Asha hurried through the Neutral Lands, her red robes flowing as her giant salamander mount shivered.
“I know,” she whispered, petting the beast’s red leathery hide, “Hold on just a little longer, Sear. We’re nearly there.” She shivered herself as they passed through the calm grasslands of the Neutral Lands. Here there were no volcanoes or lava, no searing heat to keep her warm. Her cold-blooded salamander was even worse off, punished by the cooler temperatures of the Neutral Lands. The sun shone, but it was not enough.
“Here is the meeting place,” Asha said, dismounting, “I suppose, now, we wait.”
The delegation from Wynter took a while, and Asha rolled her eyes when she saw why. Pack animals slowly made their way across the grasslands, laden with heavy packs and supplies. Certainly, Wynter was a harsh, frigid land, but did its top representative really have to bring their entire clan? Asha had come alone, and fast, but the delegation from Wynter seemed to be in no hurry, and it irked her.
“Finally,” Asha said, as a white haired mage in blue robes climbed down from the giant mammoth she used as a mount.
“I apologize for the delay,” the ice mage said, “Wynter is particularly cold at the moment. Falling snow buried my bodyguards and we had to dig them out.”
“I see,” Asha understood then why the ice mage had brought so many people with her; it was not simply a case of riding across the rocky wasteland as she had done; Wynter sounded more fierce and dangerous than ever. Asha shivered to think of it.
“It is warm here,” the ice mage commented, shedding a fur robe and handing it to one of her guards, “I am not used to it. We should hurry with our business and be done.”
Asha looked into the ice mage’s blue eyes. They shone with a piercing coldness, and Asha imagined for a moment that the ice mage could see into the depths of her very soul.
“We just need to ratify the treaty; it’s simply tradition by now… you sign here, and I sign there, and we go our separate ways,” Asha said, “Next year, we repeat the process. It makes sure that we remember the war we once had; fire and ice and a world ruined by both. The Neutral Lands are all that remain of what the world was before the war…”
“I am too young to remember,” the ice mage said, “My mother remembered. This used to be her job, but she is gone now.”
“I remember Crystal,” Asha said, remembering the elderly mage who had used to come to the meetings, “I am sorry to hear of her passing. I will miss her.”
“Thank you,” the ice mage said, “I suppose I should introduce myself; I know you are Asha, for my mother spoke of you, but I have left you at a disadvantage. My name is Shard.”
“It’s wonderful to meet you, Shard,” Asha said, and it was true. Even though it was simply a formality they were going through, Asha found there was something inviting about Shard, something mystical and beautiful in a way she could not describe. She was alien, and yet, split from the same people, Pyria and Wynter’s people shared similar traditions, even down to their naming. All of Pyria’s children had names drawn from fire, and all of Wynter’s offspring were named for ice, snow, cold and the crystals that adorned their caves. Both people had strong magical abilities in their respective element, and both people had been at war for a long time. The Neutral Lands had seen many battles, but it was always a stalemate; neither side could prevail into the harsh element of the other land, and so eventually peace was forged, more from a desire to end a pointless war than an end to any fundamental disagreements.
“How fares Pyria?” Shard asked, “My mother told me that last time you spoke, Pyria was troubled with volcanic activity and earthquakes.”
“Mount Flame erupted and several villages had to be evacuated. The remainder of Pyria’s people now live in the capital.” Asha said, “Some wouldn’t leave and lost their lives… A great tragedy, if you ask me, but people are stubborn. They think the Gods will stop the lava and they wait… and the Gods do not stop the lava, for they are the lava, they are the fire itself and so they are consumed for their faith.”
“Gods are fickle indeed,” Shard said, with an understanding smile, “Wynter’s cold season has been particularly harsh, even for us. Snow falls constantly, and many good hunters have been lost. Our tunnels below ground keep us warm but sometimes even the flames won’t stay lit and we huddle in the dark, hoping it will end soon.”
“Would that I could come to your home and warm it,” Asha said, “but I would not last the journey back to Wynter.”
“I would freeze the lava in its tracks if I could,” Shard said sadly, “but likewise, I couldn’t stand the heat. It’s a tragedy that we each have what the other needs, but no way to share it.”
“Perhaps that’s why we always warred,” Asha said, “Even though we knew it was fruitless, we wanted what you had, and you wanted what we had.”
“We ruined the Neutral Lands with our foolishness,” Shard said, “Once, they may have been large enough to accommodate all of us; now, they are but a sliver of land large enough for maybe one city.”
“What a city that would be, though,” Asha said, “Fire and ice, together as one… Do you think that we could ever make it work?”
There was a glint in Shard’s eyes, and then it was gone, “Perhaps,” she said, “But truly, would you ever want to live here? It is entirely too warm for my tastes, and I’ll wager too cold for yours.”
