For the third time, Ellison fell to his knees, but this time he didn’t try to struggle back to his feet. Exhausted, he knelt in the deepening snow with his head bent into the wind and his hands clenched against his chest in a vain attempt to bring feeling back to his frozen fingers. This is not good, Eli, he mumbled through lips caked with the hoar frost of his breath. If what he faced was evening, imagine midnight. The howling wind and whipping snow battered him and in desperation he struggled onto his frozen feet and lurched forward again. With his back bowed to shield his face from the blinding snow, he trudged on, seeing nothing but his inadequate clothing snapping in the frosty air and his lifeless toes plowing through the ankle deep snow. He heard nothing but the hiss of the wind and his own labored footsteps.
Ellison cursed his deficient clothing, which had seemed warm enough before he landed here. They said Ariane would be cold, he grumbled, blaming himself for getting into this mess. But damn it! I never thought they meant cold!
The unforgiving, empty night stretched before him, and Ellison wondered with more than a little despair if he was as lost as he suspected he was. All around him menaced wilderness without sign of human habitation, nor had he seen any since his landing. What little he could make out in the dwindling twilight showed him craggy hills worn down by the wind and tattered plants clinging to a meager existence between the stones. He hoped he hadn’t wandered off the road. The first time he’d done that, he’d floundered over rocks hidden in the snow and tumbled down an embankment. The snow down his back hadn’t improved his mood.
Of all the places to die, he thought dismally, certain now he would never find Edenwald. Of all the places he’d ever been, of all the troubles he’d ever surmounted, he never thought he’d end it here, all alone on Ariane.
He stumbled again and dropped to his knees, unwilling and unable to go on. With fingers so numb he could barely feel them he scrambled through the pack Hurley had given him which should have contained all he’d need to survive on this world, and drew out the map of the area. It crackled and fought him in the wind and with so little light he couldn’t make out what was scribbled there. He swore. So what was the purpose of it, he demanded of the night.
He wished he possessed something as simple as a flashlight, but even that had been denied him. Nothing with which to start a fire either, he thought, not that he believed he could force one of these ice stunted trees to burn. Rummaging through the insufficient sack, he came upon a small pack of food and a bottle of water. Nothing more.
I’m going to die, he sighed at last. May as well face the facts.
He hesitated. Was that the jiggle of bells? He twisted his head to catch the fleeting sound, but it eluded him, lost to the sighing of the wind. It wouldn’t be the first time he caught himself hearing things. They’d warned him as they’d blasted away, that Ariane did things to a man’s mind, and they’d chortled as they’d said it, deriving great glee from his uneasiness. True humanitarians, Hurley and his crew. True humanitarians.
The faint sound of ringing came again, from somewhere to his right. No, his left. Ellison climbed wearily to his feet and tried to make sense of the sound which the wind swirled around him. There, clearly, from behind him, and praise God, it was coming closer!
Half fainting with relief, Ellison waited while the gentle jingle of little bells came ever closer. Ellison squinted into the darkness of the road down which he had come and saw a shadowy form emerge from the night. It materialized into a creature like none he knew. A bulky beast with four legs, it trotted ponderously beneath a mantle of red-brown fur which hung in mats down to the ground. Though Ellison suspected its head was somewhere in front of it, he could not identify such a structure, buried as it was beneath the long hair and a rich blanket of snow, but snorting clouds of steam indicated something breathed beneath the fur. The creature towed a sled piled high with cargo while a heap of furs mounded at the front appeared to handle the reins.
Ellison jumped into the middle of the road, waving his arms and pleading for the driver to stop. The driver did so, and from out of the furs, two eyes gleamed.
Ellison stumbled over to the side of the sled and gazed up at what little he could see of the driver. “Could you give me a lift?” he asked. “I’m trying to get to Edenwald.”
The eyes blinked at him. A frown of confusion settled between them. “Can’t,” came a rumbling reply.
The driver looked around uncomfortably, as if frightened that someone might catch him talking to a stranger. “This is the masser’s sledge.”
Ellison also looked around but only snow met his eyes. “I’ll get off before the prison. No one will ever know.”
Ellison growled in frustration. “If you don’t help me, I’ll freeze to death out here.”
“Masser Ariane will give me whooping,” the reluctant driver wavered.
Ariane! Ellison pounced on the name, amazed that of all the people he’d happen to meet, the first would be Jaq Ariane’s driver. Hurley had suggested Ellison seek out Ariane. He was a man of some importance Ellison gathered, though Hurley wouldn’t explain just who Ariane was, or why he’d borrowed his name from the planet on which he’d been imprisoned.
“It’s Ariane I’m trying to find,” Ellison wheedled. “I’m sure he’ll reward you from bringing me to him.” So what was a little lie between criminals?
The driver continued to vacillate.
“Please!” Ellison begged.
“You newcomer,” the driver mumbled, taking note of Ellison’s less than adequate attire and the Edenwald stamp on his shoulder declaring his possessions government issue.
“Yes.” Ellison saw no point in arguing the obvious.
Still the driver made no move to let Ellison join him.
“Is Edenwald far from here? Am I on the right road?”
“Only one road in Arcane.”
Ellison fought to hold his temper.
