fiction20 Oct 2008 09:00 am

Clenching the reins and the girg with stiff fingers, Iliss was carried farther and farther along the barely perceptible trail. There were adequate supplies of grain and dried meat in the back of the sled, and extra warm blankets. The grain was for her own consumption — for since that dark day she had stopped eating flesh — while the meat was for the dogs.

One last point of honor Iliss refused to part with at the shelter-station. A long knife of finely honed iron she had kept close to her body, tied around her left upper thigh. This knife she had used when fighting for her life.

Her knife, first taken from her and plunged into beloved flesh, brother’s guts spewing… Her knife, regained too late while Naiass was broken — little smiling Naiass — her soft eyes agonized, then glassy… Screams, crackle of fire, her mother’s hands charred… Smoke, and Northerners with long pale hair, rose-skinned, shrieking, clawing at her, Trei, Trei, Trei, then bleeding, limbs severed under her slashing knife….

Her knife.

Iliss was jolted out of the familiar circle of madness as a howling of wolves came in the distance. It was dangerous to be caught thus, alone in the wild. But the thought of danger was sluggish in her brain, like all other thoughts long since had been. Her dogs, yapping nervously, carried the sled around another hillock, while the howling increased.

Not even evening yet, she thought. They come out to hunt early. How perverse everything was here, in the cold land. Even the wolves were unlike those in the steppe.

They warned me, the next settlement is less than a day’s ride ahead. A Northern settlement. Would they allow a stranger to stay overnight? If they only knew my intent.

The dogs’ ears all prickled, stood on end. They became hard to control. With a grip that made her lose all feeling in her hand, she held the reins and thought of how many wolves she was capable of fending off on her own.

At the next turn, amid a sudden unexpected cluster of sparse evergreen bushes, a scene met her eyes. It made her throw the girg down immediately, halting the dogs in their tracks.

Truly, if they were but to move a couple more feet ahead, they would touch noses with a wolf pack.

There were six or seven of them, great beasts, overgrown with thick gray Winter fur which is so prized by the Northsmen. Immobile, their jaws scowling, pink mouths shocking against the surrounding snow, they froze in a half-circle around some thing huddled against a hill slope.

Iliss held her breath, even though she knew the wolves had already sensed her and the dogs’ presence.

The thing was human. Naked to the waist, with light fair skin turning blue from the cold, and hair the color of corn, he had only a fur pelt to cover his lower body, and fur boots on his feet. His hand gripped a long knife as he froze in a half-fallen, half-crouching position, his own teeth appearing to be bared at the wolf pack.

There was blood on the ground. And only then did Iliss notice the corpse of a pale wolf lying in the deep snow, just before him — between him and the rest of the wolves.

Her body reacted ahead of her thoughts. Her hands went for the long blade hidden at her left thigh, and although encumbered by the shuba, she was agile. One precise strike of the knife at a furry throat, and a beast expired. She felt nothing. Before it had time to hit the ground, she was already rolling away, plunging the blade into the other nearest wolf.

Snarling, they turned on her, while two went for the boy. She realized her mistake too late, knew how badly she had broken the delicate balance with which the boy was holding them at bay. Again the thought came, How different these wolves from the ones at home, how insolent… Monsters of ice and cold… And how useless I am even here, again….

And then — as she thought this, fighting now for her life as much as for the boy’s, and watched him fall under the weight of one of the gray maddened things — from the corner of her eye a different shadow moved.

A larger man shape, fur-clad, appeared as if out of nowhere, having been concealed behind snow-covered shrubbery. He balanced an axe in one big glove-enclosed hand, and with the other tossed a wolf in the air. That one had been ready to sink its teeth into the boy’s bare throat. The man screamed something in a harsh unintelligible tongue, as he threw off the wolves like they were mere snowdrifts, while the boy began to whimper something in return, not quite daring to cry.

