Prologue: 'Big Boots'
Ash was half dead from exposure when they dragged him into the hall of the ice fortress and threw him at the feet of their king, where he landed on the furs with a grunt of surprise, his body shaking and wanting only to curl itself around the feeble heat of its heart, his panted breaths studding the air with mist.
He had been stripped of his furs, so that he lay curled in underclothing frozen into stiff corrugations of wool. His blade had been taken from him. He was alone. Still, it was as though a wild animal had been thrown into their midst. The villagers hollered through the smoky air and armed tribesmen jabbered for courage as they prodded his sides with bone spears, hopping and circling with caution. They peered through the steam that poured off the stranger like smoke; his breaths spreading in clouds across the matted lice-ridden surface of skins. Through gaps of inhalation, droplets could be seen to drip from his frosted skull, past ice-chips of eyebrows and the crease of eyes, from sharp cheeks and nose, a wedge of beard. Beneath the thawing ice on his face, his skin was black as night water.
The shouts rose in alarm, until it seemed the natives would finish him there and then on the floor.
“Brushka,” growled the king from his throne of bones. His voice rumbled from deep in his chest, breaking around the columns of ice arrayed along the length of the room, rebounding back at him from the high domed ceiling above. At the entrance, tribesmen began to shove the wide-eyed villagers back through the hangings of the archway. They resisted in the main, voicing their complaints; they had been drawn there in the wake of this old foreigner who had staggered in from the storm, and were compelled to see what would happen to him next.
Ash was oblivious to it all. Even the jabs of spears failed to draw his attention. It was the sensation of nearby heat that roused him at last, caused him to lift his head from the floor. A copper brazier sat nearby. Cakes of fat smoked and burned within its innards.
He crawled towards the heat as clubbing spears tried to stop him. The impacts continued as he huddled against the warmth, and though he flinched with every blow he refused to move from it.
“Ak ak!” barked the king, and his command forced the warriors to draw back.
A silence settled in the hall. The flames snapped. The tribesmen breathed as though only returned from a long run. Through it all, a groan of relief sounded loud and clear from Ash’s throat.
I still live, he thought with some wonder, in something of a delirium as the glow of the fire seared through him. He clenched his fists to feel the precious heat held within them. His skin began to sting.
At last, he looked up to take in his situation. He saw the gleam of grease against skin, blankets worn like ponchos over bodies half-starved in appearance, faces pierced with bone, gaunt and hungry-eyed; a little desperate. He counted nine armed men in all.
Behind them, the king waited.
Ash gathered himself. He doubted he could stand just then. Instead, he shuffled on his knees to face the man he had ventured all this way to find.
The king studied him as though considering which part to have first. His eyes were flints near lost in the fleshiness of his face, for he was a huge man, so grossly inflated with fat he required a board of stiffened leather across his lap to support the sag of his belly. He sat entirely naked, his skin agleam with a thickly applied layer of grease, though a necklace of leather hung against his chest, and his feet were bound in a massive pair of spotted-fur boots.
The king took a drink from an upturned human skull and smacked his lips with a slow appreciation. A belch rushed from his gullet, the flab of his neck quivering, and then he produced a long, self-satisfied fart that quickly polluted the air with its tang. Ash remained silent, unperturbed. It seemed to him that all his long life he had been facing men like this – petty chiefs and Beggar Kings, once even a self-proclaimed god; figures who sometimes hid behind the glamour of status or their own contrived gentility, though monsters all the same, as this man was before him, as all self-made rulers must be.
“Stobay, chem ya nochi?” the king asked Ash, his eyes moving with a ponderous intelligence.
Ash coughed life into his throat. His dry lips cracked open; he tasted blood on them. He stroked his neck in gesture.
“Water,” he managed.
A nod. A water sack landed at his feet.
For a long time Ash drank from it. He gasped, wiped his mouth dry, leaving a trail of red on the back of his hand.
“I do not speak your language,” he said. “If you will question me, you must do so in Trade.”
Ash inclined his head, though did not respond.
Movement passed over the king’s face; muscles trembling. He barked an order to his men. One of the warriors, the tallest, strode to the side of the chamber, where a box sat by the wall of carved ice. It was a wooden chest, the kind of container used by merchants to transport chee or spices. All eyes in the hall looked on as the warrior unbuckled a leather latch and wrenched open the lid.
