Chapter One - Ruby
“Life is a collection of colours when all you've known is night.”
Sir Walter Merryweather
* * *
The trembling fingers were my own, they rattled on the cockpit like bones in a bucket. I stood before a sun I thought never to see and marvelled. Like a giant tomato cresting the horizon, our dying star illuminated the world with colour, the Arctic ice suffused blood-red by its near death. No longer was my world awash in moonlight, but actual daylight.
If not for Linka's steadying grip, my tether to the world I'd left behind, I might have drifted away swamped by such overpowering brilliance, but as her fingers tightened about mine, my confidence grew. If I'd had a soul to anchor, I'd have said she did, but I didn't, a salient fact I'd forever regret.
The Zeppelin we travelled in sped on in silence through a vampire sky, hues of vermillion, crimson, and ruby parting like red wine at our passage. A hushed still settled, and if I'd been alone with my darling, I should have said it a pleasure. The Nordic royalty, beacons of pearlescent light that competed with the weakening sun, a people of myth and majesty, were an ever-present reminder that alone was one thing we weren't. The Nordics stood almost invisible to eyes which sought the delights of the day, almost, but not quite.
The airship's inner tranquillity enhanced the Arctic landscape's barren calm, and for the first time in centuries, as I stood there enveloped in shades of blood, I experienced contentment.
“Look, Jean, the ocean,” Linka gushed, her voice of unconcealed glee shattering my meditative peace.
I resisted her tugged enthusiasms, instead, preferring to stare out upon the ruby plain. Undeterred, she resorted to more direct methods and gave so hard a wrench, she almost yanked my arm from its socket.
“Good grief, an ocean of blood!” I exclaimed. And it was. “I wonder if it goes on forever?”
“Of course not,” Grella's stern voice corrected.
He cut through my rouge world like an out of tune violin at a party making me feel quite stupid. “No, I don't suppose it does. I don't know why I said it.”
“You're just excited,” Linka beamed.
“Am not,” I huffed.
“Are so,” she retorted.
A trail of lavender preceded Narina's berthing at my side, as she whispered iced words in my ear.
“Ignore him, Jean. I was just like you all those centuries ago when first I saw the sun. So much more than one could ever imagine, is it not?”
“It has a certain novelty,” I replied, unwilling to be made a fool of twice.
“Must you tell that old tale, sister? Don't forget, some of us were born to it.”
“Ah, the voice of an impetuous twin,” Narina cooed. “Let me introduce the pair of you to my brothers,” she said, laying a pure, white hand upon my arm.
Narina turned me to the other ruby-goggled Nordics. Linka spun around too, but not without casting momentary scrutiny to my being touched by another woman; there was just a flash of anger in those blazing emerald eyes, but it soon passed.
“These two uncouth fools are my twin brothers Verstra and Serstra.”
The two nodded and grinned as one. The action was a tad unnerving as it was the first time I'd seen the Nordic royalty show any sign of emotion. Even during the slaughter of Vladivar's men, they had remained impassive, predators at work. I returned their nods regardless.
“This is Ragnar their elder brother,” she continued. Ragnar made a point of making up for his brothers' joviality by what could at best be described as a twitched response. “Grella, the eldest of us and future king of our people, you already know.”
“Enough of the pleasantries, sister, we must prepare,” Grella snapped. He spared neither Linka nor myself a single look. The future king, although lacking the bulk of Ragnar, or eloquence of his sisters, was indisputably the man in charge.
“If you would excuse us.” Narina indicated to seats at the Zeppelin's rear; a polite dismissal.
I cared not, I was already quite bored with the Nordics' austere demeanours and glad to be rid of them.
I led Linka to the furthest end of the airship and sat down to peer out of the wrap-around windows.
“Are you well, my love?”
“You seem flustered,” Linka stated.
“Not really. You know how it is, five centuries or so in the dark, at last, you get to see the sun, and you can't be left in a bit of peace and quiet to enjoy it.”
“I suspect there'll be plenty of time for that soon.”
“There better be, I've dreamed of this all my life.” I swept my arm across the ruby vista to emphasise the fact. Or to be more exact, the view that was solid ice to my left and churning red waters to my right. “Do you think they're following the conjunction of solid and liquid to achieve our destination?”
