Rhuul snarled at the small blue dragon circling hungrily above as he marched bent against the cruel wind, crunching frozen snow. His nine-year-old son Tumpt shivered beneath heavy reindeer-skin robes and hustled to keep up.
Tumpt still wasn’t sure if Rhuul was mad at him for what happened, but even here, where his face was whipped and battered by freezing winds, he could smell Gelgrish; smell those gnarled and twisted teeth and the stale beer on his breath. And with his hand swallowed up in Rhuul’s as they put miles between them and the coast; still, all he felt was the old shaman’s unwanted touch.
Silence wasn’t uncommon for his father, who hadn’t said much since they departed the dingy barge that carried them across the Axe’s Edge Ocean from Blackfall to this floating sheet of ice—where Tumpt had heard white bears dwarfed their black and brown cousins, and that dragons blew ice instead of fire. But that silence now, after what Rhuul did to Gelgrish, that silence hurt more than ever.
“It’s cold here,” the boy chattered through yellow tusks that barely poked from his cracked lips. When his father didn’t respond, Tumpt’s thoughts went dangerously back to that last night in Blackfall.
It wasn’t even my fault.
“Faster, Tumpt,” Rhuul commanded. His bloodshot eyes darted toward every wind-blown rock or discoloration in the deep snow. The boy understood that he and his father were dangerously exposed—especially Rhuul, with his big blocky frame and mossy green skin, which served as a beacon to the terrors hidden in the snow.
His father scanned the empty tundra as if expecting a yeti to erupt suddenly from a mound of snow, but what dominated Tumpt’s line of sight were those great brown and gray shale mountains looming ahead. And though the sky was clear and endlessly blue, a dull moon spied on the sun from behind the rocky shoulder of one of those mountains. Scattered below were tall pines that disturbed the flat monotony.
“What is it, father?” Tumpt asked as he awkwardly stumbled along.
Rhuul’s wind-chapped lips barely moved: “When I say run, do not look back or slow down. Run.”
Tears iced the young orc’s eyes. “Why?” He needed to wipe the tear-crystals away, but his sleeve was frozen stiff and already so full of mucus he was afraid he’d cut himself.
Tumpt thought his father’s face softened for a moment, but suddenly a giant hand shoved him forward and Rhuul hopped away. Rhuul’s war hammer no longer hung from his hip. Now, the gleaming, cruel weapon was in the orc’s hand and a guttural battle cry exploded from deep within Rhuul that shook the snow from the pines and mountain tops.
“Go now! To the mountains ahead!”
Tumpt ran. He knew not why until he looked back.
A score of snarling white and grey wolves, with blood-red snapping jaws, sprinted at his father. More frightening, however, was Rhuul charging to greet them! He chopped wildly with his hammer until he was smothered beneath a ferocious swirl of hungry teeth and claws.
Whimpering and wetting himself, the boy ran for his life away from the awful sounds of snarling and yipping, and to his horror, his father’s screams. The mountains weren’t far now, and though he dared not look back, Tumpt just knew that one of the tundra wolves was on his heels, snapping at his feet, ready to crush him.
Somehow, he pushed himself to the base of the mountain, and with numb fingers and frozen feet, he climbed. I mustn’t slow. I mustn't slow. With one hand over the other, feeling safer with each inch of ascension, he didn't.
Seconds and minutes passed like hours climbing the craggy rock. Tumpt exhaustedly tucked himself inside the first shallow dell facing the setting sun he came across. He curled into a ball, still shaking from the bitter cold, and blew on his bleeding hands. Eventually, violent shivers fatigued his muscles so much that sleep overtook him.
Unnatural sounds set off an alarm in Tumpt’s mind some time later. It was a slow, scraping noise that sounded as if it was getting closer—whatever it was. He backed into the corner and immediately craved his father’s protection. Quickly, he scooped up a sharp rock that probably crumbled off the wall from the wind and thrust it out shakily before him.
The scuffling drew closer.
Before the young boy could sketch a plan of attack, Rhuul’s scratched and battered face appeared, eclipsing the orange sun in the far distant skyline. He looked from his son to the rock-dagger, then back to his son again.
“So my story ends with my own son, my own pride-and-joy, finishing me off when a pack of half-starved wolves couldn’t?” Rhuul asked.
“Father!” Tumpt lunged forward and squeezed his father’s tree-trunk neck. Rhuul grimaced and hissed, but he returned the gesture with a rough nuzzle atop his son’s head. With the same hand, he hoisted the boy onto his back and descended. Once at the bottom, Rhuul set him down and just like they had done since they arrived in this unforgiving place, the two trudged onward.
Tumpt noticed several wounds and a trail of blood that splashed snow red following his father.
He hasn’t seen my magic yet, he thought. Maybe I can show him what I learned from Gelgrish and heal him.
Night had fallen fully in the tundra. In the distance, wolves howled a mournful requiem to their dead that Rhuul had slain, and millions of bright stars illuminated the engulfing blackness that was the ceiling of the world. The moon guided them and reflected off of the ice and snow, and nervous as Tumpt was in the dark, the moon shone enough light to illuminate their way.
The world seemed to end ahead of them as a lazy blackness rolled near then far. But as they walked closer, and the wind calmed and the distant howling faded, Tumpt heard something familiar.