“Not intolerable, though,” Asha said, “We could adapt.”
“Perhaps in a few generations,” Shard said, “If the peace remains strong, anything could happen.” She rolled out the parchment and signed, “Your turn, Asha,” she said, and Asha took her quill and signed. Shard rolled up the parchment, put it into a tube, and stood to leave.
“Would you stay and eat with us?” Asha asked, knowing that Shard was going to leave and not wanting that to happen, not yet. The woman was interesting, and Asha wanted to know more about her. She had never felt such a curiosity about Wynter before, but here it was, nonetheless, and she wanted to indulge it.
“I would like that,” Shard said, and Asha felt warmth in her smile as she wandered back to her party to inform them.
She petted her salamander, “Sorry, boy, but I have to do this. Don’t give me that look, I don’t know why, either. She’s just… enchanting. I want to know more about her, about Wynter, about everything. Please indulge me, we’ll go back in the morning, I promise.”
The salamander let out a sad shriek and Asha felt guilty. She untied the rope that kept the salamander in the camp, “Go, then, but please come back, because I’m not going to live in Wynter.” She saw the salamander scurry away, and went back to the camp. Shard had made a campfire for cooking, even though she was sweating from the effort.
“Let me do that,” Asha said, taking the meat from Shard. Shard looked relieved and backed away from the fire. Asha was grateful for the heat; warmth had never felt so good. She had never stayed so long in the Neutral Lands before, and wondered what madness had led her to do so this time. Was it really just curiosity about Wynter and Shard. Shard’s mother had never inspired such feelings; they had been acquaintances, friends at most, but they had never really lingered after the signing was concluded.
They ate, putting out the campfire so they could all sit together. The men looked restless after their meal, however, eager to get on the road.
“You can go on ahead,” Shard said, “I am tired. I wish to stay the night and follow you tomorrow.” Protests followed her decision, but there was a cold, determined look in her eyes and they eventually relented, even though they were confused. It was only a signing between nations, a formality. Why did she want to linger for so long in such a hostile temperature? They went on, nonetheless, loading all the pack animals but one and heading back into Wynter’s territory. Soon, they were alone, but for the snoring of Shard’s mammoth in the background and the distant shriek of the salamander as it made a kill.
“Why did you stay?” Asha said.
“Why did you?” Shard countered, and both women were speechless. Finally, it was Asha who spoke.
“You’re interesting,” Asha said, “There’s something about you… that has frankly captivated me. You’re beautiful, smart, enchanting… suddenly I want to know all about you and Wynter.”
Shard laughed, “I was worried you had cast some kind of spell on me,” she said, “I wondered if the power of fire also granted you power over the fires of the heart. I have known you but an afternoon and made light conversation at that, yet here I am, spending the night in this hot environment simply to spend time with you.”
“What could it be?” Asha said, “I always knew I liked women, but I barely know you. Besides, we could never be together! I could never live in Wynter and you could never live in Pyria. I don’t even think we could settle here, despite what I said.”
“Perhaps it is just a curious infatuation because we are so alien to one another,” Shard said, “Did you ever feel this way about my mother?”
“Never,” Asha said, “She was smart, intelligent and interesting to be sure, but we signed the treaty and went our separate ways. There was never a thought of anything else…”
“Perhaps we should get this out of our system and go our separate ways,” Shard suggested, “If we meet again next year and still feel the same way, then we can assess it more deeply… but for now, I just want to touch you all over and be consumed by your fire.”
They kissed, not wasting a minute, not worrying about the past or the future. It was what it was, ice and fire coming together, a contradiction, but wonderful all the same after so many years of war. Asha loved the touch of Shard’s cool skin, and Shard reveled in the heat of Asha’s deep passion.
They lay together naked, afterwards, staring up at the stars, holding each other tightly. There were tears in Asha’s eyes, a deep fire that burned inside.
“It would be nice… to live here,” Asha said, “We could live together, free from our worlds. We would adapt, I know it. We could start a new culture, one where fire and ice lived in harmony and balance. Perhaps we could restore the world to its rightful path, make plants grow on the scorched earth and defrost the encroaching snow of Wynter…”
“Lover’s dreams, all of it,” Shard said, sighing, “The warmth of our afterglow. You’re right, it is a sweet dream, that we might somehow find a way to live together, and that others might come. Still, you would miss Pyria and I would miss Wynter, we both know that. It’s healthy to dream, though,” Shard said.
They fell asleep in each other’s arms, and Shard woke first. She shook Asha gently.
“Wake up,” she said, “Your salamander has been calling for a while, now. You should go.”
“Yeah…” Asha dressed in her robes and looked up at Shard, who was frantically packing things away. She was about to leave when Asha put a warm hand on her shoulder. As she turned, Asha could see her eyes were full of tears she was trying to hide.