He stooped, and grabbed something in both hands. Without effort he pulled it out - a human skeleton, though a skeleton still clad in flesh and tattered clothing, and hair and beard overgrown in matted locks, and red-rimmed eyes that squinted and peered about them.
Bile burned in Ash’s gut. It had not occurred to him there might still be survivors left from last year’s expedition.
He heard the grind of his back teeth, like heavy branches rubbing together.
No. Do not become attached to this.
The tribesman held the starving man upright until his stick legs stopped shaking enough to support his weight. Together, slowly, they approached the throne. He was a northerner, one of those desert Alhazii by what grim looks were left to him.
“Ya groshka bhattat! Vasheda ty savonya nochi,” the king said to the Alhazii.
The desert man blinked. His complexion, once swarthy like all his people, was as yellow as old parchment. By his side the tribesman shook him until his gaze came to rest on Ash. At that his eyes brightened, and something of life returned to them.
He opened his mouth with a dry cluck. “The king - would have you speak, dark face,” he rasped in Trade. “How did you come to this place?”
Ash could see no reason to lie just yet.
“By ship,” he said. “From the Heart of the World. It waits for me now on the coast.”
The Alhazii recited this to the king in the tribe’s own harsh tongue, but the king waved a hand. “Tul kuvesha. Ya shizn al khat?”
“From there,” said the Alhazii. “Who helped you to come from there?”
“No one. I hired a sled and dog team. They were lost in a crevasse with my equipment. After that, I was caught in the storm.”
“Dan choto, pash ta ya neplocho dan?”
“Then tell me,” came the translation. “What is it you will take from me?”
Ash narrowed his eyes. “What do you mean?”
“Pash tak dan? Ya tul krashyavi.”
“What do I mean? You come here from a long way.”
“Ya bulsvidanya, sach anay namosti. Ya vis preznat.”
“You are a northerner, from beyond the Great Hush. You come here for a reason.”
“Ya vis neplocho dan.”
“You come here to take from me something.”
The king jabbed a sausage thumb at one of his sagging breasts. “Vir pashak!” he spat.
“That is what I mean.”
Ash might have been a rock, carved in the perfect likeness of a man, for all the reaction he gave to the question now hanging between them. A frigid gust whistled from outside, flapping the heavy furs of the far archway behind him, causing the flames of the brazier to recoil; the storm reminding him of its existence, that it was waiting for his return. For a moment, he wondered if perhaps now was the right time for a few choice lies – though only for a moment. It was not in Ash’s nature to ponder overly long on matters of consequence. He was a follower of Dao, as were all Rōshun. Better to remain calm, and act spontaneously from his Cha.
Within, he observed the steady flow of air as it entered his nostrils, tumbled stinging into his lungs, emerged again as warmth and steam. Stillness came upon him, and a subtle sense of the flow. He breathed and waited as the words formed themselves, then listened as he spoke them, as intrigued as everyone else.
“You wear something that belongs to another,” rang Ash’s voice, as he raised a finger to point at the necklace hanging between the king’s breasts - and he thought: the direct path, I might have known.
The object, strung from a length of twine, was the size and shape of an egg cut vertically in half. It was the colour of a chestnut, wrinkled like old leather.
The king grasped it like a child.
“It is not yours,” Ash repeated. “And you do not know what purpose it serves.”
The king leaned forward, his throne of bones creaking.
“Khut,” he said, quietly.
Ash stared for the length of five heartbeats. He studied the flakes of skin in the man’s thick eyebrows, the crusts of sleep in the corners of his eyes. His black hair, wet with grease, hung in a sheer curtain to his shoulders, like a wig.
In the end, Ash nodded.
“Beyond the Great Hush,” he began, “in the Midèrēs, what they call the Heart of the World, there is place where man, or woman, can call on for protection. With coin, a large amount of coin, they buy from it a Seal like the one you wear now, to hang from their necks so that all might see. This Seal, oh King, offers them protection, for if they die, then it dies with them.”
The Alhazii’s translation rolled and chattered over his words. The king listened, rapt. “That Seal you wear now was worn by Omar Sar, a merchant, a venturer. It has a twin, which we watched as we watch all of them, for signs of death. Omar Sar travelled here many moons ago on a trading expedition. Rather than allow him to trade here, amongst the settlements of your … kingdom, you thought it better to murder him and his men, and take what goods he had brought. But you did not know that his Seal protected him. You did not know that if he was slain, then his Seal would die, and its twin would also die, and more than that … the twin would point to he who had killed him.”
