Their vessel approached the east coast of Jokull. The familiar snow-covered hills extended into the distance, and rocky outcrops of granite rose towards the cloud base, occasionally losing themselves within its mass. Gulls and terns screeched as they carved through the air in startling numbers; their presence was deeply comforting to Verain – they were home, there was life here. Trees littered the hills with their evergreen shadows, and stone walls marked the occasional – and probably abandoned – farm. Small plumes of smoke could be seen, originating from somewhere out of sight – probably from members of the Aes tribe who miraculously still survived in these extremes. When she saw them, she felt a yearning to join their primitive ranks and leave her situation behind.
For a moment, Dartun joined her on the quarterdeck, looking around as they passed along their home island. His cloak flailed in the strong coastal breeze. Where he had been injured on their arduous journey, tiny metallic patches were showing through. More than ever, he had the appearance of an artificial construction, as if made from relics and skin pasted half-heartedly on top. He said nothing, she said nothing – and this seemed to please them both. If he held answers, she no longer wanted to hear them.
They sailed for some time seeking an inlet, but couldn’t find one. Eventually, frustrated with their search, they worked the sails, turned the ship toward the rocky shore and ploughed through the shallows.
The ship juddered and rocked: they had run aground, leaving a gap perhaps of twenty feet of water to the land. No one wasted any time. They took what little belongings they had gathered on their journey and jumped overboard.
Verain plunged into the icy water, which nearly took her breath from her body and froze her blood in an instant. The water only reached up to her thighs and, with her possessions above her head, she waded to the shore before collapsing on the rocky beach along with the others, some of whom were laughing like madmen. The young man, Todi, was shivering, rubbing his arms vigorously, and his breath was clouding before his face. Dartun stepped along beside him and placed his hands on Todi’s shoulders: the young cultist relaxed suddenly, as if the chills had vanished.
Dartun then stepped behind Verain, repeating the gesture, and she felt warmth suddenly flow through her body. She shuddered. Dartun smiled impassively in return before moving on to the others.
The farmhouse they had spotted from the ship was indeed abandoned. It was a simple white stone cottage, surrounded by a scrub of trees and bushes that had died in the cold. Inside, a few pots and pans were sitting on the kitchen table covered in mould, suggesting that the owners had long since left.
After Todi and Tuung had gathered wood and started a fire in the hearth, the place felt like a home again. Verain changed into drier clothes. She sat by the fire, exhausted, relieved, empty. She wanted to stay there for ever.
Whilst she sat staring into the flames, Tuung moved in beside her, and pulled his cloak tightly round himself. ‘I’m going to be leaving,’ he whispered urgently.
‘What?’ she replied. ‘Where are you going?’
‘I don’t know.’ He shrugged. ‘Anywhere but where Dartun goes.’
Verain looked around, but their leader was nowhere to be seen. ‘I don’t understand – why now?’
‘We’re almost home. I reckon I can find my way around Jokull all right. I won’t head back to Villjamur, but to some of the towns up north maybe.’
Could I go with him? She was too lethargic, too afraid of what Dartun might do to her. Besides, Tuung hadn’t asked if she wanted to go.
‘If anyone asks,’ Tuung said, still in a whisper, ‘if Dartun asks, would you lie on my behalf?’
‘And tell him what?’
‘Tell him I’ve gone to scour the rock pools to the south for something to eat.’
‘Do you think that will be enough?’
‘It can buy me enough time, an hour or so, and then I can just . . . fucksake, I don’t know. I’ll find a road, or failing that I’ll just keep heading north-west until I find a settlement.’
‘Have you got enough to eat?’
‘Fuck all, is what I have to eat; but I can identify enough from the land to get by. I’ve got flint to start a fire, and enough wits to trap a hare. I’ve found a blade or two in the kitchen. I’ll be fine.’ He took her hands in an unusually affectionate gesture. ‘Best of luck, lass.’
She said nothing in return, but smiled softly, and turned back to stare at the flames as he disappeared.
Dartun returned with some meat he claimed was rabbit, but it tasted more like squirrel to Verain. Either way, she didn’t care: it was food, and it could be eaten. There were some herbs drying in some of the cupboards, and she insisted on cooking dinner since it would be a task – something akin to normality.
‘Should we not wait for Tuung?’ Dartun enquired.
‘He said he’d be on the beach, looking in rock pools for something to eat – in case you didn’t find anything.’
‘Hmm.’ Dartun gave a short nod, and nothing more. He disappeared into the other room, allowing her to relax once again with the simple, pleasurable chore of cooking.
They ate with their fingers, in companionable silence, allowing the warmth of the fire to wash over them. They were seated in a semicircle, allowing Verain a good view of their faces – there was hardly a hint of humanity left in them. Here were morose and shattered individuals. There was little of the spark they used to possess as a group, none of the sparring discussions. It was like parts of their minds had been removed altogether.
Eventually came the question, and it was Dartun who asked again. ‘Where has Tuung got to? Are you certain he headed to the coast?’
‘That’s what he told me, yes,’ she replied.
Dartun wore a heavy frown, which was exacerbated by the firelight. He stood up and his chair flipped over. He marched out of the room and she heard the door of the farmhouse opening then slamming shut.
Wearily she eyed the others, and Todi looked at her with a resigned frown. ‘I hope Dartun doesn’t find him.’
Two hours later, the sun had set and the others were settled in blankets, listening to the snowstorm that raged outside. When the door burst open and a series of thuds and groans followed, she leapt up from her chair and headed towards the outburst.
Tuung was lying on the floor caked in mud, curled into a tight ball, his face creased in agony. Dartun loomed above him.
‘He was nowhere near the coast.’ His voice was loaded with accusation as he stared at her. Verain swallowed hard, too afraid to respond.
Dartun shut the door and stared down at the man’s crawling form. ‘No, he was a good mile or two north of here.’
‘Did you capture him?’ Verain eventually asked. ‘Is he your prisoner now?’
Dartun seemed to consider these words seriously. ‘No. No of course not. It is not safe out there – it is no place to be alone.’
Dartun stepped over Tuung and marched up the stairs. Verain rushed to crouch beside the prostate cultist, examining him for any injuries. ‘Did he hurt you?’ she whispered.
Tuung grunted his response. ‘No, lass – he exhausted me, is what he did. He . . . found my tracks and . . . hunted me until . . . till I couldn’t breathe. Then he dragged me by my feet across the snow. Took an almost manic pleasure in it.’ Then, ‘My arse hurts like you would not believe.’
Verain slumped against the wall beside him. ‘We’re trapped, aren’t we?’
‘Indeed,’ Tuung said. He pushed himself up alongside her, grunting and groaning all the way.
‘He’s desperate to get us to Villjamur,’ she said. ‘What do you think he’s got planned?’
‘I have not a fucking clue, but I doubt it’s going to be fun.’