“We’ll meet again next year,” Asha said, “Then we’ll know if these feelings can endure. Until then, don’t feel sad. Even if we don’t ever want to be lovers again… I will always be your friend.”
“Thank you,” Shard said, and took Asha’s warm hand in hers. She kissed it and let it go, then tucked a strand of Asha’s wild red hair behind her ear. She finished with a kiss, and then backed away.
“I must go,” she said, “If I don’t hurry, I won’t be able to catch up with the others and the path they have cleared will disappear.”
“Be well,” Asha said, “my love,” and she watched Shard mount up and ride off into the distance before she turned back to where her giant salamander waited and made the long trip back to Pyria.
Shard had thought she would forget the feelings that burned inside of her, but Asha had left her mark and they only grew stronger. Wynter only grew colder, but that only made Shard’s fire grow stronger, that flickering flame of hope that soon, she would see Asha again. Warm Asha, her fire, her light, her guide through the darkness of Wynter. A year had never passed so slowly in her life, and it was one plagued with hardship. Many of her friends died as the climate grew colder, freezing in the Icy Wastes, searching for food. Others starved as their supplies ran out, the cured meat they had saved for harsh times running out. Spring should have come, but Spring did not, and they turned to their high mage for help.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” Shard said, “If the situation is not resolved by summer, then I will ask aid from Pyria at the treaty signing. That’s all I can do.”
“They’ll never help us!” one man shouted, “They only want to destroy with their fire!”
“That’s not true…” Shard said, but the shouts drowned her out.
Life for Asha was hard as well. It seemed like every volcano in Pyria had decided to erupt that year, and she spent her time trying to convince people to leave their homes. Yet still they did not want to leave, and many died when Mount Flare erupted on the Magic Quarter of the city.
“For all this power, I am useless!” Asha cried, throwing a spell book at the wall of her study, “All I know is fire, and fire is our deepest enemy!”
“There’s nothing we can do about that,” her advisor Blaze said, “We just have to do what we can… Those who choose not to leave, well… there’s not a lot we can do…”
“We need to stop the volcanoes,” Asha said, “We can’t afford to lose more people – Pyria’s population is down to a few tens of thousands! We risk dying out completely and yet our people are just content to let the lava roll over them…!” She slammed her fist down on the desk, “I wish Shard was here! She’d be able to stop this!”
“Who is Shard?” the advisor asked, but Asha just shook her head, “Somebody very special,” she answered, “Wynter’s head mage.”
When the year rolled around, they both came alone to the meeting place. Wynter’s Council had almost called off the signing, but Shard had insisted on going, danger or not. She had started out with two bodyguards, but both had died on the journey.
When Asha saw Shard, relief rolled over her and she ran to meet her. Shard was running too, and they dived into each other’s arms, Asha spinning Shard around before letting her down and kissing her passionately.
“Such a terrible year,” Asha said, “My people are dying in their thousands, melted by lava, suffocating in ash. They turn to me but what can I do but make fire hotter? I am useless to my own people…
“I as well,” Shard said, “Wynter’s cold season is continuing long past its normal range. It should be summer by now, but instead it is colder than ever and we are starving and freezing to death. If only we had the power of fire…”
They sat and signed the treaty, thoughtful and quiet. Asha rolled it up in the tube and sat with Shard, holding her close. They were sad and distracted but they still wanted each other, and took the only opportunity they had.
“I have a plan,” Asha said afterwards, “It’s absurd, but hear me out. What if I go to Wynter for a year and you go to Pyria? I could help your people melt the permafrost, get out and hunt, and keep them warm. You could freeze the volcanoes, stop the lava flow, save some lives. We’d both be uncomfortable… perhaps we wouldn’t survive the year, but… at least we would have done something!”
“I agree,” Shard said, “It’s complete and utter madness to suggest such a thing… but you might be right. My people can’t go on as they are, and yours can’t either. Perhaps we won’t be able to come back here again and sign the treaty, but perhaps it doesn’t matter any more. I fear this world is dying, Asha. The natural order has become so unbalanced that perhaps we can’t save it now, but we can ease the suffering of our people…”
“I love you,” Asha blurted out, “I know, that’s crazy too, but it’s true. You’re all I’ve thought about all year. When things were hard, the thought of seeing you again was all that gave me hope.”
“It was the same for me,” Shard said, “There were days when I thought I might freeze to death, but thinking of you kept me warm inside and got me through.”
“Perhaps… if this doesn’t work,” Asha said, “We should move the people here. The climate is warmer for your people, and the volcanoes are less active closer to the Neutral Lands. My people are dwindling. Perhaps our only hope is to combine…”
“They would never agree to it,” Shard said, “The younger ones might, but there are still too many who remember the war, who lost people they loved. I don’t even know if you will be welcomed or shunned in Wynter. All I know is that we have to try.”