Slowly, his knees and hips bursting with pain, Ash unfolded himself from the floor to stand before the king. “My name is Ash,” he declared. “I am Rōshun, which in my tongue means … ‘autumn ice’. That which comes early. It means I come from that place of protection, where all Rōshun come from, for that place is where we carry forth vendetta.
“So you are correct, you fat pig. I have come here to take from you. I have come here to take your life.”
As the translation rapped to a stop, the king roared. He shoved the Alhazii away from the throne, spilling the man to the floor. With blazing eyes he hefted the skull in his hand and launched it at Ash.
Ash swayed slightly, and the skull shot past his head.
“Ulbaska!” The king bellowed, the flesh of his face quivering in time to his words. The tribesmen stood frozen for a moment, fearing to approach this old, black-skinned man casting threats at their king.
“Ulbaska neya!” he roared again, and the warriors converged on Ash. The king sat back, breasts heaving, unleashing a flow of angry words as spear points settled against Ash’s flanks; from the floor, on his back, the Alhazii pattered out the words in Trade like a clock that could not be stopped.
“You know how I am King of here?” the king was demanding. “For a whole dakhusa I was sealed in the ice cavern with five other men and food for none. One moon later, when the sun returned and melted the entrance, out came me. Me! Alone!” And he pounded his chest as he finished this, a heavy fleshy sound, an animal sound.
“So threaten me well, old man fool of the north,” and the Alhazii paused as the king paused, both drawing a lungful of air, “For tonight you suffer, you suffer hard, and tomorrow, when I awake, we will make good use of you.”
The tribesmen grabbed Ash with their hard, shaking hands. They stripped him of his skins and the clothing underneath so that he stood in the frigid air, naked and shivering.
“Please,” whispered the Alhazii on the floor. “Sweet mercy, you must help me.”
The king jerked his head. They hauled Ash away.
Through the hangings they went, where the men stopped long enough to pull on heavy skins, and then he was dragged along the passageway beyond.
Outside, the storm still tore through the night. His heart almost stopped from the cold shock of it.
The wind pounded him, shoved him as the warrior’s shoved him. It howled for his heat as snow drove against his bare skin like fire. Pain entered his bones, his internal organs, his heart that was skipping and yammering in disbelief.
He would die in moments this way.
The grim-faced men pulled him across the snow towards the nearest ring of ice huts. The tallest took the lead, ducking into a hut. The others came to a stop. They held their spears at him, ready to thrust.
Ash hopped on his feet, arms wrapped about himself as he treaded snow. He turned slowly, offering one side of his body to the wind and then the other. The men around him laughed.
From the entrance of the ice hut a couple emerged carrying bundles of sleeping furs. They cast dark looks at the tribesmen, though they said nothing as they stumbled off towards a nearby dwelling. The tall warrior backed out. He pulled with him skins that had been covering the floor of the hut, and yanked yet more skins free that shielded its low tunnel-like entrance.
“Huhn!” grunted the man, and the warriors bundled Ash inside.
It was black as a hole within, and quiet. The air felt warm in comparison to the winds outside. Without clothing though, he would soon be freezing again.
Behind, they set about sealing the entrance with blocks of ice. Ash heard water being thrown against it. He watched without moving until finally he was trapped inside.
He kicked at the wall of the hut using the side of his foot. It was like kicking stone.
Ash sighed. For a moment he swayed on his feet, close to fainting. In that instant he could feel, pressing down on him, the weight of his sixty-two years.
He knelt on the hard-packed floor, ignoring the burn of ice against his legs. It took all his focused will not to lie down and close his eyes and sleep. To sleep now would be to die.
Cold. So cold he was going to shake himself apart. He blew into his cupped hands, rubbed them, slapped his body with stinging palms. It roused him, so he slapped his face too for good measure. Better.
His scalp was cut. He pressed a ball of snow against it the wound, until it stopped bleeding. After a while his eyes adjusted to the dark. The walls of ice brightened, until they seemed to be infused with the faintest of milky light.
