The Bronze Man and the Second Son

 

The bronze man came on a dog sled loaded with furs. The tribe had heard tell of him through the traders. He gave gifts to the elder and then to each member of the tribe and soon they lowered their spears to him. His eyes were a dull green, emerald and unblinking.

“The lords of the south have sent me forth to map the margins of this land. I seek a guide to take me north along the western coast to the frozen sea. My masters will reward the man who would guide me, and his entire village, too.”

“What if you should perish in the white?” asked the village elder. “You masters are unknown to us.”

“My masters are both far and near, for they see what I see through the eyes they made me.”

“You are no man, then?”

The bronze man lowered his fur hood and unwrapped his headscarf. His face was not of flesh but of metal, dark brown and smooth but for the heads of nails that held it together. He had no nostrils and a mouth that neither moved nor showed teeth.

“I am golem from Eschau. I have been commanded to explore the limits of the Seniumlands in order to aid the cartographers of Eschau in the creation of a more accurate map of the known world. There are hundreds of my brothers walking other parts of this world. We bring no harm and take only knowledge.”

The two dozen members of the tribe braced themselves against the biting wind and studied the strange face of the visitor from the south. He did not move to wrap his face up again.

Farven stepped forward. He was the second son of the village elder. The task would fall to him.

#

The bronze man told those who could fit into the village circle, a perfectly round room ten feet below the surface snow, about the south and where he had come from and what he had seen. He was born a grown man, he said, and absolute in drive and purpose. He had passed through the hundred foot tall gate of Eschau shoulder to shoulder with one hundred fellow metal men. He had traveled north through field and forest and mountain and desert and field and forest and mountain and desert, and then through the very ocean itself, to reach the Seniumlands. He had explored the southern coasts with men of the Penta, the Windjo, the Thulu. He had seen the Black Giant’s Staff and the Springs of Fire and the Molten River. He had hunted bear and seal and whale; he had buried brave men. He had walked far and long and he was not the least bit weary.

Farven, the second son of the village elder, spent the night in his own abode. His young wife did not beg him to stay because she knew better than to waste her breath: it was his duty. They could not spare the eldest son on such a task or trust the third son to guide the southern golem well. They spent the night in each other’s arms but they did not make love. This was for the best, Farven reasoned, in case he was to be lost out in the white.

At dawn, his brothers loaded Farven a sled and dogs and resupplied the sled of the bronze man and switched out his dogs. His father took him to the hill that overlooked the village and spoke to him in private.

“Guide the golem where he would go unless he would take you into enemy hands or beyond the frozen sea.”

“Yes, father.”

“He may drive you hard. You must allow yourself to be so driven if he treats you with respect and does not endanger you.”

“Yes, father.”

“Yet he fears not death. You must trust your own instincts and not push yourself beyond breaking. Rest often and tread carefully.”

“I will, father.”

The father leaned in and held the son and whispered into his ear, “He fears not gods, either.”

That day Farven bid his wife and his family and his village goodbye. Then he and the bronze man rode forth, in search of borders.

Farven and the bronze man camped that night along the great break, the line of splintered plateau that separated the tundra from the coastland. Farven had planned to make fire in the Seniumlander way but the bronze man took his right hand off at the wrist, sat it on the snow and lit it on fire with but a thought. Farven cooked his rabbit over the bronze man’s fingertips.

“The Olomin told me that beyond your territory there are men with beaks and talons. They say they fly.”

“It is said. I have not seen them take wing but, should we fall into their grasp, they shall eat my flesh and sharpen their talons on your metal form. I can take you no further east than the Hills of Wint, beyond which the birdmen lay claim.”

“As you wish.”

They rode along the western coast, up and down the rising points, keeping always the frozen sea in sight.

There were many little islands upon the coast and the bronze man would stop his sled at each one and gaze out towards it for but a minute. Then they would ride on.

There were few villages to the north of Farven’s, and none of them along the coast, but they came across several abandoned hunting camps. All that remained of them were marking posts. Farven insisted on praying at each black column, as was the Seniumlander custom.

Farven ate snow hare and the bronze man ate nothing at all. They made little conversation, Farven having exhausted his curiosities quite early, and the bronze man with little need for social nicety. Everywhere before them was snow or sea.

The jagged plateau of the great break eventually rose and splintered into mountains. Farven told the bronze man that ice trolls lived there but that they had little to fear from them because his great-grandfather had saved their king from an ice bear trap and thus earned their immortal gratitude.