Asha let Shard hold her close and stroke her hair tenderly. She felt safe, just for a moment, even as the enormity of their task started to dawn on her. It was nearly impossible that they would survive in each other’s worlds, she knew, and so she clung to Shard tightly, not wanting to part from her.
Shard knew it, too, “Love,” she whispered, “We shouldn’t linger… Otherwise…”
“Otherwise we might have second thoughts,” Asha said, “I know. Our people have to come first. If we’re still alive after this… then we can talk about us.”
They swapped clothes. Asha felt uncomfortable in the blue robes and the heavy layers of furs that Shard gave her, and Shard felt ridiculous in the loose, billowing fire mage robes. They looked at each other and laughed, but it was an edgy laughter, filled with doubt.
As they separated, Asha felt trepidation and fear. She climbed atop the mammoth easily enough, but its slow, steady pace was difficult for her to bear. She soon understood why it walked in such a deliberate manner, though. As she left the Neutral Lands and ventured into Wynter she found the ice was thick in many places and the snow was heavy, obscuring the paths and hiding ice from view. She shivered deeply as she cuddled deeper into the furs Shard had given her. She had never seen snow or ice, only heard about it in books, but she felt its raw power here and was in awe of it, even as she struggled to preserve her body heat.
She used fire magic to cleave through huge ice blocks that had troubled Shard’s party on the way down, but the way forward was still slow and dangerous. Asha thought she might never feel warm again, but she clung to the memory of Shard to keep her warm. She wondered how Shard was doing in Pyria, with volcanoes all around and searing heat in the air. It was madness to have swapped, but they were desperate. If they couldn’t make this work, then their people would die. Everything that they had spent their lives doing would have been for nothing, and the magic, the power that flowed through their veins would dwindle and die, for who would care about magical training when the world was reduced to a few stragglers?
The mammoth slipped, pulling Asha from her reverie. She was thrown from her saddle and started to fall. She grabbed onto the creature’s hair and looked down off the sheer side off a cliff. The mammoth regained its balance and Asha climbed, her heart pounding. Death had been so close. She imagined Shard returning to the Neutral Lands in a year, waiting for Asha who would never come, her people dead because Asha had never made it to Wynter City.
She gripped the reins tightly, “I will make it,” she told herself, “I will.”
Shard was sweltering as the salamander took her into Pyria. The beast was fast, and Shard had to cling to the reins just to stay on. Finally she steadied herself enough to look up at the scenery, and she saw a great volcano on the horizon, lava spewing from its top. She looked around and saw another one, and another. She had never even seen a volcano, but she knew this level of activity had to be abnormal, just as Wynter’s never-ending snowstorm was unusual.
She drank through the skin of water Asha had given her far faster than she should have, she realized, as she thirsted for water and had none. She created ice blocks and melted them, but the magic drained her and she felt exhausted. Still, it was better than thirst, which would surely mean death out in the barren, rocky wastes of Pyria. She wondered how Asha had survived on so little water. Had she trained herself to need so little? How would she fare in the icy tundra of Wynter, where she wasn’t prepared for the trials ahead? These questions ate at Shard and she wondered if she had made a mistake, had sent the woman she loved to die. Perhaps they should have gone back to Wynter together – but she knew Pyria wouldn’t wait another year, and that Asha would never abandon her people. No, this had been the only option, and they had both agreed to it. She could only hope that they would both survive to see each other again.
It was a week before Asha saw the great city rising up before her, and she did so with relief. The cold had eaten into her bones, and every time she had fallen asleep she had been afraid she would not wake again. She had summoned fires with her magic, but they would not stay lit in the cold snow. Only the caves she had found along the way had saved her from death. There she found a semblance of warmth and ate some of her dried rations, hoping that she would make it through the next day. It had been hard to leave the caves and go out into the cold again, but she knew she would starve if she didn’t hurry, so she pressed on.
Making her way into the city, her heart sank as she saw all the buildings were abandoned and in a state of disrepair. Snow had built up on them and the crumbling city wall until it was almost impossible to imagine how they might have been before the snow had buried them.
Feeling hopeless, she was about to set up a camp to decide what to do when she saw a freshly dug trail. She directed the mammoth to it and dismounted. It led to an opening that had looked like it had once been a fountain in the city but now had steps leading down. She tied the mammoth to a pole and headed down into the shadows.
The gloom was impenetrable at first after a week of bright snow, but her eyes eventually adjusted as she made her way into the tunnels. They looked like they might once have been city dungeons, but now the doors to the cells were open and families were living in them, wrapped in blankets and looking pale and thin. She wondered if she should stop and make a fire but then decided she should speak to whoever was in charge in Shard’s absence. She carried on through the tunnels until she heard an argument going on in a room ahead. Moving up to the door she listened in.
