By Stefan Keller
“Just past The Swamp of Misery,” Alvin huffed. “Just past The Swamp of Misery…”
Though his whisper was barely audible in the frigid air, the man just ahead stopped and looked back. An icicle-crusted cloth obscured most of his face, yet he still managed to scowl. “I swear,” he said, his speech muffled, “If ye dunnae stop, ye’ll shortly be asking yer ANCESTORS about The Swamp of Misery!” He faced forward again and continued walking.
Alvin hadn’t even the breath to sigh. Given that, he doubted the other man’s threat had much clout behind it. They were all worn out, cold, and on edge. They’d been at this quest for the longest fortnight of any man’s life: rising in the dark, stopping after the next night’s dark, and sleeping round a sorry excuse for a campfire. And the weather was always, always cold.
If not for a small supply of bottled ale, Alvin felt sure he’d be as frozen a man as that statue up ahead.
Statue? Statue?! “STATUE!!” he yelled, stopping so suddenly he was hit from behind by the next man. Alvin fell to the ground but scrabbled up again. Snow flew from his waving arms and dusted back. “Giant! Statue! We made it!” Pointing and almost hopping, he shouted through his own mouth scarf.
His neighbors to front and back looked where he motioned in a comically slow fashion and blinked their frosted lashes. They pointed, they shouted, they turned to men near them and relayed the message. Soon a chorus of muffled male voices was crying out in disarrayed joy. Arms waved, mittened hands gestured, and petrified limbs found life.
Hope renewed, the company trudged onward with greater speed. Alvin’s feet crunched in time to the rest: Frosted. Giant. Frosted. Giant. It was just as The Druid had described -albeit much farther a walking distance than they had all anticipated from her, “…just beyond The Swamp of Misery” direction.
Up the whitefold hill they trudged; and up, and up. Alvin’s sweating breath exhaled cloudy puffs with the beat of his boots. Though still excited, the men’s synchronized hike faltered on icy rocks and the powder-coated trail. After a half day’s exertions, however, all managed to clamber to the great, gaping base of The Frosted Giant.
Alvin and his companions stared at the dragonlike mouth carved before them, traced its mouth to a pair of nostrils, followed the nostrils to the upper part of a bearded man, then ended at the sunset-glinted, shaggy head of the giant himself.
“The Frosted Giant,” Alvin whispered, and was promptly punched in the arm. “Ow!”
“Told ye I’d teach ye,” a familiar, cloth-wrapped voice said. The man behind it ambled off behind a few others, whom Alvin could see were setting up camp. He followed, rubbing at his arm. Soon the whole company of men were warming themselves around their usual, ineffective fire.
“Right,” grunted the leader, shifting his scarf to below his bearded chin and smiling. Given the frozen state of his facial hair, the friendly expression was more of a grimace. “We made it.”
Eighteen heads bearing varying levels of frost nodded ascent. A few grunted as well.
Alvin could hardly contain his excitement. Forgetting his sore arm and what caused it, he blurted, “Now, we’ve only another fortnight or so till the next destination: The Scorching Phoenix!”
Thanks to D. Wallace Peach, a most excellent writer, for the prompt.