Ash exhaled purposely. He clasped his hands together, closed his mouth to stop his teeth from chattering. He began a silent mantra.
Soon, a core of heat was pulsing outwards from his chest, seeping its steady course into his limbs, his fingers, his toes. Vapour began to rise from his goosebumped flesh. His body stilled.
High above his bald head, the wind keened through a small air-hole in the dome ceiling, calling to him, carrying with it the odd flake of snow.
He imagined he had erected his heavy canvas tent. He was huddled inside it, safe from the wind, warming himself around the little oil burner made of brass. Broth simmered with smoky cheer. The air was steamy, heavy with the stench of his thawing clothes, the sweetness of the broth. Outside, the dogs moaned as they hunkered from the storm.
Oshō was with him in the tent.
“You look bad,” his old master told him in their native Honshu. Lines of worry creased ancient skin as dark as his own.
Ash nodded. “I’m almost dead, I think.”
“You are surprised? All of this, at your age?”
“No,” confessed Ash; though for a moment, chastised by his master, he did not feel his age.
“Broth?” Ash asked as he scooped some into a mug, though Oshō declined by raising a single forefinger. Ash drank on his own, sipping loudly. Heat trickled down into his stomach, revitalising. From somewhere elsewhere a moan sounded as though in longing.
His master observed him with interest.
“Your head,” he said. “Any pains?”
“Some. I think another attack might be coming on.”
“I told you it would be this way, did I not?”
“I’m not dead yet.”
Oshō frowned. He rubbed his hands together, blew into them.
“Ash, you must see how it is time at last.”
The flames of the oil burner sputtered against Ash’s sigh. He looked about him, at the noisy flaps of the canvas, at the air rolling visible from the broth. His sword, perched upright against his leather pack, like the marker of a grave. “This work – it is all I have,” he said. “Would you take it from me?”
“Your condition does the taking, not I. Ash, even if you survive tonight, how much longer do you think you have?”
“I will not lie down and wait for the end, no purpose left to me.”
“I do not ask you to. But you should be here, with the order, your companions. You deserve some rest, and what peace you may find while you still can.”
“No,” Ash responded hotly. He glanced away, to stare far into the flames. “My father went that way, when his condition worsened. He gave in to grief when the blindness struck him, and lay weeping in his bed waiting for the end. It made a ghost of him. I will not squander what little time I have that way. I will die on my feet, still striving forwards.”
Oshō swept that aside with a gesture of his hand. “But you are in no shape for this. Your attacks are worsening. For days you can barely see from them, let alone move. How can you expect to carry on in this way, to carry through a vendetta? No. I cannot allow it.”
“You must!” roared Ash.
Across the sloping confines of the tent, Oshō, head of the Rōshun order, blinked, but said nothing.
Ash hung his head. He breathed deeply, composing himself.
Softly, the words offered like a sacrifice on an altar: “Oshō, we have known each other for more than half a lifetime. We are more than friends. We are more even than father, or son, or brother. Listen to me now. I need this.”
Their gazes locked; he and Oshō, surrounded by canvas and winds and a thousand miles of waste; here, in this cell of heat, so small in scale they shared each other’s breath.
“Very well,” murmured Oshō at last, causing Ash to rock back in surprise.
He opened his mouth, to thank him, but Oshō held up a palm.
“On one condition, and it is not open for debate.”
“You will take an apprentice at last.”
A gust pressed the tent against his back. Ash stiffened. “You would ask this of me?”
“Yes,” snapped Oshō. “I would ask this of you, as you have asked of me. Ash, you are the best that we have, better than I even was. Yet for all these years, you have refused to train an apprentice, to pass on your skills, your insights.”
“You know I have always had my reasons for that.”
“Of course I know! I know you better than any soul alive. I was there, you recall? But you were not the only one to lose a son in battle that day - or a brother, or a father.”
Ash hung his head. “No,” he consented.
“Then you will do it, if you make it out of this?”
Still he could not look at Oshō; instead his eyes were filled with the scattering brilliance of the flames. The old man did know him well. He was a mirror to Ash, a living breathing surface that reflected all that Ash would try to hide from himself.
“Do you wish to die out here, alone, in this forsaken wilderness?”
Ash’s silence was answer enough.
“Then agree to my offer. I promise you, if you do, you will make it out of this, you will see home again, and there I will allow you to continue in your work, at least while you train another.”