“There’s no way we can go on!” one man said, “We’re starving! Even if we don’t freeze to death down here, there’s nothing to hunt! The animals have died and we have no way of growing anything.”
“Shard will know what to do,” another man said, “She’ll return soon, and we’ll talk to her. Maybe she’ll have some idea of what to do.”
“I don’t even know why she went to that stupid treaty signing,” a woman said, “No invading army could get through that wall of ice and snow. She may have been killed trying to get there, and for what?”
Asha opened the door and stepped in. She had heard enough, “Shard went to get help,” she said, throwing her hood back, “I’m Asha, High Mage of Pyria, and I’m here to save your people.”
When Shard saw the city of Pyria for the first time, she was awed at its size. Then she looked closer, and saw the devastation. Parts of the city were burned, and lava had dried to rock, leaving a scar across the city. Ash was thick in the air, and it made Shard cough and her eyes water. She could see the looming volcano above the city, threatening death upon its inhabitants.
Going down into the city Shard saw chaos. Looters were taking from burned buildings, while others ran around crying “The end is nigh!”. Homeless families shuffled around looking for a place to sleep, and Shard saw many burn victims, faces, arms and bodies twisted beyond recognition by the lava. Those were the lucky ones, she presumed, the ones who hadn’t been completely swallowed by the lava stream.
On the hillside, she saw a huge building which she supposed probably contained what remained of Pyria’s government, and she decided to start there. She climbed the steps to the building, and saw refugees everywhere, some even sleeping on the steps.
Inside the building things were just as chaotic. She saw a man giving orders, and waited before he was done before she stopped him.
“Asha,” he asked, “Asha, oh, thank the gods you’ve returned!”
Shard threw back Asha’s hood to reveal her white hair and blue eyes. The man’s expression froze, “Who are you?” he asked.
“I am Shard, High Mage of Wynter,” she said, “I came to help in place of Asha, who has gone to help my people. I bring with me the power of ice. Perhaps I can stop these volcanoes.”
The man’s expression softened, melted into one of relief, “So that’s why Asha insisted on going to the treaty meeting,” he said, “I’m Blaze, her advisor. Why didn’t she tell me about this?”
“She didn’t know if I would agree, I suppose,” Shard said, “So, what can I do to help?”
“The volcano is getting ready to erupt again,” Blaze said, “This could be the big one. This city can’t take much more, Shard. If we can’t stop this eruption, everybody in the city will either die or be forced out into the Wastes, where they will die from lack of water.”
“There is another option,” Shard said, “If we can’t save the city, we can cross the Wastes to the Neutral Lands and live there. Many will not want to go and many who go will die, but it is another choice should I fail.”
“The Neutral Lands?” Blaze sighed, “I have heard they are a balance between the two worlds of ice and fire… but that they are shrinking. That once, the whole world used to be like that, before the wars…”
“So they say,” Shard said, “The Neutral Lands are big enough to sustain a city. From there we could work on stabilizing the extreme climates of this world and undoing the damage… if it is even possible.”
“We need to stop the volcano,” Blaze said, “I don’t want to leave my home, and neither do my people. Please help us.”
“I will do my best,” Shard said. Suddenly, the ground began to shake, and Shard had to grab onto the wall to keep from falling. Her eyes opened wide as the whole world seemed to move. Blaze fell, but Shard couldn’t reach him.
It seemed like forever, but when the quake subsided Shard helped Blaze to his feet.
“Was that an earthquake?” Shard asked.
“Yeah,” Blaze said, “The plates of the earth meet here and when too much pressure builds up, it shakes the earth as the energy is released. It may have affected the volcano as well… we have to hurry!”
They raced outside and looked up just as the volcano exploded. Ash and lava spewed into the air.
“It’s happening!” Blaze said, “We’re too late!”
“No!” Shard said, “I promised Asha I would help her people. Blaze, evacuate the city residents while I hold it off!”
“That’s too much for one mage!” Blaze said, “There’s no way…”
“I can buy you time,” Shard said, “Now go, save the people! If you see Asha again, tell her… that I love her.”
Blaze’s eyes widened but he said nothing, only hurried away. Shard saw him talking to a group of refugees and then they hurried and talked to others… the evacuation was beginning. Now she had to buy some time.
The city led right to the base of the mountain and she stood at the bottom, seeing the lava rolling down towards the city. She concentrated and cast ice towards it, freezing the tide, turning it into solid rock as it cooled rapidly. However, the tide was stronger, hotter than ice could stop and she was only slowing it as more lava spewed from the volcano. She created an ice barrier at the base of the mountain to protect the city, but it took all her power to hold it. Still, she could buy them enough time to get people out. Many hurried past her, some stood and watched in awe.
