Frost and Thaw
The other Tall Men in their snow-house were as deep in slumber as two great bears, but Nansen doubted that his wife had slept any more than he. She hovered over the wounded bow-man, even though she had done all she could for him.
He sat up and reached out to touch her shoulder. She had rebuffed all his offers of aid, but surely now she grew weary.
“Rest is needful,” he reminded her in a soft voice so as not to wake their guests. “Another could watch for a time.”
“No.” Savea shook her head, as she had in response to each of his previous offers. Her tone made it clear that argument would have no effect.
He watched in the dim light of her lamp as she gently stroked the young man’s sweat-soaked hair. It was odd, he reflected, how quickly she had gone from wariness of the strangers to treating them as if they were her own children. Perhaps it was the suffering of the bow-man that had caused her to change her mind; it was only after seeing him that she had ceased to scold him for bringing ten and four more men to fit into their snow-houses. Indeed, upon recognising the pain the boy was in, she had instead begun scolding them for keeping him out in the cold, insisting that they allow the Tall Men to stay. He shook his head; truly, he did not understand her mind.
She must have felt his steady gaze upon her, for she said tartly, “Perhaps the dogs are foolish enough to desire a run before the rest of the camp awakens, if sleep is so elusive.”
He smiled and obediently rose to gather his outdoor clothing, taking care not to disturb the sleepers near him. No one disobeyed Savea when she used that tone. Even the Tall Men had ceased to hover over their wounded comrade at her commands and had meekly submitted to having their frostbite treated before wrapping themselves in proper furs to sleep.
He tried to forget the visible toll hunger and cold had taken on the strangers, ill-dressed and ill-prepared for the land that was the Snowmen’s home. Dwelling on it was of no use; he had had enough of a struggle to convince his family to allow them to stay one night, and the likelihood that the clan would agree to grant further aid was slim. He could not think about what that would mean to the gaunt, exhausted men; the good of his own family was of the most importance.
He slipped out of the snow-house, steeling himself against the blast of cold air that met him at the end of the tunnel. The dogs did not expect him so early; they were still curled up in tight balls, heads tucked under tails, covered by the light layer of snow that had fallen during the night. Fugl, his lead dog, was the first to hear his footsteps. She sprang up, scattering snow in all directions, and leapt at him, barking. At the sound, the others awoke as well, loudly following her example.
“Quiet,” he snapped firmly, before they awoke the entire camp. The clamour died down reluctantly. Tails wagging, they followed him to the sliding cart.
Swiftly, he hitched them into line. Excited for the early run, they were unusually well-behaved; even Sanger did not snap at his neighbours. As soon as Nansen stepped behind the cart, they leapt forward. He let them run, allowing the speed to blow all thoughts of the Tall Men and the problems they created from his mind.
When they were farther from the camp, the dogs began to bark again, and he did not silence them. Soon, he heard other dogs calling in reply ahead of him; to his surprise, another sliding cart was out. He slowed his team, not wishing to come too close to the stranger in the dimness. The stars and moon were hidden by swift-moving clouds and gave little light; he could not see far enough ahead to travel safely at such speed. It had been foolish to start out in such a way, but the speed had been refreshing.
They continued at this slower pace until he heard Fugl begin whining. “Halt. Quiet,” he commanded in an undertone, and the dogs obeyed.
“A man rides,” he called, raising his voice to identify himself. He waited for a reply.
“It is a good time for riding,” came the answer.
Nansen left his dogs and walked toward Reidar’s voice. The two men met only a short distance from the sliding carts. “Riding is pleasant when sleep is elusive,” Nansen commented.
“And sleep is ever elusive with barbarians in the house,” Reidar grumbled. “With each breath, they make noises like seals breaking the ice to breathe.”
Nansen decided to ignore the complaint. Reidar was clearly still unhappy with the decision to allow the strangers into their camp, and he would repeat every perceived flaw in the Tall Men if Nansen offered to listen.
“Perhaps there is room for two along this path,” he suggested instead. The dogs were liable to fight if they were in close enough proximity, but both teams were well trained. And perhaps the struggle to keep his dogs in line would distract Reidar from complaining about the strangers and Nansen’s offer of hospitality.
“Company is always welcome,” Reidar agreed. Nansen was unsure of the sincerity of the statement; his tone was perfectly neutral, and clouds made it too dark for Nansen to read his face. Accepting the words without question, he merely nodded and returned to his sliding cart.