The sea waters froze where the western coast wrapped around to become the northern coast. The sky turned the surface a soft blue shade, split up with smeared blacks and blinding whitecaps. The frozen sea stretched north forever (or so Farven insisted).

“Have any walked it?” asked the bronze man.

Farven had asked that question once when he was but a boy on his father’s knee. Now he told the golem what had been told to him.

“Only the gods.”

#

Farven knew where the game bedded down at night and how to crack the ice to fish and knew enough to run from wraiths, but, as the days grew endless in the white and the wind kept biting at their sides, he was glad he only had to hunt and fish for one.

“I don’t understand,” Farven said, one night. “If you are to map this land, why have you left unseen the great interior between the sea and the village of my tribe?”

“I shall,” said the bronze man. “In time. My master instilled me with a maxim – first you draw the border and then you fill it in.”

“But you draw nothing.”

The bronze man tapped beside his left eye. The clink echoed across the near plain. “I draw everything I see.”

They saw an ice bear the next day. The bronze man or may not have drawn it but Farven resisted the impulse to kill it. One man with a spear could get himself maimed taking on a full grown ice bear. He didn’t know that he could count on the bronze man to help him, or how well the metallic stranger would fare in a fight.

He did not know enough about golems to be afraid of one.

#

Inchen Island stretched a thin long crescent parallel to the northern coast. It took four hours to ride along the coast from one of its sides to the other. But the bronze man wanted to traverse the frozen sea and map it proper.

“There are birdmen there,” said Farven. “And I have never been on it. My father taught me not to cross the frozen sea.”

“But I must go,” said the bronze man.

Farven shook his hooded head. “Then you go alone.”

“Will you wait for me?” said the golem. “If I do not return in three days, then you may return to your village.”

Farven looked out over the endless white, under which who knew what crawled, and pulled his fur-lined hood tighter and nodded. “I can wait.”

The bronze man left most of his supplies at the camp. He didn’t really need them, anyway. Then he rode across the frozen sea until he and his sled were but a speck in the blue ice.

Farven waited three days. He fished and slept and fished and slept. The bronze man returned on the third day. There was a dog missing from his sled.

“Birdmen,” said the bronze man. “They do not fly.”

Farven began to grow uneasy, then, as they ventured further east towards the territory of the birdmen. The birdmen ranged far and were stealthy and had whispered to eldritch gods. One time his great-grandfather had come upon a birdman in his sleep and slit its throat and drank its blood and been transformed into a hawk for an hour.

“You believe this?” asked the bronze man.

Farven didn’t understand the question.

The surveyor and his guide rode on. Most of what they saw was nondescript, more of the same, snow and ice. But then they came across a birdman camp that had not yet sunk under the snow. A skull totem still stood.

The bronze man said he wished to inspect the camp.

“We should leave now,” said Farven. “Birdmen are treacherous fiends.”

“You can stay with the dogs, then.”

The bronze man walked into the camp and went to the skull totem and looked into its empty eye sockets.

“This is still your territory?” he called back.

Six figures rose from the snow, shook off their snow-covered wings, and threw six black-tipped spears at the bronze man. Two of the spears broke in half and the other four bounced off. Farven grabbed a spear of his own and flung it through the light snowfall to pierce the back of the nearest birdman. Then he reached for another. But it was too late.

The birdmen were all on fire. Eight lines of flame flicked out from the bronze man’s fingertips. It smelled of feather and fear. They dropped one by one into the melting snow until the last birdman fell and the bronze man stopped pointing fire.

Farven didn’t think to ask the bronze man where he got his fuel from for several hours.

“I am the fuel eternal,” the golem said.

#

The northernmost point of the Seniumlands was the Beak, a bent peninsula that jutted out into the frozen sea like a hook. Farven had only been there twice in his life: once during his spirit quest and once to bury his great-grandfather.

Beyond the tip of the point was blue ice that stretched forth across the frozen sea, and, out across it, far, so far, there was a wide strip of black land that seemed to stretch from one side of the earth to the other.

“What lies there?” asked the bronze man.

“That is the land of the Dead Gods,”

The bronze man stood still, as always. He had no need to fidget. “I have not heard of this before,” he said.