Iliss had taken care of another wolf. But then, it must have been the heavy clumsy clothing again, for she was not quite quick enough as the last of the beasts leaped at her exposed face. There was a strange, somehow familiar look in its intelligent eyes — she could not tell if it was the gaze of a hunter or a victim.

A sorrowful bitter look.

The man saw this and whirled around, leaving the boy. He dropped the axe and reached out with his gloved hands for the wolf’s neck. What happened next Iliss had no senses left to know, not even time to blink. There was only a frozen instant of movement, a glimmer of his pale skin, a face surrounded by a fur hood, and then the wolf was no more.

But then, dropping the beast, the man suddenly came for her. There was an odd Northern smell on him, of unworked animal fur, oil, and raw leather… There was a flash of pale eyes, much like her own, a harsh furious face. Suddenly he swung with one fist, with a look of pure hatred, and Iliss felt a powerful blow to her head, then excruciating pain. Her last sluggish thought before the world went dark, was of surprise.

Northsmen… all insane beasts… And I too… Trei.

~~~~
Iliss awoke to warmth, like honey, and a dull headache. For an instant she had forgotten. Her mother would be putting more straw on the fire now, just before she prepared the morning porridge…. Her head throbbed. And then came truth.

Mother’s hands charred….

Like a vile illness, reality started in her stomach and radiated through her body. She was alert as a wild animal, but did not move. No need to let whoever might be there know that she was conscious. She lay, breathing lightly, her eyelashes fluttering slowly higher, in a trick manner of seeing without actually opening the eyes, she had learned long ago.

The smells around her were foreign — like the strange man, of skins and oil and animals. Mixed in was a pungent deliciously smoky flavor of spiced food. From someplace away, a fire crackled warmly.

She sensed with her skin that she was completely naked, lying on top of something warm and furred, her body comfortable enough in the hot air that she could be uncovered.

Nakedness meant vulnerability, so Iliss opened her eyes, no longer concerned if she gave her last advantage away. Her people disapproved of physical nudity; it was immodest, and one could hide no weapon nearby. And now her only weapon was gone.

Iliss found herself lying on the floor of a small room, quite odd, for the floor and walls were all covered with animal pelts. Soft marvelous fur was everywhere, of all shapes and colors, fox, and rabbit down, beaver, and even bear and wolf pelts, rusty, spotted, gold and cream, pure white, smoky silver, rich earthy colors. It was overwhelming, for never had she imagined such riches in one place — a hunter’s most avid dream. The Northsmen were masters of the hunt, she knew, even more so than her own people.

There were no windows in this room, only a small chimney-opening in the wall next to a pit in the corner, surrounded by stones. There was one low door, and it was closed. In the pit burned a bright fire, sending warm red-gold shadows to leap among the furs and along the wooden rafters of the low ceiling overhead.

And if she were but to look closer, with the vision of her soul, it might have seemed to her that the spirits of the animals came for the last time to animate their own skins, and danced sadly in the firelight. Only, the eyes of her soul were shut, for even now she was breathing the endless cycle of bitter darkness with the soul’s pale lungs….

Iliss took a large wolf pelt to cover her lower body and her breasts. She then tried to rise, wincing from the sudden pain, and fell back. She seethed at the madman who hit her, imagining how she would put her knife through his eye sockets, scooping, twisting…. What had she done but help the boy? Who were they anyway? Where was she?

At that moment the door creaked open and, stooping, an old woman entered. She had wrinkled skin along her face and bare arms, flax hair, bright pale eyes. Walking barefoot, she wore a sleeveless cotton dress trimmed with animal fur. And she carried a wooden bowl of some hot pungent foodstuff — the same aroma Iliss had smelled earlier.

The woman’s expression was not quite blank enough. A brightness, a curiosity was in her quick eyes.