As they approached the world’s end, he noticed then what it was: the ocean, or maybe a large lake that was too big to freeze over.
“Let us rest,” Rhuul said. “They’ll find us easy enough here.”
“Next to this?” Tumpt threw a chunk of ice in the water, “and who are ‘they?’”
“Don’t disturb the peace.”
“Father,” Tumpt sat between Rhuul’s legs and the big orc wrapped his arms around his son. The hold was warm, safe—likely more out of practicality than affection, Tumpt knew. “I can heal you. I—I learned from Gelgrish, before…”
“Don’t speak that name.”
For what seemed like the hundredth time that day, Tumpt cried. They left their village, his friends. When they abandoned their home, Rhuul left behind his warrior legacy and Gelgrish’s corpse. Tumpt was there. His father had killed the shaman right in front of him; had killed the only orc with a longer list of accomplishments than himself.
A shaman was the mouthpiece of God—a vessel to entwine the divine and the mortal form. With the murder, Rhuul spat in God’s face.
Just then, the waves of the body of water beside them began to rush and break. Tumpt thought, rather, he hoped it was one of those ice-breathing dragons. The moon shone in blades of white on the water and then, shockingly, on the heads of those slowly rising from the cold waters.
“What?” Tumpt asked aloud, but it seemed his father didn’t hear him. He looked up and saw Rhuul just as fixated as he was when the blue orcs emerged and rode to the bank of the ice on purple-horned whales. Without even thinking, Tumpt moved behind his father’s leg, but poked out one eye to watch the mermaid orcs, or whatever they were, as they easily hopped off their whales and walked over.
This was his punishment. His father was giving him up to these strange orcs for what he’d done, or for what he didn’t do. He didn’t know. Gelgrish told him he’d learn great magic and the secrets of their people if he stayed quiet, if he didn’t move, if he kept what happened during his lessons with the shaman a secret.
“Father please,” the boy begged. “Please. I didn’t want to. He told me—”
“Enough!” Rhuul snapped.
Three blue orcs stood before them now. They were shorter than Tumpt’s father, and not as blocky. They looked emaciated, in fact, but walked with the same strength and confidence his father did. Their necks and arms seemed a bit too long for their bodies too. Unlike the reindeer-skin Tumpt and his father wore, these orcs wore light clothing that looked leathery and slick rather than puffy and woolly.
Maybe they don’t feel the cold as much? And how long can they hold their breath?
They spoke the old language with Rhuul, a language Tumpt did not yet know, but recognized. It sounded like blunted steel and crackling fire.
They all looked down at Tumpt.
“You know magic from your home?” one of the strangers asked.
“Well… I can heal. I studied under my tribe’s shaman for a time, but then—” the blue orc held up his hand.
“Show us. Heal him,” his chin jutted toward Rhuul.
Tumpt could feel the three strangers’ eyes piercing holes into him. Rhuul knelt down and Tumpt placed his hands on his father’s shoulders, closed his eyes, and muttered the words of the most basic healing spell Gelgrish had taught him. His hands warmed and began to glow silver as he transferred the magic from them into his father’s tattered body.
Rhuul stood up and looked himself over. The bleeding stopped and as he flexed his hands and the blood rushed through his veins he let a rare toothy smile slip. “Son…”
The blue orc who spoke to Tumpt before stated more than asked him “He’s never seen your magic.”
The orc scratched at his white mohawk. “You may stay.”
The blue orcs built a fire that even Rhuul eagerly slithered close to. They poured a hot drink from a skin-bag of some blubbery animal that tasted vile, but immediately Tumpt’s fingers and toes warmed. His father didn’t even make a face as he downed his. After each of the orcs—Tumpt included—had a few small cups of the hot liquid, the strangers stood as one of them blew into a curved horn. Seconds later, at the edge of the ice where the black water was lazily lapping and wooshing, giant, smooth purple heads appeared.
They were like unicorns, only fatter and they swam, Tumpt mused.
Rhuul knelt before his son and grabbed him to turn and face him like he had to speak his thoughts before they burned his tongue. “Son, this is no punishment. Far from it.” Just like when his father first found him in his mountain hiding spot, the orc warrior’s face, a weapon of his in battle and a banner of ferocity and courage to their people, softened ever so slightly.
“I will never forgive myself for not stopping Gelgrish sooner. I did what I thought was right, however. Now, you and I, fugitives of sorts, might find a bit of paradise here in this cold place—free of the darkness back home.”
Rhuul stood. “This is a change in the winds for us.”
They mounted the horned whales with the strangers and spun away from the frozen banks and out into open waters. It was the first time Tumpt felt happy in what seemed like forever.
The giant whale beneath Tumpt glided smoothly through the black water and blasted through chunks of floating ice. He gripped his father tightly, and though he was still bitterly cold, the spray of the water was refreshing.
The ghost of Gelgrish would linger, he knew, but his father wasn’t mad at him. His father knew it wasn’t his fault. That’s all he needed. For now though, he couldn’t take his eyes off the cold, deadly, yet beautiful landscape that now surrounded them.
His father had called it “Paradise.”
Tyler Miles is a journalist from Scranton, Pennsylvania, who holds a Bachelor’s of Arts in English from Penn State University, and is trying to rekindle that creative fire news writing beat out of him.