There were soft flowers nodding against the side of his face, and with the rising pinnacles of somber black stone to negate their colours, the boy thought they were fine. Dandelions and clover, he thought: their scent filled his lungs as he breathed them in. It was very fine, but something wasn’t quite right. The mountains were all ragged spires of obsidian, and he knew of no place in the world such natural towers existed – and more awkward still was the island of green that floated in the clouds above his head. He was certain he wasn’t at home in England anymore.
But the boy hadn’t always been so lost. Though his journey was queer and far, he’d once called a home in the country his own. There he’d lived with a mother and father, just as any boy should. It was when his father didn’t come back from the war and his mother fell to drinking that the boy really came to understand that he was in trouble. And when that trouble debased him to theft and robbery and blood on his hands, he could no longer deny his life had changed forever.
That was how it began.
When they’d told him he must go to Greenland, the boy felt despair; when they told him it’d be in irons, he gave up hope. Norward was what they called it – a city of ice that ended every road that found it: the prison of the world. The boy would’ve given anything to escape before he arrived, but beneath the grim eyes of the Lieutenant Officer who’d had the unfortunate chance of receiving his case, no opportunity was found. A week after the judge in Edinburgh said he must go away, he was on the last ship out to Norward City before winter. Even if he could escape, there was no way to get home for many long months now: he was trapped on the ice of a forgotten shore.
The lights of Norward shone out through the flurry of the storm. The boy could see them from the rail of the steamer; and when the harbour watch sounded the horn, it spelled his doom. He would live forever in this cold land of snow and ice, that was the dictate of the law.
The city was all cast in iron and stone, built on the edge of the sea and as much a part of the battered surf as the land to which it’d been anchored by its deep moorings. It was a prison, there was no doubt: they might call it a city to keep the moral reason of those who paid for it at ease, but it was a prison as infamous as The Tower or Alcatraz. The boy might’ve guessed the secrets it held were much worse than anything he’d done, and the winters snow could never hide it beneath the frost. He nearly lost himself to despair.
But that was before he’d met the old man.
A prisoner like the boy, the old man had already been in Norward City for many years. An American once, he said he was nothing now, and he assured his new friend there really was no escape. He wouldn’t speak of his homeland, and he was quick to advise the new inmate of Norward that he, too, must give up his own home for good. “There is no way out of this cold place,” he said.
“No tunnel?” asked the boy.
“Or bridge to the arctic ice?”
The old man laughed. “And how would you manage to cross all those cold, empty wastelands afoot and with the Norward police coming behind?”
The boy thought for a time, then: “But surely someone has found a way in three hundred years!” Didn’t every hole have a way out only waiting to be discovered by someone with perceptiveness?
The old man conceded he’d only been in Norward twenty, but if any had ever made the return to Europe or the Americas he knew nothing of it. If they’d wanted a nice little summer prison, they’d have built one in the south, he said; Norward, on the other hand, was a hell-hole reserved for the refuse the civilized world would just as soon forget: an old man and a boy.
Yet the boy was determined, and he wouldn’t leave the matter alone. He plagued the old man, until finally his elder, quite angry, replied, “Son, if you gave half your mind to the tasks you have here instead of trying to get home, you’d be much better off by far.”
And it was true: the old convict wasn’t wrong. Norward was maintained by the inmate who lived there, and the boy had plenty of tasks of his own that contributed to their quality of life, such as it was. Even the cold, wet prisoner at the end of the world could be comfortable-enough if he put his energy to the task. For a while the boy did hold to his silence.
Yet when spring was in full, and the ice shelf was melting, he came back to his dreams.
“Supposing we went over the wall and into the sea,” he said one day. The weather was warming: the sea must not be nearly as cold as it had been.
“And be dashed on the rocks and eaten by fish,” scoffed the old man.
“By the sea plane that brings mail from Denmark, then!” cried the boy, unwilling to give up.
The old man scoffed that too, but in truth it was the best idea the boy had thought of yet. Nigh impossible, but still—perhaps.
The cold of summer passed into the colder winter, and sunlit days fled before the perpetual night. The boy’s idea and the weariness of the frozen world-prison grew upon the old man until, at last, he agreed to the plan. And this is how the two found themselves in a tiny seaplane far out over the vast arctic ocean with no way of knowing which way they were heading, for neither was much with a compass or map. The old man was sure he could manage the controls, for he’d once been a bag boy, he said. But nothing could prepare them for the arctic storms, and a seasoned pilot would’ve called them mad to try it, even one that knew where to fly.
“We’re going down,” said the old man calmly when the snow was so thick around the windows of the plane they no longer could see anything else. They’re fuel was run out, for they’d lost their way; and the little engine of the sea plane had died. “Hold onto your seat, boy, and don’t worry yourself. We’ll either be alright or we won’t!”
The boy couldn’t have understood how the old man could be so calm under the circumstances. Inside he was frantic; but his elder just gripped the controls in his steady hands, and as the white of the clouds pulled at the aircraft, and his knuckles grew whiter still, he began to cry, “Back to the land again! We’re going home, son!”
The boy couldn’t remember exactly what happened after that. He awoke cold and with a terrible headache. He couldn’t feel his arm, and there was something in his eyes. He tried to open them, and found he was looking at the bank of controls for the little plane that had failed them. All the lights were out and his pilot missing. But this was little better than a dream, and soon it was gone, replaced instead by high mountains of coal that stood out against the bright blue of the sky.
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