fiction06 Oct 2008 09:00 am

Vera Nazarian immigrated to the USA from the former USSR as a kid, sold her first story at the age of 17, and since then has published numerous works in anthologies and magazines, and has seen her fiction translated into eight languages. She made her novelist debut with the critically acclaimed Dreams of the Compass Rose, followed by epic fantasy about a world without color, Lords of Rainbow. Her novella The Clock King and the Queen of the Hourglass from PS Publishing with an introduction by Charles de Lint made the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2005. Her collection Salt of the Air with an introduction by Gene Wolfe contains the 2007 Nebula Award-nominated “The Story of Love.” Recent work includes the baroque illustrated fantasy novella The Duke In His Castle, released in June 2008. In addition to being a writer and award-winning artist she is also the publisher of Norilana Books. This story was originally published in 2005 in the anthology Lords of Swords by Pitch-Black Books.
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Iliss moved through a dead world.

Snowflakes finer than dandelion seed floated down gently, sparsely, brushing against her face with feather lightness, while the tundra around whirled by. A solitary bird soared overhead — a Northern bird — and trained a strange look of its sharp eagle-eye on the being below.

Iliss huddled in the voluminous fur garment which she had bought back at the old roadside shelter-station. This peculiar cumbersome thing she wore as a beast wears its own skin came with a hood that left only her eyes and a slit of her face exposed, and it was unbelievably warm.

The trader had called the garment shuba. The station was on the boundary of things, and beyond it began the Northlands. There too, she had traded in her Southern mount, a sturdy gelding, for a sled and team of dogs — strange, unfamiliar means of conveyance. Iliss felt remotely sorry for the small furry beasts, so much like tame wolves, that were to be tied in pairs in front of the sled, and who obeyed a raised or lowered long stick called girg by the Northsmen. But then, all sensation was remote, so in truth she felt nothing.

Iliss shivered despite her relative warmth, hating the cumbersome feel of mittens on her calloused fingers and the wreath of fur around her face restricting her field of vision. Her posture was immobile. Her left hand clenched the leather reins in a kind of death grip forced by lack of familiarity, by lack of trust. The right hand was rigid, holding aloft the long girg stick high above the dogs’ heads — they would run forever thus, until she lowered the girg on the ground.

How much farther to go? How much farther….

Iliss was better used to the freedom of the Southern steppe. Give her the tall grass, the quick short agile horses, the unrestraining soft leather trousers and vest of a plains warrior, her trusty knife at her belt, and a light bow and quiver on her back — she needed nothing else. Let the hot dry wind wash her face like honey….

Here, there was only the cold. Iliss never knew there could be so much cold in one place at one time. Everything, the sparse craggy trees black against the white land, the steel sky, the gray sun low on the horizon, all was raw cold, a tomb of diamond ice. Around her the land dipped and fell and rose again, as hills of snow — dull, mysterious with shadows, then suddenly sparkling in the sun — rose to meet her.

If there is anything to this burial ground, Iliss thought, it is not for my people. But now it is a fitting place for me.

The cold stung her face, clawed at her eyes, hungering at the edges of her bitten eyelids. She had cultivated no weapon against it.

Where was she going?

She had been told to follow the faint trail in the snow, using various visual landmarks and the sun as her guide. Back at the shelter, the trader’s eyes had acquired a focus when he saw the fine heavy coins she offered. She knew their only value had been as a metal, to be melted down later and wrought into a blade maybe, or a wash basin. Metal was rare here in the North.

And again she wondered at herself, why bother? What purpose did it serve, her coming here into the deathly lands, her hopeless quest? Indeed, in a subtle way, her mind was not her own.

For Iliss remembered no tale, in all of ancient lore, of anyone who had successfully killed a God.

Such was her intent.

In her own home plains, among her agile, dark, sloe-eyed people, Iliss had been a warrior, and she had known shame. Iliss stood taller than any woman, possessed eyes the color of an overcast sky, and an arrogant walk. Harsh-tongued, she was quick to lash out at others. Quick in humor, she had boasted before the Gods.

Yet when her home village was raided by a strange enemy from the North, her old parents and her only brother butchered, and her sister Naiass raped, Iliss did not have the courage to commit the suicide customary of her people, the Killing of Shame.

And the people spat at her, mocked her — they who had better survived the Northern raid. They turned their backs in shunning whenever she passed by. And they ceremonially rubbed out all traces of her footprints with the left toes of their leather-clad feet.

Iliss forgot her youth, her boasting ways and resorted to being a shadow, her eyes transformed into stone. At last, when Autumn drew to a close, and it was Winter, she left them.

She had ridden alone through the plains, farther and farther North, haunted by Naiass, her younger sister, crouching like a beast in her thoughts, her clothes stained and torn, hair clotted, filled with the smell of human sorrow and neglect.

Having lost her mind, Naiass had lost all facial expression. She had become timid like an animal, reacting with only a hazy disturbance in her vacant stare when someone approached. Iliss had been unable to come near Naiass. And the villagers, out of pity, did not bother to drive the mad one out farther than the outskirts of the settlement. After all, the mad were watched over by the eagle-eyes of the Gods.

Iliss herself was touched. She had lost her mind in the older, quiet way, unlike her sister. Her sense of revenge she had confused — swallowed it with her soul’s pale lungs, not her heart’s black guts — and now she breathed it endlessly, instead of passing it through herself like offal.

Instead of hating the Northsmen, she hated their Gods.

It had been the will of the Gods, people said, that her family be killed, and she should have died also. Northern Gods were just as powerful as those here in the South. They dealt equally among Themselves, gave each side allowances for deaths and births.

Iliss had said nothing and she did not hear them; these days a wind rushed through her ears and her veins in a clamor. One name rang interminably in her mind. The barbarians had invoked it as they slaughtered her family. Trei, they called Him, the Winter God.

Trei,” she had mouthed, numb-minded, as she and her brother fought the raiders, while her old father bled in the burning house. Trei became the abstraction of hate, cold and ugly. If He had a human form, she could imagine her hands tightening around His neck, squeezing, crushing, making a moist welling blackness….

And because there was nothing else left, no end to her living shame, Iliss decided to go North. She would go to its farthest reaches, where it was said the Gods could be found among the sparkling mountains of ice, and where the sky held strange colored lights, like the splintered rainbow. And there, among the wondrous splendor, she would find Trei and slay Him.
Then, she would die.

continued in two weeks


One Response to “The Slaying of Winter, Part I, by Vera Nazarian”

  1. on 06 Oct 2008 at 11:17 pm SF Signal

    SF Tidbits for 10/7/08…

    Over at Subterranean Online, artist John Picacio dissects the work he did for Muse of Fire, the latest book by Dan Simmons. Another winner. Interviews & Profiles:Speaking of John Picacio, over at John interviews horror author Mario Acevedo …

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