This story was inspired by a writing challenge issued by Chuck Wendig many moons ago. Check it out here if you wish.
“Then we are agreed,” said Gai, who was the queen of the gods.
Jerome gulped. He did not want to be there, for he was a mere mortal, and the gods were awe-inspiring and terrible. But what choice did he have? He nodded. “Yes.”
Gai waved to a servant who brought two tumblers made of starlight, each one filled with golden bourbon. Gai raised her glass and Jerome tapped his against it.
They drained their glasses. Then a second. And a third.
“It is settled. Bring me what was stolen from me, and I shall grant your request.”
The old man stared at Jerome as he hoisted up the last barrel to take onto the ship. Empty, the barrel was light. He started up the metal gangway, the old man trailing in his wake. “The drill is not strong enough,” said the old man.
“I built the drill…”
“And I’m grateful you loaned it to me.”
“…so I know when it will not work. And it will not work for this.”
“The Ice Elves will not let you on their land.”
Jerome set the barrel down next to the other three. He looked around the exploration vessel that had agreed to take him where he wanted to go. It was decently sized: smaller than a container ship but larger than a yacht. Overhead a large crane, diaphanous in the morning fog, lowered the old man’s drill onto the ship’s stern.
Jerome checked his phone.
No updates from the doctor.
“You should go,” he told the old man. “We’ll be disembarking soon.”
Sea water sprayed up and stabbed Jerome’s face. He blinked the salty sting out of his eyes.
Ahead of him, the ocean stretched onward to the horizon. An endless expanse the color of steel. Although the wind struck his face like the switch of an angry schoolteacher, the waters remained calm. Jerome said a silent prayer to Agre, god of the ocean, that the ocean would remain agreeable. He knew the gods were a fickle but vain breed, and sometimes a humble prayer was all it took for them not to fuck with you.
But not always.
A storm that night claimed one crewmember.
The Ice Elves had skin the color of glaciers and their eyes were hurricanes. The gods had banished them to the coldest regions of the Arctic for trying to steal Gai’s prized bison.
A party of elves rode a boat out to meet Jerome. They told him to turn back.
“Please,” said Jerome, “It’s a matter of life and death.”
“We do not admit outsiders,” said the lead elf. “Not even mighty Gwerra dares to enter our lands.”
“You admitted Shackleton.”
The elf grinned. “For a price.”
The elf thought for a moment. Then his grin grew wider, stretching across his face like a chisel. “I will let you pass in exchange for your warmth.”
“I have not been warm since the gods banished us here, and I long for that feeling. Give me your warmth, so that anytime you bask in sunlight or lay by your fireplace, I, instead of you, shall feel the effects. That is my price, mortal.”
Jerome thought. To spend the rest of his life cold, never to feel his muscles relax as he sinks into a hot bath, never to enjoy the sensation of hot chocolate warming him from the inside out was a grim prospect indeed.
He nodded. “I’ll pay it.”
The ice was tough and drilling through it was slow. The drill whirred and punctured and carved, a warrior hell bent on breaking through an enemy’s defenses. But the ice did not yield easily.
Jerome watched with increasing agitation. He knew he had no signal way out here in the barren arctic, but he obsessively checked his phone regardless.
The cold was vicious, and he thought to put on another layer of clothing, but knew it would be useless. He would never be warm again.
On the fourth day, the drill broke.
Jerome hacked at the ice with a pick ax. All day and all night he toiled against the frozen ground, pausing only for a bit of food or a few hours of sleep.
When the days brought winds that gusted and sliced, Jerome persevered. When the nights brought temperatures down beyond imagining, he did not let up. His skin cracked and peeled, and the blood froze on his hands, but he did not stop. Lips splitting, eyes burning, air freezing in his lungs. But he continued carving through the ice.
The men thought him mad. They talked amongst themselves whether or not they should abandon him. But the captain took pity on Jerome and said they would not leave until he succumbed to the frigid temperature.
But Jerome did not die. Though his body became gaunt, and his eyes sunken, he did not give up his work.
Two weeks later, he found what he was looking for.
Gai examined the barrels that Jerome had wheeled in. She was pleased and stroked the wood. “Shackleton was a master distiller, and I had commissioned a special batch from him. But he was greedy and tried to sell it to the Mountain Giants for a higher price. Geo, my son, found out and Shackleton fled to where the gods could not reach him. I thank you for delivering it to me.”
Jerome did not want her thanks. “And my request?”
She nodded and poured a bit of the barrel’s contents into a small glass. “You have earned it.” She handed the glass to Jerome. “This will heal your beloved. But tell me, mortal, why did you not take the elixir for yourself? It is much coveted, did the promise of wealth not hold the slightest temptation?”
“I don’t want wealth,” said Jerome. “I just want my wife.”
Gai, who was queen of the gods, nodded as Jerome left with his dram of Shackleton’s Scotch.