“We are,” Ragnar interjected in a voice like rolling thunder.
“I wasn't asking you,” I hissed.
“He was saving you the effort,” laughed one twin.
“I don't care. It is impolite to eavesdrop on private conversations.”
“We can't help it, good ears,” replied the second twin.
“What if I discussed matters of an intimate nature?”
“But you weren't,” the twins said in synchronicity.
Whether Narina sensed my bristled hostility, who knew, but she was quick to intervene. “Ignore them, Jean, they can't help their natures. And in polite answer to your unasked question, yes, we are. At a certain time and angle of entry, we are able to pinpoint our home. It cannot be located by any other means.”
“You shouldn't have said that, sister,” Grella growled.
“Oh, hush. Our guests will not be leaving anytime soon, and as you well know, Hvit's position will have changed long before then.”
Ekatarina span from the craft's controls in support of her sister and gave her kin a barely concealed glare. I felt the chill of her gaze even from behind her goggled exterior.
“Princess Linka, we shall be – landing, forthwith. Please be ready to move when we say so,” Ekatarina said, returning to earlier formalities. I was not even spared a look.
I didn't care for my companions, nor the pause in our landing arrangements. Their eccentricities had already worn thin. I observed them with general disinterest as they went about their business in spectral personae. They glided from control to control without giving Linka or myself any further attention. Speaking in hushed whispers the six did their best impersonations of porcelain dolls at the Zeppelin's controls. Only the pomade of lavender, which still circulated, marked the Nordics' earlier graceful passage. It was far too sweet for my tastes.
I soon got to ignoring their luminous closeness and stared out over the bloodied waters. They had somewhat calmed since I last looked, a swilled glass settled. If I hadn't known better, I should have said us surrounded by a world of ruby glass.
Linka snuggled against me in silent pleasure seeming less concerned of our hosts than I. Her nearness calmed me, and for a while, I lost myself in the horizon and relaxing, ruby expanse.
The bleeding sun soon sank back into its reflective home and I found myself saddened by its passing. In less than an hour, there was only a slit of boiling blood peeping above the waves. One side of the Zeppelin had returned to total darkness, whilst the other simmered in crimson. I still loved it, though. There was enough light left to keep the uninformed Eternal at bay, whilst still giving the enlightened the pleasure of a dawn, or sunset, I was lost as to which was which having never seen either. I could have sat in pleasant happiness for the rest of my years, my love at one side, shrouded in night, the sun I had thought to never see, glowing at the other. However, as per usual, my pleasure was not to last.
“Princess, if you will.”
Grella had approached to less than a yard with a stealth I would not have thought possible. I prided myself on not being caught unawares least of all by those I had once thought legend. It was most disconcerting, and I chastised myself at my laxness.
“Have we reached Hvit?” Linka bubbled, jumping to her feet.
“We have, Your Highness.”
“Oh, goody,” she enthused.
“If you would stand by the doorway and prepare to jump when instructed.”
“You too, Jean,” he added, almost as an afterthought.
“Did you say jump?”
“Yes. We shall not be landing.”
I did not pursue the point, but was reluctant to be dragged to my feet when Ragnar opened the Zeppelin's door. His action caused a blast of freezing air to invade the craft's stagnant innards, which swirled about in direct competition with the Nordics' own scents. I hadn't realised just how stale the lavender-infused interior had become until the freshness sought to banish it.
I was about to say as much to Linka when the whole craft lurched to port submerging us in darkness before making a slow and steady arc back toward the sun.
First out were the two princesses, who adjusted their goggles to an assured fit and leapt from the craft in tandem.
“Now you,” Ragnar ordered.
Linka gave me one of her extra special smiles, an immense lightening of the load on my heart, then jumped into the night after the other ladies, myself in hot pursuit.
The distance to the ground was about thirty feet, nothing to an Eternal, and we landed as inaudible snowflakes. To my annoyance, so did the twins, one to either side of us. Ragnar landed next with less grace. His greater bulk displaced enough snow to leave a crater of sorts, although I suspected most of it for show.