As they set off beside one another, Nansen wondered whether it would be wise to speak of the Tall Men at all. Reidar was likely to complain, but the issue had to be discussed.
“It seems that the wounded bow-man may recover, given time,” he told his daughter’s husband at last.
“Given time in the snow-houses, eating the food of the Snowmen,” Reidar called back with bitterness.
“If he dies nearby from lack of aid, surely his spirit will seek revenge and send away all prey from the unkind people who caused his death.” Nansen repeated the argument he had used the previous night to convince his family. Inwardly, however, he still wondered if his offer of shelter had been wise. His words were true, there was danger in abandoning them; besides, beyond the risk of angry spirits, the sight of the wounded young bow-man had torn at his heart. He had been loath to simply leave the strangers to die. But judging from the reception the clan had given them, a night’s lodging may have only offered false hope. That may have been crueler than simply leaving them at the first meeting.
“Perhaps they should be driven far from the camp,” Reidar said. “The wrath of Hekskonge would remove all prey more surely than the death of a stranger.”
“So they would die alone, unlamented, with none to pity them.”
“Pity?” Surprise sounded in Reidar’s voice; he stopped his team and turned to look at Nansen. “What meaning has pity for the Tall Men? They are not Snowmen. They are strangers; they know nothing of this land. If they die, they have only themselves to blame. Why should one pity them?”
The moon broke free from the clouds, illuminating Reidar’s previously shadowed figure. Nansen could see in him nothing but contempt for the ignorant foreigners who had invaded the lands of the Snowmen.
“Perhaps this is true,” he replied carefully. “The Tall Men are ignorant of this land. But they know much of the lands beyond it, which the Snowmen have never seen. They are not Snowmen, but they are Men, injured, exhausted, and hungry. I do pity them.”
Reidar looked down, considering his words. Both men called to their teams and they rode on in silence, turning inward as was usual in such disagreements. Nansen pondered what Reidar had said. Truly, concern for the Snowmen, for his clan, was paramount. Pity for these strangers should not lead him to risk his own family. But each time he thought of the wounded bow-man’s pale face, or Arvedui’s look when he had confessed that he no longer had strength to go on, it rose in him again.
His thoughts were interrupted when Reidar suddenly called his team to a halt. Startled, it took him a moment to recognise what had stopped them: a line of tracks, clear in the snow before them. Reidar was already striding toward them.
“Wolves,” he proclaimed after only a glance. “Hekskonge’s beasts have come in pursuit of the Tall Men. Aiding them has brought doom upon the clan.”
Nansen’s heart filled with dread, but something about the tracks struck him. He crouched down to study them more carefully. After a long moment, he spoke. “The light is deceitful; it hides what may be the truth.”
Reidar frowned, but he obediently squatted next to his elder to examine the prints in closer detail.
“Look.” Nansen reached out one gloved hand and set it over a track. The mitten covered it completely. “These are much smaller than Hekskonge’s beasts, and lighter, as well.” Something caught his eye; he stripped off the mitten to lift a small tuft of hair from the ice. He held it up to the moonlight. “It is white!”
Reidar took the hair carefully. Slowly, his frown gave way to a look of excitement. “The Sandulven? Can it possibly be?”
“So it appears.” Matching excitement grew in Nansen’s voice. “Our brothers have not come to this area since Hekskonge’s evil drove them out. Surely this is an omen.”
“Surely,” Reidar breathed in agreement. Both gazed upon the tracks, recalling the old stories of how the wolves had taught the Snowmen, long ago, the ways of survival in the icy North. The wolves had cared for them as elder brothers. Songs were still sung of that long-ago time. More often sung, though, were the more recent laments about the departure of their brothers when evil rose in their homeland, replacing them with the corrupted monsters of Hekskonge.
“It seems,” Nansen observed as a new thought occurred to him, “that the Sandulven have returned at the same time as the Tall Men entered our camp. The Tall Men are much like our brothers, in truth; they, too, are a pack driven out by Hekskonge. Perhaps the two events are linked.”
Reidar looked thoughtful, but he spoke no words of agreement. “The clan should speak of this,” he said instead.
Nansen nodded, and they returned to their sliding carts. Reidar was right; the sun would soon begin to rise. The decision should not be delayed any longer.