She neared Iliss who sat up despite the pain, her expression cold. The woman looked at her, crouched and offered the bowl. She waited in silence.

Iliss took the bowl. The woman continued staring. Then with one finger she touched her own chest and said, “Ulav.”

Iliss understood. However, out of spite, she let her eyes remain empty.

“Ulav, Ulav,” repeated the woman, pointing at herself. Then she pointed at Iliss and waited.

Iliss stared. “Curse you,” she said clearly in a level voice. “Filthy barbarian hag. Since you don’t know my own language, I can say anything.” And then she shrugged, tiredly. With a finger pointing at herself, she said, “Iliss.”

The woman nodded, with just a hint of a smile, and immediately repeated. She did not leave.

Iliss took a sip of the stew, then frowned. It was too bland despite the pleasant spicy aroma, and too foreign. But she was hungry.

While she ate, the woman examined her closely, in curiosity, then reached out to touch her hair. Iliss’ hair was dark as untempered metal, copper-brown, long and fine — but tangled and filthy at the moment. She grimaced, then mocked in her once-customary tone. “Never seen the like, have you? All of you, pale-haired gazhigs.” She spoke self-indulgently, knowing the woman could not understand.

Ulav again touched her hair, then brought it to her nose.

“Yes, stench of rot.” Iliss said. “Didn’t wash it for many moons now. And I’m not going to.”

Then, because of a spasm of pain in her head, she grimaced. “Won’t wash it ever, old bitch,” she continued, “since I am rotting already, all of me, walking carrion. It won’t be long… Maybe you will help me along, eh?” She grinned. “Send me off to the sweet House of the Dead.”

The woman in the meantime had noticed that Iliss used a pelt to cover herself. Ulav took the pelt in both hands and pulled it down, until it slid down over her breasts.

Great full vessels, ripened by the Goddess of the Land, they are, and your hips are strong and wide, her mother had once told Iliss in pride. You will bear and feed daughters and sons. And like Autumn fruits her breasts had swelled, when she was but ten summers, and many a man in her village had cast a longing glance at them, and at her willow-strong body. It had been ten more summers since, yet Iliss had known no man.

With one wrinkled hand, Ulav reached out, placed it on one of the breasts, and felt it for signs of motherhood. Iliss slapped her hand away.

“No, old woman,” she exclaimed with anger, “I have no milk, no brats to feed. I only wish I were a man now, with a man’s body. No sorry children would then spring from my flesh only to die like carrion.”

A new dark thought came to her. What if they were keeping her alive to breed with their men? Iliss knew nothing of Northern ways.

The older woman Ulav seemed upset by her sharp reaction. She muttered something in her vague tongue, and frowning took away the half-empty bowl of stew. Then, without another word she rose from her sitting-crouch, and left the room, shutting the door behind her.

Time went by, and Iliss’ temple throbbed more quietly. Alert, she listened to the remote sounds of the place. The door of her prison remained firmly closed.

Then, noises outside. Several male voices arguing, and one female voice which sounded like Ulav. Iliss thought she heard her own name being mentioned. Then the door was roughly opened, and what appeared to be a crowd of men and women paused at the entrance. Three or four actually bent their heads from the low ceiling, and entered the room, while the rest stood milling at the doorway, looking on. Among them lurked urchins of all ages, like a flock of blond geese.

The men were all tall, great boned giants over six feet, wearing wolf-pelt and woolen-made vests and fur leggings, with tall boots. The women, large and stately, some slender and others full-bodied, were dressed in long wool and cotton dresses lined with fur and embroidered with colorful designs. All had long hair like Autumn hay, of different shades, ranging from sand amber to the palest flax. Women wore scarves and kerchiefs around over their hair. Older men wore beards, and the younger were clean-shaven. Necklaces of strung animal teeth gleamed, their ivory paleness blending in with the pale rose-tinted skins, muscled arms covered with fair down. Hardened faces with pale eyes — sky, cornflower blue, gray steel — stared at her. Their looks spoke of curiosity, disapproval, even faint desire. But mostly, alienness.