The Zeppelin continued to nosedive towards liquidity. Down it plunged, and for a moment, I feared for Grella, until he launched himself clear of the hurtling machine landing with a crack at the point where ice met water. The Zeppelin followed him down in serene departure. There was something phantasmal about its demise. The airship drifted another half mile, dipped its head to the horizon, then disappeared beneath the becalmed ocean with more of a kiss than a splash. I would miss it in my own way.
Grella did not bother to watch it leave. He had already spun around and was striding towards us, his brilliant, white cloak billowing out behind him. I, in turn, walked the opposite way, as close to the edge of an ocean as a hydrophobe dared. The transition from dark to light was magical. It was hard to imagine how one could transcend the boundaries of such metaphysics in a matter of steps.
“Why do you watch it disappear, it is only a possession, a toy?” Grella asked as we crossed.
“I wasn't, I was watching the sun,” my terse reply.
“Then, why do you watch the sun?”
“Because, I wish to.”
“Why do you wish to?”
“Why do you not?”
“It is unnatural. Eternals desire the dark, deepest night. The sun offers security, nothing more.”
“Is that not cowardice?”
“It is sense,” growled Grella.
“Then, I am glad to possess none.”
“What?” I spat, but Grella had already reached the others.
“It is time for us to descend,” Narina called.
“Where is the entrance?” I returned, as I skidded my way over to them.
“Why, here, of course.” And with a tap of a white booted foot on the ground, a sliver of glasslike ice popped up catching the last red rays of the sun. “Right here,” she added, as the Nordics removed their glasses.
The sweet smell of lavender ushered forth from the slit-like hole almost overwhelming my senses.
“Hvit is down there?” I queried, a tad nonplussed, whilst wafting my hands before my nose.
“Yes, silly,” Linka giggled. “They told us their city lay under the ice.”
“I thought they were speaking metaphorically.”
“Metaphorically?” the twins said in unison shielding their eyes from the distant wedge of sun.
“Yes, metaphorically. I thought it would tower over us in some kind of clear dome, hence, under the ice.”
“You read too much into things people say, Jean,” said Narina gliding to my side.
I noticed Ekatarina was quick to do the same to Linka. Narina laid her hand upon my arm and escorted me to the others.
Grella stooped to lift the ice door up, which was set on a pivot. He opened it with a creak just far enough to allow us entry. The obsidian interior came as somewhat of a shock after the advent of real light in my life. Ragnar rumbled through the doorway and descended straight down into the depths. Grella spared a moment to cast serious eyes about the landscape before following him. Ekatarina went next leading Linka below, my love giving me a reassuring smile before passing into the darkness.
“May I have a moment please?” I asked my shepherdess.
“Of course, but do not tarry.”
“The doorway will close behind you of its own accord.”
“I understand,” I acknowledged, as Narina bowed her head and descended after the others in sparkling flecks of luminescence.
I needed to look at that wedge of sun one more time, it moved me in a way nothing else ever had, not even Linka, nor my once beloved Alba. I watched ruby borders pulse with cosmic life and felt something trickle down my cheek, most probably stray sea spray.
Turning my back on that segment of light was as hard a task as I had ever accomplished. I stepped back into the darkness bearing a frown and a heavy heart.
Fortunately, my senses were as acute as ever: someone, or something, observed me. A quick glance left revealed nothing, but I did not turn away. That's when I saw them. It was but a fleeting glimpse, a moment in time, but two blue eyes peered out from the demarcation of night and day. I stared back, unblinking. The whole confrontation lasted a fraction of a second, but those eyes seemed to stare for a lifetime. Twin, sapphire orbs gazed from an incorporeal shell, calculating, making a judgement. Then, with a blink, they vanished.
I stood there a minute more, sniffing at the air, narrowed eyes questing, but the flash of blue had absconded. Whoever, or whatever controlled them, had fled. I did not like it one bit. And much as I tried to convince myself of imagining things, I knew the encounter real.
My descent into Hvit was slow, not because of the darkness, I could see perfectly well in the blackest of holes, nor for fear of slipping on those treacherous steps of ice, but because of the trapdoor that closed, then reopened in my wake. I watched the faintest sliver of ruby illuminate the tunnel before me until it evaporated into the darkness, eclipsed.
The abyss swallowed me then as I hurried after my love.