The ride back was completely silent. Nansen hoped that his daughter’s husband was pondering his words and the possible meaning of the appearance of the Sandulven, but he could not be certain. He wondered if this would change the opinions of any of his family. The previous night, Markku, his son, had finally shamed Egli and Reidar into agreeing to open their snow-houses with jests about their greed and inhospitality, but a better solution would have to be reached on this day. Such jests were useful in their places, but they had left Egli, especially, feeling bitter and resentful. He had no wish for such feelings to continue in the camp; they would only divide the clan, making the always precarious task of survival even more difficult.
Light was appearing in the Eastern sky as the two men neared the camp. Nansen looked up, realising that it was later than he had thought. They would get very little hunting done that day, if the discussions began so late. The supplies of meat were running low, for the previous day’s hunt had been unsuccessful, but resolving the issue of the Tall Men was more important at this moment. After all, if they allowed the Tall Men to stay, they would add ten and four more hunters to the clan.
Remembering Arvedui’s shock at the sight of the snow-houses, Nansen had sudden doubts about his ability to hunt. However, surely this was ridiculous. The Tall Men carried weapons. Even if they were unacquainted with the specific creatures the Snowmen ate, they could be of aid in the hunt.
As he halted the dogs next to his snow-house, he saw that the discussions had already begun. The women sat in a circle on the far side of the camp, talking as they worked, while the men drifted about, forming and disbanding scattered groups, discussing the situation in low tones. Only the children seemed oblivious to the tension, laughing and playing as if all was well.
Unhitching the dogs and tossing them some frozen fish from the storage pit dug outside the snow-house, Nansen observed the groups carefully. The women seemed near reaching agreement, and seeing Savea’s cheerful face, he suspected that they were in favour of allowing the Tall Men to stay. The men, however, were clearly undecided. Some spoke with Markku, others with Egli; the two men seemed to be expressing the major points of view. Others had wandered off to think alone. Consensus appeared far from being reached.
He moved toward Egli, who was speaking earnestly to Halden and Kirk, while Aricin stood in the background. Nansen thought that he had considered all of the reasons to refuse the strangers aid, but it would be wise to hear Egli’s words on the matter as well.
“The Snowmen are no cowards, but Hekskonge has much power,” the man was saying as Nansen approached. “It is not cowardice to seek to avoid the ill-will of one so great. If the Tall Men claim enmity with Hekskonge, surely their paths will be tracked, just as a wolf pack follows the trail of a weak reindeer. The wolves do not rest until they find their prey, and the presence of the prey of Hekskonge in this camp will call down his wrath upon the Snowmen as well. Such is not the way of wisdom.”
Aricin had been standing behind Halden and Kirk, withdrawn from the conversation. Now he stepped forward. “Is the way of the ground squirrel, hiding in the earth, the only way of wisdom, father of my wife? The wolves may slaughter the weak reindeer, but one that is strong is more powerful than his foe.”
Nansen looked at his grandson, bemused. Did he still hold such childish faith in the abilities of the Snowmen? To be sure, he was little more than a child himself, but he should know well the might of Hekskonge, who commanded frost and thaw. Deliberately turning against him would be only the act of a dying reindeer brought to bay, not the brave resistance of a young buck in his prime, as Aricin seemed to think.
It was only then that Nansen recognised the cunning nature of the young man’s statement. It was true that the Snowmen were much weaker than Hekskonge, and all knew it. However, Egli could not call his clan weak in so many words without dishonour. The implication was accepted by all, but such a statement would lose him support.
“Forgive me; I am not so skilled with words, and your cleverness finds meaning far beyond what I intended,” Egli countered after a moment of thought. “Truly a strong reindeer may stand against wolves, but Hekskonge’s might exceeds that of even the greatest wolf pack. His foes may be the strongest of men, but he would still be likely to prevail. Such a monster cannot be fought, only avoided.”
“No, no, I have none of this cleverness you speak of,” Aricin said quickly to ward off the ill-luck attracted by such a compliment. “I am too stupid to grasp properly what you are saying. I would say that a reindeer cannot live in fear of the wolf; he must return to his feeding grounds each year, even if his path leads through the territory of a pack. He cannot hide away from danger, or he will starve.”
“This is true for the reindeer,” Egli admitted. “He cannot abandon his feeding grounds out of fear. However, the Snowmen have nothing to lose by sending the Tall Men away. They are no source of food or fur; indeed, they take food from hungry children.”
