[dropcap]I[/dropcap]”t’s so cold.” Try as he might, Kye could not stop his teeth chattering, despite the thick fur coat. He clapped his arms round his trunk repeatedly, but it made no difference. “What is this place, anyway?”
“You’ll get used it; eventually,” responded the older man, who seemed content in a hide waistcoat and woolen shirt. He had watched Kye arrive, seen him transported from the hovership, prodded by the guards to where they stood now. Anxious to leave the soldiers departed as quickly as they came. “I case you don’t know, you’re a guest of His Imperial Majesty, in what’s best described as hell on earth: A hundred leagues of frozen waste in every direction. And cold enough to freeze the balls of a brass money. But you’ll get used to it, if you don’t go mad first.”
“Have you been here long?” Kye asked.
“Fourteen, maybe fifteen years; I forget exactly. Makes no difference. Everyone here his sentenced for life. If they live that long, that is,” he added, chuckling to himself.
Still Kye shivered. “Is there no heat in this place?” He was referring to the dormitory, cut into the side of the ice-mountain, home to the fifty odd prisoners.
“Only what we make ourselves, from the warmth of our bodies. And the stove at the end, of course. I shouldn’t go stand next to that if I were you. You’ll never be able to drag yourself away from it. And take that coat off, or you’ll not feel the benefit when you next go outside.”
‘Outside,’ thought Kye. He had been outside less than five minutes, and had nearly frozen to death. The howling gale had whipped up snow crystals to sting his face, and produced a temperature of minus 40°.
“Take your coat off, lad. That’s it. Now this way; you can bunk next to me, if you like.” Without questioning Kye followed, his mind as numb as his body. The older man sat down on the bed, and tested the mattress. “All the comforts of home,” he declared with an added smile. What you here for? Theft? Murder?”
Kye was surprised at the directness of the questioning.
“Come lad; nobody gets sent here for nothing.”
‘For nothing?’ thought Kye, but still he did not answer. Arrested along with a dozen others in the middle of the night. Bundled to a holding stockade where he remained for less than twelve hours. No accusations made. No trial. Just shipped to this place. For nothing. Such were the whims of His Imperial Majesty. Kye’s expression was a mirror of confusion.
“As bad as that, eh?” The older man permitted himself a deep belly-laugh, the air filled with his steamy breath, at the same time he slapped the youth hard on the back. “Joke, lad; joke. You’ve got to laugh; that’s the only thing that’ll keep you sane. Come on; let’s find you something to eat. I expect you’re hungry?” Kye nodded. “By the way, we’ve not been formally introduced. My mane is Tor.” Tor’s clasped Kye’s hand. The youth felt an unexpected warmth, which travelled up his wrist and arm, disseminating through his whole body.
“And my name’s Kye.”
“Nice to meet you, Kye.” Kye took comfort in the words.
“Aren’t there any guards?” Kye asked over supper. Tor shook his head. “Why not?”
“One: Nobody in their right mind would want to work here. And two: There’s no need. It’s so cold outside, few survive. That should be self-evident.”
There was a long silence, punctuated only by the slurping of broth as Tor drunk directly from a wooden bowl.
“I’m going to escape!” Kye asserted.
“You’re a fool if you try.”
“Don’t tell me you’ve never thought about it, Tor.”
“Oh, yes; thought about it many a time. Tried it once. Was lucky to make it back. If it weren’t for the ring, I’d have died.”
“The ring?” repeated Kye.
“Yes, the ring. This ring.” Tor held out his right hand. On the small finger was a ring made of gold, featuring a rectangular gold in white quartz stone. Kye had never seen the like before.
“How did the ring help?”
For the second time Tor smiled. He slipped the ring off his finger and placed it on the open palm of the youth’s hand. Kye felt the same sensation as when they had shaken hands. “Go one; put it on. You can keep it. I’m, too old to try again. And I can see in your eyes the ice barrier isn’t going to deter you.” Kye was about to speak, but Tor held up a hand. “For what it’s worth, I’ll give you one piece of advice: If you’re going to attempt an escape, go tonight whilst you’re got all your strength. The longer you delay, the weaker you’ll get. It’s no picnic working in the mine. And if you stay, you’ll need to work or you won’t be fed.”
