Nights of Fire
Part One – Across Bleak Hills
The first flakes of snow drifted along upon the air, born aloft by a chill breeze that gusted through the barren, windswept range of hills. They tumbled to a rest on a dozen travellers negotiating their way through the rugged terrain, a rough looking mob bundled up against the weather. The snow melted almost as soon as they had settled on the travellers.
The region was a place of sudden crags and precipitous drops, of tumbled boulders strewn across grey slopes of loose stone and earth, where scant growth clung precariously in nooks sheltered from the winds and the elements.
Off beyond them to the north, in the distance where they blurred into the horizon, a series of mountain peaks were piled up with majestic snow-capped grandeur, one upon the other, rearing towards sullen grey skies, while clouds broke upon them and rolled down their slopes like waves crashing upon a shore.
The lead figure of the small group came to a halt, raising a hand to his inhuman face to shield it from the wind and snow blowing down from the mountains. Nhaqosa was no man, and nor was it likely he would ever be mistaken as one, towering over his companions as he did. His heavy set body was covered with a white hide, shielding him from the chill that hung in the air, and his head was like that of a bull’s, complete with a sweeping set of razor sharp horns. He shifted his vast weight on cloven hooves as he studied the terrain ahead, searching for a suitable path through the hills to reach the mountains that lay beyond. The task was not made easy by the steep slopes and the labyrinthine canyons that twisted their way through the hills, canyons that could end abruptly, forcing much tracking back the way they had come to find another way around.
“So this is what snow looks like.”
Nhaqosa turned to look at a short and slender woman not far away who had spoken. Her dark and exotic looks were touched by scars; they did not so much mar them as give her a dangerous edge, one that could give a man pause. She held out a gloved hand in wonder to let a flake of snow settle upon it, one that quickly melted to water.
Nhaqosa gave her what could be described as a smile, though it could be hard to pick given the minotaur’s different facial features. “Never seen snow before, Niati?” he asked, his voice a deep rumble as he spoke.
“You know that I was born in hot lands, far to the south,” she chided him gently. “Snow was simply a fanciful tale told by travellers or court minstrels, a thing that few thought was even true.”
A narrow faced man joined the pair, tugging his cloak tight around him in a somewhat futile effort to keep the wind and the chill out. Niati favoured him with a slight, almost shy smile. “We were most of us born in hot lands, Kwaza,” he told Nhaqosa respectfully. “This is new to us.”
“This is barely snow at all,” Nhaqosa warned him. “You will have your fill of it, and more, before this journey is done I think.”
“The path leads up there?” Abasan asked, pointing towards the distant mountain peaks that clawed at the gloom laden, shrouded skies, the cloud roiling ominously above them.
Nhaqosa nodded, and as he did he clasped at the red wood pendant that hung around his neck, resting against his white hide. In the form of a wolf’s head it had been carved, an animal unknown to the world that Nhaqosa found himself in, one far from his own. The pendant had been a gift from a stranger, as best as he could recall, for the memories were hazy. The man had promised it would help lead him along the long road home. As he clutched at it with his hand, Nhaqosa could feel the pull it exerted, a faint calling towards where he had to head to find the promised path home, a place where he hoped he could cross between the realms, back to his own world, to the hills of his people where the wolves roamed.
Abasan’s reply was a slightly put out grunt. “I expect it will only get colder the further we go, won’t it?”
Nhaqosa laughed, and the sound rumbled across the bleak hills like peals of thunder. “This isn’t even cool yet.”
“Some of us don’t have thick hides to keep us warm,” Abasan said.
Nhaqosa chuckled before casting his gaze across the others that followed him, a band of hard looking warriors who, like him, had escaped from slavery in the gladiator pits, seeking a new life elsewhere. They had started out many more, but the journey through the ruins of the old Empire, through dying lands beset by monsters and bandits, had taken a heavy toll on their company. They had followed him for many reasons, not least of which was his promise of a new home where they could at last live in peace. Not all had made it, and each death rested heavily upon him.
Despite his promises, and their faith in him, there remained a nagging doubt in the minotaur’s mind as to how exactly he would accomplish it, though he would see it through, somehow. He owed them that much.
Shouldering the heavy maul that was his weapon, with its carved cylinder of green stone that formed the head, Nhaqosa set out once more, across the bleak hills, headed towards the mountains.