Iliss felt her body becoming like the trunk of a dry tree. She wrapped herself closer in the wolf pelt, her shield. She stared back with stone eyes and looked through these beings so that she would not have to look at them.

She observed that, of the four men inside the room, one was extremely old, shrivelled like a root and tiny next to these giants. His white hair was parted in two long braids, and his beard likewise. There was a torque of metal at his wrinkled throat, and another clasped his head. Quiet confidence suggested he was chief among them.

To his left stood a younger man, with a ruddy wool band tying back his hair, a fine face, and deep water-hued eyes. He examined her boldly.

On the other side of the old man were two younger men, with kin resemblance between them. The shorter one with the lighter hair and kind eyes, watched her in sympathy. The man next to him, with a sallow face and sharp pale eyes like her own, Iliss recognized. He had been the madman who dealt her that heavy-fisted blow.

And then the man who hit her, spoke. First he spoke in their alien tongue, and his tone was respectful, for he was addressing the old man. The other nodded, said something. Then the first man turned directly to her.

“You are named — Iliss,” he said imperfectly, in her own language of the plains.

“Yes,” she said, not bothering to be surprised. “And you? Who are all of you? Why am I here? What –”

He interrupted her rising voice. “I am Waevan,” he said. “And these are the Gowirak People. You are in our village.” He paused. “I know your name, but I know nothing else. Who are you? Why have you crossed into our lands? Your kind does not show here often.”

“Why did you hit me?” she said. “I was trying to help the boy. He was surrounded by wolves –”

His eyes, so phlegmatic, came to sudden angry life. “Enough, curse you!” he said in a voice of a growling bear, and for an instant she was reminded of that wintry scene where he, the wild stranger, fought the wolves. “Idiot bitch! You stupidly disrupted my son’s ugainn ceremony! You almost got him killed! He was showing himself a man, by facing the great wolf pack alone, by earning their trust and assisting their fallen brother. There was no need, and yet you attacked. You killed many innocent wolves, and made me kill more of them for nothing. If only you had minded your own business….” If it were not for his foul pronunciation of her native tongue, Iliss might have been impressed.

But just as suddenly, the anger left his eyes, and he was again bland, washed out. His hand made a helpless, scornful gesture. “But — what did I expect? You, a foreign barbarian. You know nothing of our ways.”

He paused, his gaze averted. “Truly, I see now, I acted too rashly, in anger. I shouldn’t have hit you. You knew no better.” His voice dwindled, in empty silence.

Then the old man — who was intently following the exchange and, as Iliss realized, probably understanding some of it — spoke.

“You — Iliss — he tell,” said the old shaking voice, and a withered hand pointed back at the younger man.

Waevan spoke again, “Veddr is the Eldest of us, and his Voice is heard Loudest. He is here to help decide what is to be done with you.”

Only now did Iliss feel a small twinge of worry. “What of my dogs and sled?” she said, pretending not to hear.

“The dogs and the sled and you, all belong to me now,” replied Waevan. “The first two I keep. But you — I have no use for chattel like you. That is why I have called all here. So that one can fairly choose you.”

“Your words,” Iliss said, her eyes focusing on him with intensity, “are like fresh cow dung. ‘Choose me?’ Of what do you speak? We belong to none but the Gods. In truth, what you say is beginning to stink so loudly that even the Gods can smell it, all the way to their Silver Halls! And just like dung, Northsman, your words diminish in effect the more you air them out of that big stupid cow-lipped mouth of yours –”

The old man Veddr suddenly burst out in wheezing chuckles.

Waevan was undaunted. “Veddr likes you,” he said in a bland tone, ignoring her meaning. “Maybe he will choose you for his own household. I am certain there’s work for you near the cook pot and he could use a bed warmer –”

Continuing to chuckle, old Veddr shook his head.

