A Heretic's Faith

by Randy D. Asburn


The sound was barely a whisper in the wind that sliced through the frozen city. Urlish reined in his horse and listened, but could hear nothing over the howl of the blizzard through the tall, impossibly thin buildings.

He pulled his fur cloak tight about his shoulders and frowned at the ghostly blue structures looming around him--a mad array of giant icicles jutting out of the snow. Westernmost Barisvar was supposed to be uninhabited, except for the hardiest trappers--and even they came only in the slightly less snowbound summer.


Surely he’d heard something that time--there, in that narrow alley. Urlish tethered his horse, drew his rapier, and walked gingerly along the slippery streets towards the sound. The cramped passage was no more than a dozen strides deep.

And completely empty.

Damn those soldiers! They had chased him across the tundra for so long that he was hearing spectral noises like a child on a stormy night. And for what crime had they pursued him so doggedly? Preaching natural philosophy. In Barisvar, it was apparently a capital offense to utter such heresies as the world is round and circles the sun.

Urlish sighed and leaned against the wall, but jerked back in astonishment when he found that the building was exactly what it seemed. Ice. What kind of people would (or, more importantly, could) build a city of solid ice?

He was shocked out of his musings by a new sound. It was his horse ... screaming.

Urlish raced back into the street and confronted an animal he had never come across in any bestiaries. A white wolf, twice the size of a big war-horse, had impaled his mount on a sabre-like horn that curved from its snout. Black talons as long as daggers ripped at the stallion, turning its flesh into gore-soaked tatters. In an instant, its hooves ceased to flail and it sank into the snow, spine snapped in two and head torn from the bloody stump of its neck.

The giant wolf lifted its terrible maw towards Urlish. Wisps of steam rose into the frigid air from the red stains upon its fur. Then, with all the startling speed of its smaller kin, incredibly powerful thews launched the beast at him like an arrow from an Oppulite bow.

Urlish lunged back into the alley, skidding along the ice until he came to an abrupt stop against the far wall. As quick as he had been, he was barely able to get out of the way before the gargantuan animal crashed against the buildings with enough force to make them shake.

The alley was too narrow for more than the creature’s muzzle. Urlish watched in fascination as huge fangs gnashed the air, and he marveled at the powers of Nature that had evolved such a magnificent predator for these snowy wastelands. Realizing the futility of this attack, the wolf twisted its features into a vicious snarl and began to growl.

The sound was like living thunder.

It began to claw and slash again, not at empty air as before, but at the icy walls of the alley--trying to chip away just enough of the structure to squeeze through. Urlish gaped with fatalistic curiosity as clumps of the wall fell to the ground. Strangely calm, he swung his rapier high overhead in a last flurry of bravado, determined to enter Oblivion charging his foe rather than awaiting the Eternal Darkness cowering in a corner like an insect.


The blade had clanged against a projection on the ornately carved wall, causing a panel to slide back with the same squeal of ice on ice he had heard before. For an instant, Urlish stared into the darkness, hesitating. Then he dove into the passage, certain that whatever lay inside had to be preferable to the wolf-thing’s gullet. [SPACE]

Each of the needle-like towers was connected by tunnels of ice, and Urlish lost all sense of time as he wandered those frozen corridors. The passages twisted round and round, unexpectedly branching off in odd directions, often bringing him back where he knew that he had been before. It was impossible to keep his bearings when the only light was dim sunshine filtered through one icy prism after another.

There had to be an explanation for the insane whim that had caused someone to build in such a way. Some subtle precept of Nature as yet unknown to him must explain all that he’d seen. Still, he shuddered as he imagined the beings that would make their home in halls of ice, guarded by a monstrous white wolf.

It wasn’t a sound--at least not the type heard with the ears--which caused him to whirl around. The presence that had appeared behind him was a woman--or, it almost appeared to be a woman. She was very tall and slender with pale skin that gleamed like polished ivory. The long platinum hair draped about her slim shoulders was only slightly darker than her flesh. Her face was so beautiful that it gave her an alien appearance--somehow beyond human. But oddest of all was the fact that she wore no more clothing in this bitter cold than if she were basking on the sun-drenched beaches of Constanbul.