“Go! Save yourselves!” she cried, and they would hurry away. Soon, the city started to fall silent. People were no longer milling around her. The streets were finally emptying out, and she was relieved, as the barrier was cracking and she could hold it no longer. Still, she had to buy as much time as possible… and so she held the barrier with the last of her strength.
“Asha,” she whispered, “I love you so much…”
The barrier heaved and broke, lava pouring into the streets. Shard ran, but she was exhausted. New energy rushed through her as desperation filled her veins and she carried on, the streets behind her melting as the lava poured into them like water filling up a crack in the road. With a last burst she made it to the steps that led up out of the city and rushed up them as the city melted into the earth.
A long line of refugees led away from the city, but Shard knew it was not all of them. She looked sadly behind her, knowing so many had been left behind. A few thousand stragglers were all that was left of Pyria’s society and culture.
Blaze came running back to her, “Shard, you made it…” He sounded exhausted, but Shard knew he was happy to see her.
Shard didn’t speak, just looked down at the ground, to the burnt robes that blew around her feet.
“You gave us another option instead of waiting to die,” Blaze said, “You helped many people escape by holding the lava back. “I know Asha will be grateful.”
Shard looked as though she wanted to speak, but then turned away and joined the long line of refugees, leaving Blaze standing in the dust.
Asha wished it had been as simple as she had made it out to be, but saving the people of Wynter was a task beyond her abilities. She could keep them warm with her fire magic and she could melt the snow, but the creatures they hunted did not return, and starvation took many of the people of Wynter, while the storm showed no signs of abating.
“We have to leave this place,” Asha said at the meeting, “If we stay here with no food, we’ll die. Many will die on the journey, but if we can make it to the Neutral Lands, the rest of us will be safe. We can start again there, build a city. If we stay here, waiting for the storm to subside, we’re finished.”
“We won’t leave,” Shard’s advisor, Icicle, said. She was a hard woman, stubborn and determined, and Asha found her hard to deal with, but the other members of the Wynter Council, Snow, Frost and Sleet, were a lot more agreeable.
“The fire mage is right,” Snow said, “If we stay here, we’ll die. Aren’t you sick of being hungry?”
“I’m not hungry enough that I’ll give our kingdom over to the fire mages,” Icicle said, “Going to the Neutral Lands means giving up Wynter, our unique culture and everything we know to live in a hot, damp land. Are you willing to do that?”
“We have no choice,” Sleet said, “If we die, Wynter is doomed as well. We’ve waited for the snow season to pass but it has only worsened. This is our best chance to get out, now we have Asha here to help us on the journey. Shard sent Asha to help us, can’t you see that? This is what she wants us to do.”
“Shard’s not here,” Icicle said, “If Shard wanted us to leave, she should have come back here and told us herself. For all we know this could be a trap, designed to lead us into an ambush by fire mages in the Neutral Lands. Asha could have killed Shard and we’d be none the wiser!”
“I would never hurt Shard! I love her!” Asha blurted her feelings out in rage and blushed fiercely. She looked down at the floor as she felt all eyes on her, then determination rose up in her. Why should she feel ashamed? She loved Shard, and had come to save the people of Wynter at risk to her own life, so she could return to the one she loved.
“I am going,” she said quietly, “The Neutral Lands are my destination. Anybody who wishes to come with me is welcome, and I will guide them through Wynter’s snow with my fire magic. Anybody who wants to stay, can stay and die here. I’m hungry too, and I didn’t come here to die with you, I came here to save you.”
She went out into the tunnels and announced her intentions, and before long, everybody around her was packing for the journey. Everybody except Icicle, who stood in the doorway to the makeshift council chamber, looking grim. She still looked that way as Asha led the refugees out into the snow. Snow looked behind at her, but she shook her head and he left.
They were just upon the outskirts of the city when Snow cried out, “Wait!” The column halted and turned to see Icicle hurrying through the snow as fast as she could. She caught up with them and made her way to the front, aware of all eyes upon her.
“Keep going,” Icicle said, “I just figured I’d better come along to make sure you don’t harm my people, that’s all,” she said.
It was hard going, but Asha’s fire magic made the path easier. There were times when they had to move single-file across thin ice bridges, but few died from accidents. It was hunger and cold that picked off the refugees, and Asha was sad to see them falling in the snow, their final steps taken.
“This is a march to our doom!” Icicle said one night, as they rested in a large cave, “We’re all going to die!”
“No, we’re not,” Asha said. “We’ve lost some, but those people would have died back at Wynter City in time. This is our only chance, Icicle. We have to take it!”
“What then?” Icicle started to cry, “I can’t start again, I’m too old… and the love of my life is dead. I don’t want to live in warmth, hundreds of miles away from the land of my memories. Amongst the snow and the ruined houses… I used to remember how we used to be, me and her, when we were young… When Wynter was tolerable to live in and we had a magnificent city in the midst of all that snow and ice.”