Iliss heard nothing in that moment. The insides of her head were spinning with vast empty skies. You know nothing. Know nothing of Southern ways, and nothing of me. Try to cage me, Trei….

Her eyes bright with energy, she glanced around the room. “So, who wants me?”

There was silence. Then Waevan said, “If you think you can run away, you are wrong. When a man of the Gowirak binds a wife, or a chattel, it is with the help of the Gods, with inseparable bonds.

“More dung falling from your mouth,” she said. “All bonds sing out to be broken.” But at the mention of Gods, a shadow came into her eyes. “When a Plainswoman is forcibly bound down, she either dies or claws the enemy’s heart out of his breast.”

“What nonsense. That is not true,” he said quietly. “I know the ways of the Plainspeople.”

“Not well enough.” She shrugged. “Besides, I speak only for myself.” And she sat back, emotionless, among the furs.

Suddenly the young man with the water-pale proud eyes spoke. He pointed at Iliss, addressing all, then Veddr alone.

“It seems that Gavvar will take you.” Waevan translated, showing no reaction.

“I wish him luck,” she replied, seething in anger, and gesticulated a raw Southern obscenity with her right hand.

“You are the one who is in luck,” Waevan said, ignoring or maybe not understanding the gesture. “Gavvar is one of our best warriors. He will provide well for you, and all the women will envy you. I don’t quite know what he sees in you –”

“I don’t either,” she said. “Maybe this?” And she made the finger gesture again.

“Your skin is too dark. And your hair, too –”

“Too brazen?” she finished for him. “Yes, of course, go on. Speak. You’re a pale-skinned gazhig whose whoring mother shared a nest with a featherless crow. And when you like, you pretend not to understand or hear what I say…. Well, listen to this, or ignore me if you like: I plan to kill him — this so beloved warrior of yours — at the first opportunity. Just before I kill your God Trei.”

Silence. It came to Iliss suddenly that, for the first time since she had spoken, this was too much.

Most of these people did not understand the language of the Plains, nor the gestures. It was the word “Trei” itself, her intensity, and her way of spitting it out, that made them sense something dark in her intent. However, there were several that understood.

And then, slowly, recovering from the sickness of her meaning, they began to speak, to raise their voices. The room was in turmoil.

Veddr’s voice sounded, and then again came uneasy silence.

And Waevan turned to her, dark-faced, and said, “No one will take you now, wicked chattel. You have spoken like a mad one, words of blasphemy.”

She shrugged. “Your God is doomed. Doom-doom-doom,” she said, and grinned. “Trei, Trei, Trei.

They looked at her in horror, while her mind embarked on a dizzying flight in the great empty skies, and she loved every instant of it.

“Why don’t you kill me?” she said. “You kill all others. You come to our plains and you… kill.”

“The insane are in the Hands of the Gods…” Waevan whispered. “No one shall touch you, madwoman.”

“Rather, the Gods are in the hands of the insane, see!” And she laughed and waved her hands about, making the obscene gesture for the third time.

The Gowirak began leaving the room. Before he left, Gavvar threw her one peculiar glance. She saw lust in it. Veddr, shaking his old head, muttered something to Waevan before stepping out.

When all had gone, Waevan turned to Iliss with his expressionless blank face, saying, “I should indeed kill you now. You have shamed me before the village.”

“And what of your Gods? I am in their Hands.” She smiled.

“I care for none…” came his suddenly harsh whisper, and he leaned close, staring into her eyes, never blinking. And still there was no emotion in him. The licking flames danced in his pale irises.

There was a long pause. And then, what he said next made Iliss’ skin suddenly prickle, as a remote true fear came to her.

“Listen, mad one…” Waevan spoke, violet shadows on flaxen hair, glass eyes. “You intend to kill Trei. Yes, I can see it in you. Mad you are, and it is impossible. Yet, of all things… of all things, the Slaying of a God may be done, if at all, then by one who is insane. You shall kill Him who is Winter…. And I — I, too bear a grudge against the Cold One. I, of all men, shall help you.”

continued in two weeks

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