Urlish blinked twice, but the woman remained. “What are you?”

“The Answer.” Her voice was as hushed as falling snow, yet it rang inside his head like an avalanche.

Urlish crept towards her, only to see her slip away faster than his eyes could follow. He glimpsed movement through the semi-transparent walls, but the ice distorted his vision so that he could not clearly make out the shapes. Delicate laughter tinkled in his mind like Mingish wind chimes.

He stepped gingerly after her, his hand straying towards his rapier. “The answer to what, m’lady?”

She was suddenly behind him, a slight smile curling at one corner of her alabaster lips. “The Answer to all that you question, Urlish of Ardyé.”

She shot behind another bend. Urlish sprinted after her, but ran face-first into a wall. More delicate laughter sparkled inside his head as he tried to rise from the floor.

“Your questions brought you to these halls, no?”

His stiff limbs were so heavy. Perhaps if he sat just a moment ... “I thought it was my answers which brought me here. It seems others did not want me to share the truth about the world, and so chased me to this desolate place.”

“After all that you have seen, you still refuse to believe in sorcery? That is the only true Answer, mortal.”

“Sorcery?” He tried to chuckle, but the sound was broken up by his chattering teeth. “Nature leaves no room for ‘sorcery.’”

She stalked closer, her delicate muscles rippling like a snow leopard’s. And with her every step, Urlish shivered more fiercely. “Your ‘nature’ is only a hollow illusion.”

“I do not--cannot--believe that! The clockwork of Nature is subtle, true; but there is an Order to be found if one searches thoroughly enough. Reason, m’lady. That is the only answer worth having.”

She leaned close, her frigid breath stinging his eyes. “And what has your ‘reason’ to say of me?”

The air was so cold that Urlish’s aching lungs felt like they were filling up with shards of broken glass. “In truth, I do not know what you are. But there is a scientific explanation for you, of that I am certain. And even if my science cannot name it, some science surely can.”

She opened her mouth wide in a silent laugh, and Urlish saw that her blue tongue glistened with frost. “A heretic completely without gods, yet still filled with faith in his ‘science.’ Ah, what a fine jest.”

Wind swirled around him. If only he could still feel the cold, he surely would have shivered.

Dozens of soundless voices fell upon Urlish like icicles, shattering across his mind. “Listen then, faithful heretic, and hear the Truth of my people.” In the North, where cold reigns o’er all, An ancient God did there install His See of frost and hoary might, Hidden safe from mortal sight. In the stillness by winter wrought, Icy spires to the Heavens shot Sparkling bright in Arctic dim: The City of Kubistahlim. And at its gates the God did send An Apparition to defend His frozen home from all trespass, So Solitude He could amass. But e’en Gods do lonely grow In empty lands of blinding snow, So fashion’d then that God of yore Maidens of Ice to Him adore. The Chill Folk He did named them, His harem of Kubistahlim; Frigid delights did they impart To fill His bleak and barren heart. But n’er dream’d He they did conspire In darkness deeds towards Him so dire; To leave behind their icy home, Freed by murder, the World to roam. Guardian Beast they did confound And trick’d it off their Master’s ground. Brew’d they then an elixir vile And brought it to their Lord with guile. “Sip, we bid, Father-Lover-King, Slake Thy thirst, then pleasures we bring.” He silently the poison drank And somberly in Death He sank. The Chill Folk then rejoic’d in cheer, Now Liberty was with them near. But then return’d the vengeful Beast And celebration at once ceas’d. So frozen halls do echo still With Beastly howl and forlorn trill. For n’er can the Chill Folk flee Hoary frost of the Ice God’s See.

Urlish’s lips were frozen together, but he heard his own voice echoing in his mind. “There are no gods.”

