it was the middle of darkwinter and the migration was underway. the air was so cold it frosted our warm breaths and they collapsed to the ground like little light puff balls. a man couldn’t spit for fear it would stick to their face. if you had to pee–wait until we reached shelter, or suffer the loss of your dick. this is darkwinter across the frozen sea, men and women trudging in thick hobnailed boots and layers upon layers of furs, trudging over ice and packed snow with lit torches or legal light nested on walking sticks or on body parts. pinpoints of light dotting the otherwise black landscape. it’s a very surreal experience if you haven’t been, as the tozha are unafraid of humans–unafraid of anything, really–and they just lope along so effortlessly along the ice, and you’ll see a few of them with their giant beaks slamming into the ocean ice, chipping at it until they get into the ocean. the tozha are such smart creatures, they’ll have one of the females break open a hole with its beak and then open the hole up until it’s wide enough for the male’s more slender beak. then they all huddle around the hole and keep the spot warm so the hole doesn’t refreeze, while the male takes a bit of food, or chum, or whatever they have–sometimes they strip meat from each other, in fact–and clutch it in their beaks which they dip into the water, waiting for fish to come and bite. when they do, SNAP, they grab the fish and throw it onto the ice, where it’s devoured quickly. the female who broke the ice gets the first fish, then all the others, and the male gets the last fish.
padrage and i were tasked with finding these fishing holes and driving the tozha away from them so we could fish ourselves. see, cracking the ocean ice is not easy, even for the tozha, who can spend upwards of eight hours breaking through to the water, depending on the ice thickness. i feel like a bastard for doing it but a lot of times we just shout and wave our light at the tozha and they run off scared. i try to make sure they fill their bellies but it’s colder than cold on the frozen seas and spending a lot of time there is just deadly. now, you’ve seen tozha, yes? at least in your history tomes. giant birds, basically, so big that their wings can’t keep ’em aloft at all. they run on these enormous bird legs, thicker than the width of your body, and at the end of these legs is talons, talons as long as your arm and sharp as a freshly honed seax. the tsosodoi people, they train tozha so as to ride ’em into battle and such, and a domesticated war tozha is a terrifying thing to see in battle.
fortunately for padrage and myself, most tozha are easily frightened, especially by bright lights. i had a torch because i don’t trust magic, but padrage had some legal light and we set about scaring off a group of tozha who had burrowed a nice broad hole into the ocean. we had a group of six men, the other four carrying the various parts of the fishing contraption they use to bring up the real big deep sea stuff. and one of them had fire to keep the hole from refreezing. big operation, been done for hundreds of years. biggest problem is slipping on the ice and falling into the hole. you do that and you’re dead, cause either you freeze, or you get eaten by whatever is still swimming around under all that ice.
well, i don’t know what it was about tonight, but all those tozha ran off into the darkness, except for one. a mama bird, a big one, had to be ten, twelve feet tall. she had a wingspan unlike anything i’d ever seen on tozha before, and when pad raised his light up, her feathers were black and her beak was a dullish bronze and she reared up and spread her wings and they had to be twenty feet long, just full of these beautiful shimmering purple-black feathers. we were in awe, amazed, astounded. i had never seen a tozha like her and i don’t think i ever will again. she cawed at us, a loud, thunderous sound reverberating from her breastbone, and then she cocked her head to the side, sizing us up with one of her enormous black eyeballs.
on the frozen sea the wind whips incessantly, bringing about a deathly cold to anyone save the hardiest people like myself and padrage. it’s loud, like a thousand banshees screaming at you and tossing you about from all angles. the snow falling like a blizzard all around you, the heavy fog, it was all disorienting, all of it, and we were both enraptured by this mama bird’s awesomeness … so we staggered a bit when she charged us. pad was shouting, and i couldn’t hear him until he turned around. he was shouting “run,” and i took a step back, instinctively felt my hobnails grip into the slippery ice, twisted my feetaway from the tozha. but i was still looking at her, and at pad, and i watched as her giant talons gripped into the ice, watched pad as he tried to push off from the ice but he slipped and she slammed her foot into his back. heard the air escape from pad’s lungs with such a whoosh that i swear to this day i could see his spirit get forced out of his body, a will-o-the-wisp finding itself forever trapped in the cold winds of darkwinter.
naturally i was upset, and in my rage i made the mistake of attacking this beast, unsheathing my seax and praying to enfyenda to grant my boots the grip they desperately needed. i ran and leaped at the tozha, striking it hard against the beak, which only caused my whole body to shudder, my hammer to ricochet off. a glancing blow to a beast like that. the tozha, annoyed, flicked its beak at me as i fell, striking me hard against the breast and knocking me to the ground. with a swift motion its other foot was on my chest, pressing hard the air out of me. one of its talons was inches from my forehead and as in instinctively struggled out of its grip, it just tightened it more, and the talon slowly sliced down my face. that’s how i got this scar. i’m surprised i still have my eye.
for a while it felt like an eternity, but in truth is was mere moments, me trapped under her foot, her beak so close to my face, the occasional darting glance from her eyes perched on the sides of her head. i tell you, i’ve been an adventurer all my life and it never gets easy, it never stops being terrifying. ever. and this was no exception to that rule. anyway. i don’t know what caused the tozha to let go, but she decided to lift her foot from my body and take padrage’s body in her massive beak. then she turned and was off, running in the darkness toward her flock. i laid there for a moment, collecting myself. the hole cut into the water had already frozen over. i was alone. i picked myself up and grabbed the light padrage had been holding, and trudged slowly back to camp, feeling the bruising on my ribs, the frozen blood on my face, fearing frostbite on my nose.
when i got to camp the warren was full of men like me, men who were battered, bruised, cut, sliced, frostbitten. and some were dead. preyster gahrain chided me for allowing the tozha to take padrage’s body. “now they’ll have a taste for human!” he cried. i just crawled into my hole and wept.