Some mad wizard wanders, they said, up in the old north, in the creaking airless wastes where the owls went. A hunched, arthritic witch (a barkeep drawled), a smirking magician prince (said the shepherd’s wife). A shapeless shifting thing, said the chief watchman, a “fucking kinless, deathless, skinthief mirrorshit”.
So Elm trekked further north. Game rarefied and the trees withered. Forest became taiga, a rolling expanse of snow-cloaked skeletons too heavy to sway in the wind. The winter owls used to settle here, Elm had once heard, but some animal sense had driven them out. Most things remained, but the night birds had flown on, into the north, away from the reach of man.
Here she is, a dark speck upon the shrug of the mountain. Her cloak whispers as she slips her bow off her back and nestles an arrow against the string. She draws: the wood creaks like snow underfoot. When the wind turns the top layer of powder hisses about her feet, but her hair, stuck with ice, is still.
The bird calls again. Her bow sighs. When she finds the kill at the end of its red trail she bares her teeth under the wrapped furs. She snaps its neck and finds shelter before the night comes, and by the struggling light of her campfire she plucks the bird and begins to fletch. Where she has loosened layers to feel the fire’s warmth on her face there are patches where her dark skin gives way to a veiny greyness. Knots of hair spill from the hood. They are shot with white.
Snow became deep frost. The hills flattened and the trees shrank until only plains of stunted shrubs remained. Elm felt like a giant in the tundra. She bent in against the cold. The wind rose.
She didn’t know how long she had been watched, but by the time the sensation fell over her the brush had given way to stone. The figure stood far across the plain, a statue rising from the moss. It offered a wide, pendulous wave, then cupped its hands to its face, but the wind over the flats deafened her to even her own footsteps, and whatever call the figure made was swallowed by the howl.
The pack had become too light on her shoulders. Elm had not seen a deer for days. She watched the figure for a time, then moved on. But her hand rested upon her quiver, and her eyes upon the figure as it turned away.
Elm met the nomads a week afterward. Reindeer herders on their way south. Their language had a humming, surly sound, and when they spoke to each other their sentences always seemed cut short. She had never heard it before nor would again. Accepting what scraps they offered, she took a rock and scraped, in the cavern wall, a chalky image of a man. She pointed north. Firelight glinted in their eyes as they looked from her to one another.
They debated shortly amongst themselves, but seemed to know nothing. They offered her no more food, and by the morning they had moved on.
At last even the tundra died. The flats upheaved and collapsed into a great glacial valley. It was at the base of that advancing tongue of ice that she felt once more that paranoid prickling on the back of her neck, but this time she could make out no figure in the distance.
She picked her way upward for miles. At the glacial summit she could peek over the top of the valley, where she could see to the east a ragged landscape of dead rock smashed apart, rising and falling, and there, so distant she had to squint to see it, a mountain range so tall its highest peak pierced the clouds. No, she thought: not a mountain range. One great mountain ripped apart. Glacial fingers spilled from its ruin, a frozen, impending ocean.
Tears became ice on her cheek. Elm shook. She turned away and trudged north, and with time she forgot her fear in the pace of her walking.
The snows, when they came, fought her like the sea fights the weathered cliff’s edge. She huddled in her dugout snow house as the blizzard blustered across the white north wastes, nodding heavily, snapping awake in time to spade the threshold clear of packing snow. Clouds tumbled overhead like river rapids upturned. Sleep, the thunder murmured, as the north winds entombed her.
What is left, when the storm passes and the low sun strains over the crest of the horizon, is the unbroken skin of a fresh canvas. There are places, in the plains of the tundra and beneath the snow-burdened forest canopies that skirt it, where signs remain of Elm’s passage: the snapped branches, the ashes of old fires, the discarded bones of her hunt. But when, upon that canvas, the hunch of a new white dune upheaves and a thick-gloved hand erupts from beneath, and Elm scrambles, gasping, from the snow, the winds continue their endless work and before the hour is out the dune has shifted, the dugout has collapsed, and her deep trudging footsteps through the powder have been unwritten.
The nights had been growing shorter. Soon, as the winds fell, as the clouds petrified, even the sun froze over, wheeling languidly just above the line of the dead frost flats. Elm lurched through twilight. She dug dried meat from her pack and tried to chew, but her jaw would not obey, and her hunger had become a phantom. Her vision on one side had clouded, and she couldn’t blink it clear. She brushed her cheek where it was numb. Stone dust came free.
Slouched figures rose in the stillness. Squat, formless things, no taller than a man, so caked in snow they resembled nothing. Elm wondered if summer still came to this place, if the sun exhumed them, in its longer days, so they could drink in a warmth they had almost forgotten. Or if the sun had lost that power aeons ago: and these silent tombstone things awaited a thaw that they had outlived.
These scarce shapes too slipped away behind her, and Elm, her hunger forgotten, carried on. Over days, the powder thinned. She passed a great fissure that ran deep into the earth, the strangled light rebounding and refracting tumblingly into the dark, revealing only ice and great, winding shapes coiled within. The land seemed to shrug great dunes out of the snow, but as the coverage lessened, the snow revealed it was not the land that rose up but something lying atop it. In places, ahead, the snow could not cover the shapes altogether, and there, Elm could see dead, grey wood. Above, the clouds no longer moved at all.
When Elm’s boots came to rest on black stone, she began to weep. She wept for the snow.
She glimpsed the first tree not long after that. It lay far in the mist, a monolithic, impossible thing, erupting from the earth like the petrified hand of a skeletal god. Its roots snaked over and into the mirrorlike obsidian surface, their scale absurd, the smaller ones like mountains stretched into rope.
It was here, in the twilit mist, crawling amid the petrified ruin of that distant elder tree, that Elm, at last, stopped walking. She glanced up to search for the owl she had heard.