore, for she had gone quite numb, and instead of cold knew a strange warmth. But she was weaker, all the same. Her arms and legs could scarcely move, her fingers barely close. She would be able to manage only a few more stones. It would have to do.
She looked up again to the northern sky, and Fate was there, now an immense manlike thing many hundreds of feet tall, standing atop the rim of the ice cliffs, staring down at her with whorls of darkness for eyes. In a last moment of reason Celestine knew it must only be a trick of shadow and light in the great clouds rising there, yet she could hear a voice too now, from far away: a hollow, terrible whistling, speechless but urgent.
Patience, she assured her master. I’m almost done.
And the thought was truth, for in fact she managed only one more stone, and perhaps it was the last one on the isle anyway, for she was forced to crawl all the way to the wreck of the Bent Wing to find it. As stiffly as a crab she crawled the slow path back, and placed the rock at the arrow’s stem. And then, without even realising it, she found that she had lain down beside the arrow on the hard ground, and could not move to get up again.
So, she was not even to die in her bed! Couldn’t Fate have granted her at least that much kindness, rather than leaving her to be exposed to the wind and weather? Ah, but she was beyond even bitterness now.
It was the end. Whatever her purpose had been, whatever use her visions had served – and she would have liked to have known, even if it was only for curiosity’s sake – that purpose was complete.
She was crying again. If onlly… if only she wasn’t alone. She had always been alone in one way or another, through her deformities, through her role as scapegoat, as a woman among so many men. But not like this, not so utterly bereft of love or companionship or pity. She did not think she deserved that, nor to die so unacknowledged and unmourned, for even when the others came, they would find only a frozen body by the arrow, anonymous.
They won’t even know my name, she thought. But I am Celestine of the Misthrown, and I have left you my message.
And so she died.
Long hours of silence passed on the isle. In the huts, and in places here and there out in the open, the other bodies lay or sat in their frozen stances, staring at nothing, as Celestine turned to ice.
At length, a mist descended from the high cliffs and blanketed the isle, and in the swirls of fog, moving on a silent breeze, it might have seemed to an observer – had there been any living on the isle – that a tall shape formed, standing over the scapegoat’s little corpse.
They will not know your name, truly. And though none of the great things they later do would have been possible if not for you, they will never understand that either, nor give you thanks, nor mark you in history.
The figure seemed to kneel, and half-formed lips lowered to Celestine’s cheek, as hard and white now as marble.
But I at least will mourn you.
Then, with a sigh, the shape broke up and drifted away. And for nine months nothing else moved on the island of the dead.