“So can I walk to Edenwald? Am I going in the right direction?”
“Don’t know no Edenwald.”
Ellison nearly tore his hair out in frustration. “It’s the prison! I was supposed to report there hours ago. Doesn’t anyone keep track of incoming inmates?”
“Don’t know nothing bout no ims’mates,” the driver protested. “This is the road to Lichenwald. Ain’t nothing else on it but that.”
Ellison forced himself to patience. “So can you take me to Lichenwald?”
“Why not?” Ellison sighed.
“This is the masser’s sledge.”
Which puts me right where I started, Ellison fumed. He paused and formulated a new attack. “Mr. Ariane has requested to see me. He wants you to take me to him.”
“Masser Ariane don’t jake no newcomers,” the driver replied. “That’s Warden’s job.”
Ellison didn’t comprehend the usage of “jake” but he pounced on the word warden. “Then take me to the warden.”
“Why not? No, don’t tell me! It’s the masser’s sledge.” Ellison sighed. But at least his blood was pumping.
He tried again. “How far is it to Lichenwald?”
“Juss through the forest.”
“And how far ahead is the forest?”
“Hundred yard, maybe less.”
“Can you take me just through the forest?”
The driver peered at him. “You sure Masser Ariane wants a jake you?” he asked.
“Absolutely!” Ellison wondered what he’d just affirmed.
The driver hesitated again. Then he held down a great, fur mittened hand. “Come up. I’ll take you.”
Half wanting to hug the man, Ellison snatched up his pack and allowed himself to be pulled into the sled. The driver dumped him unceremoniously atop the mound of furs, cracked the reins and sent his animal trotting down the road.
Snuggling gratefully into the furs, which he ascertained protected the cargo as well as the driver, Ellison asked. “Do you have a name?”
“Masser calls me Tom Fool,” came the reply.
“How fitting!” Ellison murmured and settled down for the drive. “I’m Ellison,” he offered, but Tom Fool ignored him.
From the warmth of the sled Ellison studied the wizened trees and rocky hillocks through which the road made its sinuous way. Where the wind swept the earth clean of snow, Ellison saw no sign of grass or small plants. Just earth and stones and desolation. Then, abruptly, they entered a thin forest, which by the standards of Ellison’s adopted forested home of Korrisa was nothing more than a weedy patch. Stunted to a height of perhaps ten feet, the twisted trees grew no greater than a foot around, their leafless branches reaching out into the darkness like tortured arms lifting to capture the falling snow. No bracken filled the empty spaces between them. They stood as silent sentinels in a sea of snow.
“Lichenwald Forest,” Tom Fool commented.
He reached behind him and took out a lantern. Though it must have been burning all during the journey, Tom Fool had buried it so that it gave off no light. Tom hung it from a lantern hook and set the flame up high. Ellison curled his nose. Some sort of tallow affair, he decided, though it smelled better than either the sled animal or Tom Fool.
The lantern cast its gleam only a yard or so into the forest, illuminating the smooth silver bark of the leafless trees. The snow sparkled in the light as they passed.
“What’s the lantern for?” Ellison asked, seeing no reason for it, since Tom seemed to know the road in the dark.
“Lichenshades,” Tom Fool answered and he pointed with a mittened hand.
Curious, Ellison’s eyes traced the direction of Tom’s mitten and saw little shadows dancing just at the edge of light. Whether something actually flitted there or if the shadows were merely a trick of the light glancing off tree trunks Ellison couldn’t be sure. But Tom Fool seemed afraid enough. He snapped his animal into a faster trot.
“They eat things when they have a mind,” Tom said, nodding sagely at his guest. “Don’t go into Lichenwald Forest. Never without a light.”
Ellison filed that for later consideration.
The forest ended as abruptly as it began and they entered an open field. Here the wind died and the snow swirled lightly in the void. Ahead a dull glow lit the clouds. A great plume of steam hung illuminated from below and silhouetted towers and walls. Ellison blinked. Edenwald Prison. The massive outer guarding wall stood before them at the far end of the field and it was this that blocked the wind. Two huge towers that marked the front gate loomed up into the night, cold, lifeless and unlit. From the glow on the steam that welled up beyond the towers, Ellison could see that the tower to the right had a hole in its roof. The wall, too, was starting to decay. The great iron gates stood open. One still clung to its hinges, but the other had been propped up against the wall. The first creaked with the pain of rusting joints when the breeze shoved it. And on the wall beside the gate hung what was left of the prison sign. Barely discernible through the snow that caked it, Ellison read Edenwald Prison and Internment Camp. See the Warden upon admission. The sign was marked with the shield symbol that graced any property belonging to the Federal Law Enforcement Agency, the authority that ran Irae’s prison system. But next to it, Ellison saw something else, a plaque engraved with the letter V with a dot beneath it. And next to that was a trident symbol. Ellison recognized the V. It belonged to the National Science Consortium, although why it had been placed there upon a prison wall, he didn’t know. What the secretive quasi-governmental society was doing at Edenwald prison he couldn’t imagine. The trident symbol was a mystery, belonging neither to FLEA nor the NSC at least as far as he knew. His uneasiness continued to grow. There was something very wrong about this place, this mission. There was something very important Hurley had failed to tell him.