“It is a secret place,” said Farven. “Where the Dead Gods hold sway. Only a shaman can go there and return, and only then in spirit form. My great-grandfather went there once, in the form of a fox, and was nearly strangled by V’lothen. When my grandfather woke again, back in the village, his hair had turned white. He had many strange visions after that.”

“What is this V’lothen?”

Farven found himself speaking louder as the winds that bore the snow picked up in frenzy. “The Great Squid. He who slithers in the deep.”

The bronze man spoke louder as well but seemingly without increased urgency or strain. “I have heard of a squid god in the Ullit Isles. But he, it is said, protects drowned sailors and mermaids.”

“V’lothen would protect no man or beast. V’lothen is the dark at the edge of the ice.”

The wind died down then, there on the edge of the world.

“I must go there,” said the bronze man. “To the land across the frozen sea.”

Farven shook his hooded head and said, “No man can step foot on the land of the Dead Gods.”

“I am no man,” said the golem. “And I am not afraid.”

The bronze man looked over at the second son of the village elder. There was no trepidation in his eyes, of course, only that dull green glow.

“You will come no further?” he asked.

“I cannot.”

“Then we part here. You may return to your village, Farven son of Locheg. I would not have you violate the mores of your people. You have guided me far and well and for that I am grateful.”

Farven almost pleaded with the bronze man but he reminded himself that the golem feared neither death nor gods.

“I will wait here three days, as I did once before. If you are not back then, I shall return to my village.”

“Very well,” said the bronze man.

The Beak was so steep that there was no way to get the dogs and sled down to the ice easily. So they had to be lowered by rope, painstakingly, dog by dog, and then the sled itself. Down below, by himself, the bronze man re-tied the dogs, mounted the sled, and started off across the frozen sea.

Farven watched from the cliff at the end of the Beak until he could make out neither metal man nor dog nor sled. Then he made fire in the old way and sat atop the buried bones of his ancestors.

#

The world was white and the sky was black and the fire was dead and his dogs were silent and the ghost of his great-grandfather stood above him.

“Go home,” it said.

Farven woke. He sat up and looked at the spot before the dead fire where his great-grandfather had been and then he looked back out over that nigh endless ice to the edge of that black landmass beyond and he whispered a prayer for the bronze man.

Then he broke camp and readied his dogs and started home. He knew better than to ignore the advice of his great-grandfather.

He was almost off the Beak and back on the mainland when the world shuddered. When he turned back towards the land of the Dead Gods, he saw a titanic cloud of purple and black that funneled, ever wider, up from frozen sea, spun by the winds of a thousand snowstorms.

The bronze man had met the gods at last.

#

The way back was rougher. Winter was coming and the blankets of storm and biting ice were becoming more constant and substantial. Once or twice Farven spied a phantom in his peripheral vision and once he spotted the muddied footprint of a wraith. He sped on. At night, before he slept, he wondered if he would be visited by the spirit of the bronze man. But he never was.

The sky was hurling frosted fury down at the earth the morning the second son of the village elder returned to the village. Farven went to his father and woke him.

“The bronze man is dead,” he said.

Then Farven went home. He crawled into bed with his young wife. She rolled over in her sleep, opened her eyes as if she wasn’t surprised to see him, and said, “Your beard is going grey.”

#

The next summer an almost overloaded sled from the southern lords arrived, loaded with fur and wine and spice and tools. The man who drove the sled told them that this was their reward.

The village elder told the man that Farven had been the bronze man’s guide. The man asked to speak with Farven in private and the two of them walked to the hill that overlooked the village.

The man from the south took down his hood and began to unwrap his headscarf.

“You survived?” asked Farven.

“You mistake me for my brother.” The bronze man unwrapped the rest of his headscarf and then raised his hood again. “I have been sent to complete his quest, to explore the eastern coast from the Beak back down.”

“I cannot guide you there,” said Farven. “I have an infant child now and would not dare venture so close to the island of the Dead Gods again.”

“I need no guide,” said the bronze man, “for land I’ve already seen. But I have use of one along the eastern coast, beyond the Beak.”

“Birdmen will not guide you,” said Farven. “They would rather have your eyes for totems.”

“We shall see.”

“And what of the land of the Dead Gods?” asked Farven. “Do you intend to cross the frozen sea as your double did?”

The bronze man’s emerald eyes dimmed. “That land is meant for no map,” he said.

 

 

* Originally published in You Are Here: Tales of Cartographic Wonders (edited by N.E. White).