“But how do I get to safety?”
“That’s easy; you just keep walking. Don’t worry about the cold; the ring will take care of that.”
“Who gave you the ring, Tor; where did you get it?”
“Questions? Questions? And I’ve given you more than enough answers for one day. Go and get your coat. Time for you to leave. It is all ready dark outside.”
Kye kept walking. As Tor had said, that was easy. The difficult part was keeping a straight line. A strange aura of light emanated from over the horizon, but it gave no beacon, ever present no matter which way he turned. Without compass, all Kye could do was keep the wind behind him, and pray it would not change direction.
It was dawn when he first saw the rim. The wind abated, as ice-dunes changed to a smooth sheet of powdered snow. In the distance he could see green; the green of grass covered land. But his heart sank as he drew nearer. Between him and his objective, Kye could see the sheet had broken into moving ice-flows. He could see them come together, and as quickly part, pulled by the currents of the waters below. How was he going to cross the final obstacle?
As if in answer, he saw a black object at the edge of the channel. He thought it was a seal, but as he came closer he could see it was the huddled figure of a man. The man looked up.
“Ah, young sir. You’ll be wanting my services?” When Kye did not reply he added, “To escort you across.”
“That’s very kind of you, but I have no money.”
“You’re welcome to try on your own. I will remain here for another hour.”
Kye thanked the stranger, then spent some minutes gauging the movement of the ice-blocks, before stepping briskly onto the first one. He was nearly pitched into the dark waters, as the float rocked. He realized it was important that he land in the center. Three, four, five, jumps and he was master of the new sport. Quickly he jumped from once piece of ice to another. Soon the stranger was well behind him.
Towards the middle of the channel the current was much stronger. Not only was the ice repeatedly moving together and apart, but it was swirling slowly round and round. He was grateful, as he edged towards the shore, that the gyrations ceased, for he had become quite dizzy.
“Ah; you’ve changed your mind young sir.” The stranger was quick to spot Kye upon his return. “You’ll be wanting my help now, no doubt?”
“I’ve already said that I have no money,” the youth replied.
“Then what do you have?” asked the stranger.
“Nothing; except the clothes I am wearing.”
“Nothing else?” The stranger’s penetrating gaze seemed to Kye to be searching the very depth of his soul.
“Nothing; except the ring.” Reluctantly Kye showed the blue crystal. “But I can’t part with it.”
“Why not? You have no need of it now.”
“I might in the future,” Kye replied.
He had expected the stranger to continue trying to persuade him to part with his precious ring, but he did not. “So you might, young sir; so you might. Since you won’t be needing me as a guide, I’ll be on my way.” Without waiting for a response the stranger was on the first ice-flow. Nimbly he jumped on to another, and another. Despite the swirling current in the middle channel, he kept his line. Soon he was a speck in the distance. Finally reaching the far bank, the stranger paused. Maybe he waved, Kye could not tell; he was so far a way.
“Back so soon,” was Tor’s welcoming remarks. “You did not reach the rim then, Kye?”
“Yes, I reached the rim, all right. But I couldn’t cross the ice-flows. I tried three times. Each time I lost my sense of direction and returned to this side.”
“That was unlucky. You met no one, who offered you help?”
“Oh yes; a stranger offered to guide me across. But I had no money. Say, how did you know I’d meet someone?”
“As I said, I tried to escape once myself. I was given the ring just like you were, by someone who had been prisoner here twenty years before. Like you I clung on to it. And like you, I returned here.”
“But he wanted the ring.”
“And like me, you wouldn’t give it up in exchange.”
“I need it; it provides the warmth to keep me alive in this place.”
“Did you need the ring before you came here? Did you need it where you were going? Was it not a fair exchange for your freedom?”
“So why didn’t you warn me?” Kye felt angry.
“Warn you of what?” Tor pulled back the sheet-sacking which served as a door. Spin-drift blew into the room, stirring protests from the other inmates. “Each of us must make our own decisions. That’s one freedom we have not yet lost.”
The older man stepped outside. Pausing momentarily he added, “Now it is time, I was leaving. That’s the other freedom which still remains. Don’t hang on to that ring too long. Good-bye, Kye; Good-bye.”
The hessian fell across the doorway and Tor was gone.