This time, her laughter rang out loud and malevolent. “Then you are blind, Urlish of Ardyé.”

If he could have moved, he would have would have raised a hand in protest. “Eyes can see things which are not present, and ears hear words that were never spoken. You may not be of human blood, but that does not put you outside of Nature. Perhaps you hale from a different plane ... or one of the stars. There is a scientific explanation for you.” Fingers as delicate as snowflakes caressed his face then suddenly sank into his throat. Her grip was as sturdy as cold iron. Purple veins swelled at his temples, and consciousness was slowly squeezed away. A sound like the wind sighing through the boughs of hoar-frost-heavy trees caught his captor’s attention. “We shall finish this anon, Urlish of Ardyé; my aid is required to deal with your kindred.”

With that, she vanished and some tiny measure of true warmth seeped back into his bones.

Urlish forced his numb fingers into the leather pouch at his waist. The kharabib herbs inside were bitter, but had served him well over the weeks to stave off frostbite. Cold, after all, was of Nature. And Nature’s inherent balance assured that there was always some force to counteract another. [SPACE]

When he recovered, Urlish wandered through the passageways more stealthily now, rapier in hand. His ears were alert to the slightest creaking of the ice, wary for any sign of his comely assailant. His eyes scanned every white cubit that stretched before him, searching for a way out of Kubistalhim. A scream fell upon him like a stone. He had no doubt that it came from a human throat, and so hurried to find who had fallen prey to the Chill Folk now.

The narrow passage soon opened into a cavern dominated by a gigantic golden statue upon a thin dais of ice. It had the body of a muscular man and the head of one of the fierce woolly rams that roam the north lands. No doubt, it was an effigy of the Chill Folk’s murdered “god.”

Urlish took all of this in at a glance, in the instant before his attention was drawn to the scene unfolding at the foot of the dais. There, a handful of Barisvarian soldiers struggled against a score of snow-white women, each identical to the one Urlish had encountered. The Barisvarians fought with all of the fury that fear bestows upon warriors, striking with sharp axes and swords. Steel bit into the pallid bodies, but it was like hacking at thick wood--the blades could only nick the perfect, alabaster forms.

The Chill Folk, however, dealt red carnage.

Slender fingers ripped through chain mail as if it were cloth. Slim maidens hoisted burly, armored men high over their heads and dashed them to the floor, causing brains to ooze through cracked steel helmets.

These, then, were the “kindred” his attacker had mentioned--the same men who had been sent to slay him. For an instant, Urlish was tempted to leave them to their fate and continue searching for an exit. But what would such cowardice accomplish? He could not stand idly by while those men fell like wheat at harvest. Whatever their intentions towards him, they were human beings. His natural place was at their side.

He removed a torch and flint from his jerkin. It blazed into life just as one of the “women” rushed him. Urlish thrust the fire into her face, and she reeled back shrieking.

Smiling at the thought of having a weapon of some use, Urlish jumped into the fray, swinging the torch in front of him. As one, the creatures gave way while he advanced upon the soldiers. However, their attack had been so fierce, that by the time he reached the dais only one warrior still stood.

Urlish dragged the man onto the platform, and put their backs against the golden feet of the idol. The soldier had been stunned, but reason was swiftly flooding back into his intelligent eyes.

“My thanks to you,” he said, spitting blood. “I am Amroika of Barisvar. And you, I take it, are the heretic.”

Urlish handed him a fistful of kharabib herbs. “Eat these. They’ll help against the cold.”

Color returned to Amroika’s cheeks as he chewed the herbs and shook his head at the torch. “Fire. I should have guessed. What else would be deadly in this icy purgatory?”

“We’ll be safe so long as we keep this statue to our backs. The only reason I made it through the middle of their ranks is because I took them by surprise.”

“An advantage we no longer possess.” The Barisvarian wiped his bloody mouth. “You can’t expect to hold them at bay forever. Sooner or latter that faggot will burn out, and then...”