“Is that a bargain?”
“Yes,” Oshō told him, with certainty.
“But you are not real. I lost this tent two days ago, and you were not journeying with me when I did. You are a dream. An echo. Your bargain means nothing.”
“And yet still I speak the truth. Do you doubt it?”
He gazed into the empty mug. The heat had faded from its metal curvature, leeching the warmth from his hands.
Ash, long ago, had accepted his illness and its eventual, inevitable outcome. He had done so in much the same way as he accepted those lives he took in pursuit of his work; with a kind of fatalism. Perhaps a touch of melancholy was the result of such a vantage, that the essence of life was bittersweet, without meaning save for whatever you gave it; violence and peace, right and wrong, all choices one made though nothing more - certainly nothing fundamental to a universe itself purely neutral, seeking only equilibrium, as it unfolded ever and endless from the potentials of Dao. He was dying, and that was all there was to it.
Still, he did not wish to end it here on this desolate plain. He would see the sun again if he could, with eyes and mouth open to its heat; he would inhale the pungent scents of life, feel the cool stabs of grass against his soles, listen to the fold of water over rocks, before that. And here in his dream fantasy, Oshō was a creation of that desire: in that moment, Ash dared not hope that it could be anything more.
He looked up, speaking the words as he did so.
“Of course I doubt it,” he replied to his master’s question.
But Oshō was gone.
It was a slow, nauseous pain that came upon him. Sickness washed his vision. The headache tightened its vice-like grip against the sides of his skull.
It drew him from his delirium.
Ash squinted through the darkness of the ice hut. His naked body shook, convulsed. Minute icicles hung from his eyelashes. He had almost fallen asleep.
No sounds came through the hole in the roof. The storm had ceased at last. Ash cocked his head to one side, listening. A dog barked, followed by others.
“One last effort,” he said.
The old Rōshun struggled to his feet. His muscles ached, and his head shrunk with pain. He could do nothing about that for now. His pouch of dulce leaves had been taken along with everything else. No matter. It was hardly a serious bout yet; not like the attacks he had experienced on the long voyage south, confining him to his bunk for days on end.
Ash stamped his feet and slapped his body until sensation had returned. He breathed hard and fast, gathering strength with every in-rush of breath, purging exhaustion and doubt as he exhaled.
He panted into each palm, clapped twice.
Ash leapt; slipped a hand through the air hole so that he hung with his legs dangling below. With his other hand he began to stab at the ice around the hole, each strike delivered with a subtle force, delivered with a low “Hu!” that was more breath than word, each impact sending a sickening shock along the bones of his arm.
Nothing happened at first. Again he was reminded of striking stone.
No, he would get nowhere like that. Instead he thought of melting ice on a pond, its crust thin enough to break through. Air whined through his nostrils. His head grew light. It made him focus that much harder.
A sliver of ice broke free. He allowed the moment of triumph to wash through him, without attachment, without stopping. More chips loosened until shards were raining against his face. He squeezed his eyes shut, clearing them of sweat. More than sweat. His hand was darkly bloody from the work; drops of blood splashed against his forehead, or fell to the ground to freeze before they could soak in.
Ash was wheezing by the time he had cut a hole large enough to see a portion of night sky. For a moment he simply dangled there, catching his breath.
The moment lengthened. It took another effort of will to rouse himself. With a grunt of exertion he hauled himself through, scraping skin as he went.
All was quiet in the settlement. The sky was a black field scattered with stars as small and lifeless as diamonds. Ash slid to the ground and crouched knee-deep in the snow, not looking back at the two lines of blood that streaked the dome of the ice hut.
Ash shook his head to clear it, then took his bearings. Ice houses lay all around him half-buried in drifts. Small mounds shifted where dogs lay sleeping for the night. In the distance, a group of men prepared a sled team for a hunt, unaware of the figure watching them through the dimness, breathing calmly.
Ash took off towards the ice fortress, keeping low, his soles crunching through the snow’s fresh crust.
The structure loomed against the stars as he approached.
He did not slow his pace. Ash ran to the tunnel entrance, snapped through the hangings into the passage within. He startled the two tribesmen who stood guard beside a burning brazier. The space was small, no room to move within. He drove his forehead into a guard’s face, cracking the man’s nose and dropping him stunned to the floor. Pain flashed in his own head, and the other guard almost caught him with a lunge of his spear. Ash dipped, felt the carved bone tip slide across his shoulder. Muted grunts, the slap of flesh against flesh, as he sent a knee into a groin, his pointed knuckles into the man’s throat.
