Far to the north is a land of eternal cold. The desolate place is forever wreathed in shifting mists. An endless flurry forever dusts the ice with snow. A human could easily lose his way and freeze to death.
Far to the south is a land of immense heat. The harsh gaze of the sun blisters the ground. Scorching wind whips sand into scouring tornadoes. A human could quickly become delirious and die of heat stroke.
No human willingly enters either realm, preferring to remain safely in the temperate zone between them, where plants thrive in the rain caused by the frequent snow storms that whirl south being met by the hot desert wind howling north. Criminals are given a choice between exile in the two lands. Death by heat or death by cold.
The people who live on the border of the land of ice eke out a tough existence. Their growing season is short, their nights cold, and their doors are frozen shut more mornings than not. From one of these sorry homesteads ventures a young man. Each morning, he journeys forth to account for his family’s small flock of sheep that provides priceless wool that defies the bitter cold. On this morning, he finds the flock closer to the swirling wall of mist that marks the border with the ice than usual. A quick count tells him that one of the ewes is missing. With a sinking feeling, he raises his head to contemplate the mist.
He ties a thin rope to a scraggly tree as a life line, snaps a set of spikes onto each boot for traction, and takes a deep breath. He closes his eyes as he steps through the wall of mist. His breath catches in his chest. The air is too cold. He had previously fancied himself someone who didn’t mind the cold, but this makes what he has just left behind feel truly balmy.
He opens his eyes, and thinks he might as well not have bothered. The falling snow, and thick fog curtail visibility to a matter of a meter or so. Still, the young shepherd feels he has to try. He forges ahead, paying out the rope as he walks. His ears strain through the unnatural stillness, aching for any sound above the soft crunch of his boots in the snow.
He reaches the end of his life line without any sign of his quarry. He looks left and right, as if something in the monotonous swirling white might suggest which way to go. He arbitrarily strikes off to his left, sweeping back toward the border.
About half way through his arch, he thinks he sees motion ahead. He blinks, and rubs the tiny ice crystals out of his eyelashes with fingers long gone numb through thick woolen mittens. The only motion is the idle wandering of the mist. A few more steps, and he hears the distant peal of a bell. His lost ewe! He hurries forward, as best he can on the icy ground. Suddenly, he is almost upon the animal, the distance obscuring white fog having hidden the two from each other. To his impossible relief, the animal is still alive, and trudging slowly back in the direction of the border.
He moves around to the front of the animal, to lead it out, and pauses, risking freezing in place. Before the nose of his ewe floats a tiny humanoid, barely larger than a sparrow, with hummingbird wings of frost. It bobs and weaves in front of the ewe, dodging the faint puff of it’s breath, but urging it on. The creature looks up and sees the man. In a fright, it makes to fly straight up, but the man calls out to it.
“Please, what are you?” He cranes his neck to keep his eyes on the flittering creature.
The creature hesitates, right on the edge of visibility. It flies around to the north of the man and his ewe.
“shoo.” It says in a tiny voice. It makes a flapping motion with it’s hands, and a wave of snowflakes fall from it’s fingertips and extend the gesture. “Go away, creatures of the sun. We don’t want you here.”
“There are more of you?” The man asks surprised, ignoring the growing numbness in his legs.
“If you stay,” The creature replies slowly, as though talking to a small child. “you will die.”
The young man looks down at his ewe, and sees that the creature is right. The ice crystals forming in the ewe’s coat indicate that it’s internal temperature is dangerously low. As it is, both man and sheep are suffering hypothermia. The man slowly leaves the land of mist, leading his lost ewe.
Back on rocky ground, the man shakily starts a fire, struggling through the sluggish reaction of his body. As circulation slowly returns, pins and needles shoot through his limbs. The ewe bleats in pain as the sensation returns to it’s body as well. The shepherd holds the ewe close to the fire, and clumsily brushes the ice crystals from it’s coat. He is hopeful that the animal will survive.
The sensation that he is being watched causes him to whip around and stare intensely at the wall of mist only a stone’s throw away. The mist swirls, unperturbed by being observed. A tendril of mist drifts from the main body and swirls into nothingness as it drifts toward the man.
Wearily, the man leads the ewe back to the flock, and then the whole flock away from the land of ice. His survival, and that of his ewe mark just two of the miracles that occurred today. He has no desire to repeat the experience.
<to be continued>