“Unless, that is, their leaving offends the Lady of the Seas by breaking the taboo of hospitality. She is easily offended, as all know. She may withdraw the sea creatures to her home, and the children will have even less.”
“What would a spirit of the Snowmen care for the lives of strangers?”
Aricin folded his arms across his chest. “None can fathom the way of wights. Her taboos must be obeyed.”
Egli looked away, brow furrowing. Clearly, this idea had not presented itself to him, and he took time to ponder the possibility before framing a reply.
Before he came to a conclusion, Reidar came up behind him, looking troubled. Taking his hunting partner by the arm, Reidar led Egli a few steps away from Aricin, bending his head to speak softly in his companion’s ear.
Nansen assumed that he was spreading the news of the coming of the true wolves and its possible significance. It would take Egli time to determine what he believed to be the meaning of this omen; meanwhile, Nansen decided to hear Markku’s words.
Aricin followed him across the camp; Halden and Kirk remained, speaking in low tones. Nansen noticed Stian and Ingo standing in silence to the North; both appeared to be deep in thought. Ahead, Markku was speaking with his younger brother.
“The danger of Hekskonge cannot be denied,” Torsten was saying.
“This is true, but there are other dangers as well. Perhaps if we refuse to aid them, the Tall Men will take their metal weapons and turn on us as rabid dogs.”
Torsten nodded; he had clearly considered such a possibility, although he said nothing.
“In any case, fear is not a wise reason to make a decision. Shall these men be sent out to die for naught but a fear?” Markku continued.
“What else should be considered then, my brother?”
“Look at their metal weapons,” Markku said eagerly. That was no surprise; all knew of the power of metal weapons compared to those of bone the Snowmen used. Such things were much admired. “Surely they have much knowledge of things undreamed of by the Snowmen. What could be learnt from them?”
Torsten looked away, considering this. Markku remained silent as his brother thought, though Nansen could see that he wished to add more.
“This is possible, but the danger is still real,” the younger hunter said at last, folding his arms across his chest.
Before Markku could reply, Egli stalked up to him.
“It is said that a man has spoken unforgivable insult,” he accused, glaring at Markku.
Nansen looked to Markku in sudden horror. Could he have truly been so foolish as to insult Egli in Reidar’s hearing? Had that been the meaning of Reidar’s troubled look when he had approached his hunting partner? His heart sank as he recognised the guilty expression on his son’s face. It was true, then. He hoped against hope that Markku would simply apologise and let the issue dissolve, but he knew his eldest son too well to expect any such action.
As he feared, Markku drew himself up haughtily. “What man would find insult in a simple declaration of truth?”
“You dare claim to know the truth of my thoughts?” Fury rose in Egli’s voice, and Nansen winced. Such a claim was the height of rudeness, deriding the very humanity of the one whose thoughts were supposedly known, and although he was certain his son had intended to say no such thing, he was plainly in no mood to be conciliatory.
Markku laughed. “Of course; your thoughts are as simple as the thoughts of the ground squirrel. Eat, hide, mate – these are all that concern you.”
The women began to approach, attention turned from their own discussion by the angry voices. Nansen saw each person draw near, recognise the situation, and stop at a distance from the combatants. Clearly, they considered a fight inevitable.
As Egli moved closer to Markku, rage emanating from every line of his posture, Nansen took a desperate step between them. “Cease!”
Neither man so much as looked at him; their eyes were locked on one another. Torsten took his father’s arm and drew him away. “No words will be heard now,” he said. “The time is past for talking.”
His son was right; both men now had their hands on the hilts of their knives. All too soon, blood would spill; there was naught that anyone could do to prevent it.
It was the fault of the Tall Men. Sudden, irrational anger seized him. If they had not come, this would not have occurred. Perhaps they truly had brought a curse upon the Snowmen. How else could hunters be so quick to shed the blood of a brother?
He wished that the Tall Men had all been rent by the beasts of Hekskonge before he ever encountered them. When one of his clan died, Nansen vowed inwardly, he would see the Tall Men driven out for the weather to destroy. And he would curse them with every breath that Hekskonge’s wrath would overtake them.
A shivering howl reverberated through the air. The Snowmen turned about quickly, hands grasping hunting spears or knives as they searched for the source of the sound. Even Egli and Markku involuntarily broke eye contact. Had Hekskonge’s wrath truly come so speedily?