“Her… Your love was…” Asha realized.
“Shard’s mother, Crystal,” Icicle confirmed, “I hated her going to the treaty signing every year. I was always scared she wouldn’t come back. She did though, every time. She even had a child, said she needed to keep Wynter strong. I was jealous, of course, but also happy. Shard is like a daughter to me. When her mother died, it was her who kept me strong. Now… Wynter is gone, and to abandon it…”
“Shard and I talked about going to the Neutral Lands,” Asha said, “I know that she agreed it would be a good idea if nothing else could be done… and it can’t. Do you think Crystal would want you to die alone in Wynter, holding onto a lost land?”
“I know,” Icicle said, “It’s not easy to change what I’ve known all my life, though.”
“It’s not easy for any of us,” Asha said, “I hate the cold. I thought I would die when I came to Wynter. I thought I had been a fool for choosing to swap places, that I had done it out of some desire to impress Shard. Perhaps I did, but I still wanted to follow through and do my best to save you all. Shard was in pain for her people and I for mine. It made sense to do this. I worry for her, though… Pyria is in danger from volcanoes and earthquakes. I hope she can stand the heat…”
“Have faith,” Icicle said, “We’ll get to the Neutral Lands soon. Then you can go to Pyria and help Shard, send her back to us.”
“Perhaps the storm will end eventually and you’ll be able to go home,” Asha said, “Don’t give up hope.”
“I won’t,” Icicle said, and she settled down to sleep.
The last few days were easier for Asha and her people as they reached the edge of the Neutral Lands and the temperatures rose. The people of Wynter seemed to feel it too, as the visibly relaxed. The first signs of wildlife appeared and the hunters swung into motion. Asha ate heartily with the others as they celebrated their first hunt in a long time, a huge bear that the hunters had killed and dragged back to the camp.
Some wanted to stay at the icy edge of the Neutral Lands, but Asha insisted that they press on. Perhaps they would settle there, in that icy plain, but she wanted to show them the Neutral Lands so they could decide for themselves.
As they approached the treaty signing field Asha saw a huge gathering of people who had made camp. They wore the red of Pyria.
“It’s a trap!” Icicle cried out, “I told you she was leading us into an ambush! This is a Pyrian invasion army!”
“No, they’re the refugees of my people,” Asha cried out, realizing. Whatever had happened, Pyria had fallen. Had Mount Flame finally erupted and destroyed the city?
There was confusion in the camp behind her and she rallied the people of Wynter, “Let me ride to meet them,” she said, “I fear that Pyria has also fallen, but there is room for both our peoples to live and work together.” Her eyes searched around the camp for Shard, but she did not see her. Had something happened to the love of her life? She wanted desperately to see her again, to hold her, to have her tell Wynter’s people that everything was all right.
She did see Blaze though, riding out on a salamander. She ran to meet him.
“Asha,” he said, dismounting in the middle of the field, “You’re alive!”
“What has become of Shard?” Asha asked, terror rising in her gut. Then she looked up to see Shard riding towards her, her long, white hair blowing in the wind. Asha knew it was the most beautiful sight she had ever seen. Then Shard rode right past her, towards her people.
“Blaze, what has happened?” Asha asked, “Please, tell me!”
“She was magnificent,” Blaze said, “Shard erected a barrier that held back the lava while I helped the people evacuate… but… she blames herself for the people that were left behind. Pyria was swallowed into the earth and filled with fire. Nothing short of godly intervention could have stopped it, but still, she is ashamed even to look at anybody, to talk… She has been silent the whole journey, making liquid for us when we thirsted, but never speaking. It wasn’t her fault, Asha! The volcano exploded with little warning. She saved hundreds of lives…”
Asha looked over to where Shard stood with her people. Icicle hugged her tightly and the hunters surrounded her. Icicle pointed away from the camp, to the colder parts of the Neutral Lands and they started to move, Shard following along.
“Wait!” Asha said, “We could have all lived together! Shard!”
“Let them go,” Blaze said, “They belong in the cold. Perhaps Shard just needs some time with her people.”
“I don’t understand,” Asha said, “I did everything I was supposed to do, I risked my life to save the people of Wynter, and now they walk away from me, even Shard?”
“You can’t expect people to change overnight,” Blaze said, “Even our people prefer the warmer side of the Neutral Lands. We’ll be neighbors, and we’ll still need each other. What, you expected us to crowd into one big city and live happily ever after?”
“That’s what I dreamed of,” Asha said, “When I saw you here, I thought it was fate. I could survive the destruction of Pyria knowing that something new and great was going to come from the joining of our people. That’s not going to happen though, is it?”
“Probably not,” Blaze said, “Maybe with time and patience, we will live together happily as neighbors. That doesn’t mean you can’t be with Shard though, Asha. She told me that if anything was to happen to her, that I should tell you she loves you. I assume the feeling is mutual.”