Urlish waved the torch at a “maiden” who had strayed too near. The Chill Folk circled them, their cold eyes never blinking. Urlish swallowed hard. “To die in the midst of a myth.”

“Myth?” Amroika stared into the middle distance. “My lads’ deaths argue otherwise.”

Urlish watched the Chill Folk stride among the gory corpses.

“They tried to warn me,” Amroika continued quietly, more to himself than to Urlish. “They told me not to come here. But I had to. Duty ... duty demanded it.” He looked accusingly at Urlish. “You’d better get another torch; that one’s almost burned down to your hand.”

“I wish I could, but this is the only one I have. The rest were in my saddle bags.” Urlish stared down into ravenous eyes that regarded them from an ever closer distance as the fire died. “Amroika, I have an idea. Hold the torch.”

Urlish turned towards the statue and furrowed his brow. “The feet of this thing are imbedded in the ice only a few fingers’ widths down. With that huge skull and outstretched arms it must be extremely top-heavy.” Urlish’s eyes danced to and fro as he ciphered in his head. “It might work,” he muttered to himself as he sought a handhold in the folds of the idol’s golden robes, and began to shimmy up its leg.

When Urlish reached the effigy’s shoulders, he wrapped his arms around its immense neck and threw himself against it.

“What in the name of the seven hells are you doing?” Amroika shouted from below. Urlish ignored him, and continued rocking back and forth. If he had recalled Pythemores’ Theorem correctly, his weight might be just enough to upset the statue’s precarious balance.

There was an almost imperceptible rumble from deep within the icy dais. Urlish had hardly been able to disturb the statue at all, but it was enough to allow its own tremendous weight to do the rest. Urlish leapt off the idol as the dais erupted, tossing Amroika aside. The statue toppled, its great ram’s horns crashing through the thick ice wall. Wind and snow whipped into the chamber through the gaping hole it left behind.

Amroika dusted icy shards from his beard and glared at Urlish. “Madman! You extinguished the torch. We’ll never make it to your damned exit before they rend us to pieces!” As if to confirm the Barisvarian’s prophesy, the Chill Folk were already rushing towards them.

Urlish shouted over the wind. “My purpose was not to make an exit, captain, but an entrance!”

The Chill Folk closed nearer. If only there was some small measure of truth in the poem. Then he saw it. A gigantic white wolf with a horn the length of a scimitar protruding from its snout stood at the opening. It leapt into the midst of the Chill Folk, and within a heartbeat half-a-dozen were reduced to bloodless chunks of ice.

Urlish shook the Barisvarian, who stood mesmerized by the wolf-thing’s slaughter. “I’m not willing to stay here to see if that creature will be grateful for finally getting vengeance, or simply be still hungry!” [SPACE]

The city of the ice god was no longer on the horizon when they stopped running and collapsed into the snow. The Barisvarian spoke first, though his words were broken up by gasps for air. “By the fiery beard of Ishtik, but I’m glad to be safe from there!”

Urlish laughed. “Safe from the curses of long dead ‘gods’ perhaps, but we’re still alone and on foot, many leagues north of any settlement.”

Amroika laughed as well, but there was far more mirth in his voice than Urlish’s. “Ah, but we’ll find some village, of that I’m sure.” He brushed at his red beard. “But tell me, how did you know the Beast would run for the opening when it heard the ice walls shatter?”

Urlish smiled. “Because vengeance, for good or ill, is a very natural thing. And one can always trust in Nature.”

Amroika shook his burly head and stretched.

“Now you tell me, good captain ... when we do come across a village, are you still intent upon arresting me?” Urlish’s hand wandered discreetly towards his rapier.

“Phon and Chyra, lad! What kind of a scoundrel do you take me for, that I would send you to the chopping block after you saved my life?”

Urlish sighed and nodded his head slowly. “I suppose that I must take you at your word then.” “You must learn to have faith, friend heretic. Faith.” Amroika’s gusty laughter was swept away by the bitter north wind.

© 2000 Randy D. Ashburn

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