Another howl echoed the first, and Nansen recognised the song-like tones. This noise could not have come from the throat of one of Hekskonge’s beasts.
Reidar recognised it at the same time. “The Sandulven!” he breathed.
All eyes turned to him. “The tracks of a pack were seen this morning,” he explained absently, eyes fixed on the South, whence the sounds had come. “They have returned.” He squinted in the light of the slowly-rising sun. “Look!”
Nansen was certain that even Egli and Markku followed his gaze, straining their eyes to see the truth of his words. And there, on a rise beyond the shallow dale containing their camp, they saw him.
No one could mistake him for a servant of Hekskonge. Proud independence shone in every line of his form. Shining pure white in the dawning light, he stood motionless for a long moment. Awe filled the clan at the sight of one of their long-sundered brethren here, where his kind had not been seen for generations.
Noise behind Nansen distracted him from the sight. Glancing back unwillingly, he saw that some of the Tall Men had heard the howls and emerged from the snow-houses, looking wary.
“Peace,” he called to them in their own tongue. “This is no enemy.”
He did not know whether they believed his words, but he spared them no more attention, turning back to admire the Sandulv. Finding the tracks earlier had brought excitement, but actually seeing him was far more powerful. A beloved brother, another foe of Hekskonge, had returned to them. Suddenly he had no doubt as to the meaning of this sign. Hekskonge’s power was waning.
Another call answered from the distance, and the wolf before them sped off, passing like a gust of snow from their gaze. Nansen turned back to his clan and saw that all had felt the same awe. Surely this would end any thoughts of fighting.
He decided to reinforce the message. “The Sandulven have come to us,” he proclaimed. He stared into the eyes of Egli and Markku. “Will they be driven off by Snowmen shedding the blood of Snowmen? Will they see their brothers acting with less restraint and knowledge than they possess?”
The hunters did not meet his gaze directly, but neither did they remove their hands from the hilts of their knives.
“This need not be settled by death,” Nansen reminded them. “Think of the example of our brothers, who avoid fighting to bloodshed.” An idea occurred to him, and he gestured to Aricin and his wife, who was pregnant with their first child. “It may be that new life soon comes. At that time, there would be a celebration, and a song-fight would be appropriate.” His voice was firm, as if he expected only compliance, but silently he pleaded with them to allow their tempers time to cool, that they might release their anger in words rather than with blood.
Markku and Egli stared at one another as the clan around them held its breath. At last, slowly, Markku released his knife. “My singing voice is very poor, but perhaps someone would overlook that and join me?”
Egli hesitated a moment longer but finally followed Markku’s example. “I will surely lose in disgrace, but even so, I will sing.”
Nansen immediately took control of the conversation again, unwilling to allow the mood inspired by the Sandulv to pass before continuing. “The question of the Tall Men still awaits resolution.”
Most of the clan eyed Markku and Egli cautiously, with sideways glances, and said nothing. All that was desired at this point was a settlement that would avoid any more threat of bloodshed.
“They did come at the same time as the Sandulven,” Aricin observed at last, echoing Nansen’s thoughts upon finding the tracks. “Perhaps it would not be wise to send them away.”
Nansen looked around. Clearly, no one wished to risk antagonising their brothers, but the dread of Hekskonge remained strong.
“Perhaps if snow-houses were built for them outside the camp of the clan,” Halden said. “They will not die of cold, but neither will they expose our camp to risk.”
“But what of food? Can four and ten more men be fed from the kills of only ten hunters?”
This time Kirk suggested a solution. “Let them be as orphans. If they aid in a kill, they are entitled to their fair share; beyond that, any person may give them scraps as he chooses.”
This idea had not occurred to Nansen, but he immediately nodded. It was a clever compromise; just as orphans learnt strength by fending for themselves, so would these men, childlike in so many ways, grow in the understanding of this land. The wolves could not take this amiss. At the same time, any could choose to give or withhold aid; such action would be indirect, unnoticed by the clan. Perhaps it would avert any further fighting over the Tall Men.
Other nods echoed his around the circle. Nansen caught Egli’s gaze for a moment, but although the man did not gesture approval, he did not speak against the idea either.
Nansen waited a breath longer to be certain that there was no dissent, then spoke. “So be it.”
To be continued ...
Sandulv (pl. Sandulven): “True wolf (wolves)” in the language of the Lossoth.
Written by Wolfwind & fliewatuet
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.