The Guardian’s cave was lit by sunlight that shone through dozens of imperfections in the rock. Each crack was adorned with a cluster of icicles that held the light, magnifying it and casting it into the many corners and crevices of the cave.
The ground too, was covered in icicles, tall, thick icicles that thrust upward into the cave’s cold interior. In the far rear of the cave, so deep that shadows fought against the icy light, an ice flow spanned from ground to ceiling.
The boy sat in the cave listening to the whispers of his brothers and sisters who had passed into the ice. They were children so old, so full of the ice magics that guarded their home, that they had become rooted to the land, locked into the ice flow at the far interior of the cave. They seeming as cold and unmoving as the river that formed their boarder. But just like that river, deep below the surface life still flowed, and in quiet moments they spoke to their siblings.
They told stories from their time walking the island. They sang songs so old that none outside their world of snow would even remember their name. It seemed they always talked more when the Old One was away.
Today their words were different, faster. Their conversation could not be called frantic, or even hurried, but compared to the steady, gradual pace they usually used, it seemed to the boy a flood of words.
It was a war, or soldiers marching. He was unclear. They might have been talking about the past, or about some possible future, the children in the ice seemed to rarely distinguish one time from another.
It was the youngest one standing at the mouth of the cave. She leaned in slightly, so her face was only just covered in shadows. It seemed she was afraid to allow more of her body into the Old One’s cave.
“Come, listen to a song.” He beckoned her in.
She placed one foot tentatively in the shadows. “Who is singing?”
“Your family.” He smiled, his thin pale lips crinkling at the edges.
“What are they singing about?” Another cautions step.
“A battle, I think. Outsiders warring with each other.
Her frame shrunk as she hunched in her shoulders and looked around, even more scared.
He hopped to his feet and ran to her, scooping her up in his arms and carrying her against his chest. He spun her around and around, weaving around ice and tickling her until she laughed and kicked her feet with joy.
The voices paid no mind to their younger siblings playing in the cave, engulfed as they were in other matters. They watched out the eyes of those in the snow. The thin boy in the trees, his long white hair trailing behind him as he lept from branch to branch, became vaguely aware that the frozen children were in his mind.
Through him they saw smoke rising from fire, a mar of grey on a clear blue sky.
“Stop, stop! I’m dizzy!”
In the cave the boy flopped to the ground and youngest one came to rest in his lap. When they both stopped giggling the echoes of their siblings voices filled their ears. It was louder now that it had been, louder than the boy had ever heard.
“I don’t like this song,” she said, wrapping her arms around his neck, “when will Father be home?”
“Not for a long time, he was traveling far.”
The boy did not like the song either. The words were too old to understand, a language so far removed from him that even the craft that linked his mind to his sibling’s could not make it clear. But he heard the fear in it, the tense notes that seemed at any moment to shatter apart.
“Outsiders, at the castle.” It was the thin boy, darting into the cave. He folded his legs under him and came to rest next to his brother and sister.
“The castle? It’s empty.”
“Not now, there are fires, wagons, Outsiders.”
“Can father come back now?”
The boy looked down to the small girl in his arms, her eyes now more blue than white, her breath no longer fogging the air.
“He has a duty,” he explained to her, “and we are safe. Outsiders in the castle will not bother us.”
As the words came out of his mouth, his hands twitched; he longed to see the fires, to see the castle full of life. If not for his little sister, still clinging to him tightly, he would have been out the cave door and halfway to the cliff edge that faced the castle.
Their brother was listening to the voices now, swaying gently with them. The tense edge did not leave the song, and a counter song was struck up, discordant to the first.
“They are fighting,” the youngest one observed.
Both boys nodded in agreement.
“It will be alright sister,” the thin boy put his pale hand on her shoulder, “all families fight. They will laughing together again soon enough. Until then, I think we should go look at the castle.”
“I don’t want to.” She buried her face in her brother’s shoulder.
“It’s alright, we won’t make you.” The boy hugged her and kissed her on the top of the head, “but we will look on our own.”
“Can you take me to the flowers first?”
“Of course.” He stood and carried her out of the cave, the thin boy dashing away into the the snow ahead of them.
Outside the sun reflected off the white ground, a light so bright it obscured the landscape rather than illuminating it. The boy carried his sister through the snow, out of the clearing and up a small hill. Just past the crest of the hill, where it began again to slope downhill, there was a frozen spring. Bubbling water had stopped moving just as it roiled out of the ground.
All around this spring grew tall flowers with white and red petals. He placed his sister next to them and she bent over them instantly, running her fingers over the soft green stems. She whispered to them, and turned her ear to them as if expecting an answer.
“Goodbye,” he said as he took a few steps away.
She waved absently at him as he turned to follow the thin boy, who had vanished into the trees. It was a far way to the overlook. The Guardian’s cave was on the southern, narrow, end of the island. The cliff that faced the Outsider’s castle was on the north end, where the island bulge out across the wide river.
By the time he caught up with his brother, the smaller boy was perched on a tree branch at the edge of the cliff. Over the edge was a straight drop to the bank of the frozen river. The cliff itself was not rock, but ice, snow, and frozen mud, swelled up in to an uneven mass that formed a wall between the island and the land beyond. Only here, where they could see the fortress, did the water swell into such a barrier.
Smoke rose from dozens of fires, and a long line of small black forms went through the outer gates. More disturbing were the figures, the Outsiders, in the field between the massive stone walls and the river. It was hard to tell from this distance, but they seemed to be moving toward the river.
The boy’s breath quickened and the climbed the tree and crouched next to his brother.
“Do they come here?”
The thin boy did not answer.
There was an awareness in his mind, the presence of the frozen ones, looking through his eyes. He welcomed them, and reached into their minds for guidance to understand what he saw. Next to him the thin boy wore a matching expression of distant consideration.
“Even if they approach the river, they will not be able to cross it,” the thin boy said, just as the same understanding was made clear to the boy. “We should not let them see us.”
“They are a long way off yet.”
The thin boy nodded, “Yes, very far off. If they get closer, I’ll go for sister.”
They understood which sister would be summoned, the eldest, the one who seemed always to understand the will of the Old One the best.
“Yes. Good. How many do you see?”
“In the field, a dozen at least. There are probably many more in the buildings.”
“Do you think they will stay there, or only pass through, like on the road.”
Here again the frozen voices spoke. They still seemed at odds with each other, their meaning harder to interpret than usual. They described a time when Outsiders were a constant presence, smoke and fire from the castle rising into the air during days and nights without end.