Asha looked back at the path she had just taken. Her body was just starting to warm up and protested against the thought of going back into the cold, but she was determined to go and break Shard out of her silence, to tell her she still loved her and that she was grateful that she’d done so much to save the people of Pyria. She walked off into the cold, leaving Blaze standing behind her.
“Shard!” Asha felt the cold sting her face but paid it no heed, “Shard!”
Shard was walking with the others but stopped when Asha called. Asha ran to her and hugged her tightly. Shard’s body seemed stiff and unresponsive.
“Shard, you saved my people… What you did was incredible, by all accounts. Yes, you couldn’t save everybody, but I couldn’t save all the people of Wynter, either. We did our best and we’re here, now. Our people are safe and we can finally be together!” Asha let go and lifted Shard’s face to look at her. She let her hands stroke Shard’s silver hair. “I love you,” she said, “Thank you for helping the people of Pyria.”
Then Shard started to cry, great heaving sobs and she fell into Asha’s arms, clinging to her for dear life. Asha held on tightly, soothing Shard as she cried, even though Asha was shivering from the cold. She was used to the cold, but she couldn’t stand to see Shard in pain.
“I failed,” Shard said, breaking her silence, “I said I’d save your people and I failed! You’ve lost your city, your home…”
“You’ve lost yours too,” Asha said, “There was nothing we could do, nothing… The world is broken and this was inevitable. Perhaps, in a few years, even the Neutral Lands will be uninhabitable. For now, we’re alive and we’re here, together.”
Shard kissed Asha deeply and Asha returned it with all her love flowing through her. It had all been worth it for this. Every ounce of struggle, every day when she had been so cold and tired that she had not wanted to get up again, it was all okay, because Shard was here with her now.
“I love you,” Shard said, “I must attend to my people now… Meet me in one week’s time, where we used to sign the treaty. Come at night, and be prepared to travel.”
Asha’s eyes widened, “Where are we going?”
“You said it yourself – this place won’t last,” Shard said, “We must discover what has caused the disturbance to this world’s natural cycle and restore the balance, if it is possible. So our people won’t lose another home.”
“I will see you in one week, then,” Asha said, “Be safe, Shard.”
“You as well, Asha.” Shard said, and wandered off up the snowy trail.
A week passed, and Asha wondered if she should go. She wanted to be with Shard, but this was a fool’s mission. There was no way to change the climate of a world, it was nature, and nature’s ways could not be changed. Perhaps though, she thought, looking at Blaze, it was time to go. He was doing a fine job of rallying the citizens and they were already building new homes for themselves and settling in. Asha’s magic, the one thing that had made her rise in importance, no longer seemed so vital to her people in a land where food and firewood were plentiful. She could be with Shard now, travel the world, try at least to change the world’s doomed future.
She packed the few things she was taking and headed out of the tent. The night was still, the air cool. The stars were out, and she headed to the treaty table, and waited for Shard.
“Where are you going?” Icicle’s voice cut through the night as Shard left the tent, “Packed supplies… A journey. Why would you leave us now?”
“The world is still in danger,” Shard said, “The climate is growing harsher with each passing year. Soon, even the Neutral Lands won’t be safe to live in. Then, where will we run to?”
“Asha is going with you, I take it?” Icicle said.
“Yes,” Shard said, “If we don’t find the answers we seek, we will return. We have to do something… We can’t just sit here while the world falls apart…”
“You are just like your mother,” Icicle said, “She was always determined to sign that treaty each year, even after it became clear that it was no longer needed. Now I understand why. She wanted to keep relations up with the Pyrians, to see if their climate situation mirrored ours. She was the one who insisted we abandon the city and move underground, even when her health was failing… She knew this would happen…”
“Perhaps,” Shard said, “I have to go, Icicle. Thank you… for always being such a good mother.”
“I’m sorry that I was hard on Asha,” Icicle said, “I didn’t believe that she came for our good at first. I still remember the war…”
“It’s okay,” Shard said, “I know she forgives you. She’s a loving person, and I know she won’t hold a grudge.”
“You have to go, it’s okay,” Icicle said, “Be well, Shard, and take care of Asha as well.”
“I will,” Shard said, and she headed out into the night.
When Asha saw Shard, joy and relief filled her. She stood up and embraced Shard, kissing her deeply under the stars. Shard took her hands.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Shard asked. “We could stay here, enjoy all this life has to offer, and perhaps the climate won’t become too harsh in a lifetime…”
“No, we must try,” Asha said, “For all the people in Wynter and Pyria, and all the people who still live, we must try to save this world.”
Shard held Asha’s hand as they walked towards the edge of the camp, but they did not look back as they headed out into the trees and the dark night… together at last.