Ash stepped over two prone bodies, his eyes narrowed as he ventured within.
He stood in a narrow hallway. Ahead lay the main hall, its entrance covered in skins. Behind the hangings all seemed quiet. No, not, entirely quiet. He could hear snoring.
My blade, Ash thought.
He swept left through a different archway. It lead into a small space thick with smoke, lit by a small brazier in one corner from which a red glow ebbed from the fatty embers, illuminating a few feet of air, and then darkness.
A pallet bed lay next to the brazier, and a man and woman lay asleep on the bed, their contours pressed against each other. Ash was a dark shadow as he padded to the far wall where his equipment had been piled. It was still there.
He fumbled through his furs until his hands came upon the small leather pouch of dulce leaves. He took one out – thought better of it, took out two more - and stuffed the brown leaves into the side of his mouth, between teeth and cheek.
For a moment he sagged against the wall, chewing and swallowing their bitter flavour. The pain in his head lightened.
He ignored his furs. Steel glinted as he drew his blade from its sheath. The couple slept on as he padded back to the entrance of the main hall.
Light spilled across his bare toes from a gap at the bottom of the hangings. Ash sucked down a belly-full of air. Exhaling through his nostrils, he stepped through as naked as the blade held low in his grip.
The king was asleep on his throne at the far end of the hall. His men, some partnered with women, lay in heaps on the floor before him. Next to the entrance a tribesman leaned on his spear, half dozing where he stood.
Ash no longer trembled. He was in his element now, and the cold was something he wore like a cloak. He was not afraid; fear was a memory as old as his sword. His senses were heightened in that moment before he struck. He noticed an icicle, high on the ceiling above a brazier, a soft hiss each time it loosed a drip into the flames; he scented the sharpness of fish, sweat, burning fat, and something else, almost sweet, that made his stomach rumble; he felt his muscles sing with rising expectation.
Movement caught the guard’s eye, stirring him to wakefulness where he stood. The tribesman looked up to see Ash sweeping down on him with bloodied face and bared teeth. The blade swung. It cut an arc through the smoky air and the brief resistance of the man’s chest. He choked out a cry as he fell.
It was enough to wake the others.
The tribesmen reached for their spears as they struggled to their feet. Without order they rushed at Ash from both sides.
He scattered them as though they were children. With single strokes of his blade he butchered each tribesman who came across his path, no sense of self in what he did. He was silence in the midst of confusion, his motions propelled by their own trained instincts to advance and only to advance, his slashes and thrusts and swerves timed in natural rhythm to his steps.
Before the last tribesman had fallen Ash was before the throne, panting down at the huge mass of the king. Behind him, a mist rose from the floor of leaking corpses.
The king sat trembling with rage, his great hands straining against the bone arms of his chair as though he was trying to stand. He was drunk, the scent of alcohol thick on his breath. His lungs heaved as though he needed more air, and a thin drool ran from his parted lips as he watched with half-lidded eyes the Rōshun standing before him.
He looks like an angry boy, thought Ash, before casting the notion aside.
Ash flicked blood from his blade, settled its point beneath the chin of the king. The king’s breathing grew faster.
“Hut!” he snapped, pressing the blade until it broke the skin, forcing the king to raise his face so that their gazes more clearly met.
The king glanced down at the blade at his throat. A rivulet of his own blood coursed down the groove of the steel without resistance, like water over oiled canvas. He looked up at Ash. Beneath his left eye, a muscle flinched.
“Akuzhka,” the king spat.
The blade pierced up into his brain. One moment the gaze was there; the next, all life had faded.
Ash straightened, gasping for air. Steam billowed from around the throne, from the contents of the dead king’s bladder suddenly splashing onto the floor, soaking his boots.
He removed the Seal from the king’s neck, placed it over his own head. As an afterthought, he closed the man’s eyes.
Ash moved to the wooden chest by the wall. He opened it, hauled out the Alhazii curled within.
“Is it over?” the man croaked, gripping Ash as though he would never let go of him again.
“Yes,” was all that Ash said.
And then they left.