fiction03 Nov 2008 09:00 am

continued from part II…

Iliss awoke to cold. It cut her like a bared nerve, the sense of weakling dawn, freezing cold in her nostrils, and a haunting monochrome whiteness that seeped in slowly from the outside. She lay in the pile of furs, unrestrained, and still nude, lay against another cold body, which she recognized as the man Waevan.

White skin, large rough features, carved like fjords of ice. And yet, he was like a young boy, a child asleep before her. And he had not touched her. She remembered vaguely how he had come in the night, silent, and bedded next to her in the furs as though she herself was but a dead animal skin.

And then, it must have been her steady observation of his still form that woke him up. He inhaled the deep awakening drought, and then turned to meet her direct gaze.

Iliss continued staring at him, insolent like a wolf.

“What do you see, woman?” he asked, simple from sleep.

“You,” she said. “Wolf-killer who beats strangers. Did my presence here make your dreams darker than they already are? I hope you squirmed and dreamt of the wicked pitch-black night.”

To her surprise, and for the first time, Waevan laughed. The sound was soft, more gentle than she could have imagined from someone his size. And then he spoke, and again there was remote strangeness in his voice. “How do you know my dreams? How do you know if they are like your bottomless Southern night, or if they are like the Northern Rainbow?”

“Oh, I know. They’re like fresh cow dung…” grumbled Iliss, and then quickly got up, fur draped loosely about her, and started to do a shivering stomping-dance in place. She herself was blue from the cold.

“If you were one of our own women, you’d have fed the fire through the night,” Waevan said, more like a sad statement of fact, throwing a look at the dead fire-pit.

“But I’m not,” Iliss said with derision. She turned on him, a pallid wrathful spirit in the gray dawn, and was cold, sharp with intensity. “Well, my master Waevan, a new day is here, while a certain God still walks the face of the land.”

He looked up at her, again appearing to misunderstand, a vagueness in his gaze. “Breakfast is eaten downstairs,” he said. “Come and meet my kin.”

“What, you expect me to walk naked?” she said. “Give me my clothes back. Or else, I will indeed show them all. Trei!
In the room below, Iliss ate a meal with Waevan and four others. Ulav was there, turning out to be his old mother. There was also the younger man whom she recognized from the night before as the one who had watched her with sympathy. He was Waylak, younger brother of Waevan. And here was the boy of no more than ten summers, Vati, together with his smaller brother, Daiva, both Waevan’s sons. Vati was the one she had attempted to save from the wolves, and now he sat glaring at her.

Eating in silence they all watched her, cautious — except for Waylak, who smiled once and greeted her with awkward words in her own language of the Plains. This was a surprise — which of course she did not show, but stared back at him briefly, like a glacier. Ulav nodded grudgingly, still appearing to resent her, and placed before her a steaming bowl.

“Today we will be going hunting,” Waevan announced after long moments, repeating it in his own tongue. He ate without looking at anyone, and his voice was strong, and yet remote.

Ulav paused eating. She said something in the Gowirak language. Even Waylak and the boys appeared startled.

“It is not a season to hunt anything,” explained Waevan, throwing a gaze of sightless eyes in Iliss’ direction. “They do not understand why I want to hunt now. I will tell them I must hunt for something. And since this is my house, I need not explain my actions.”

Iliss nodded, her eyes lowered to the food before her. “When do we begin?” was all she said, in a soft voice.

“I go too,” said Waylak suddenly. His accent in the Plains-tongue was even worse than his brother’s.

Waevan replied in Gowirak, and she could tell by his tone that he was displeased.

To her even greater surprise, Waylak turned directly to Iliss. “Woman, you are his wife now, tell my brother I too want to go!”

“You are quite wrong,” she said, one brow rising. “I am not his wife. I am not his chattel. I am not even his friend. However, we go to hunt, together. Or else, I go alone. While you — whether you come along is not my business.”

Waylak was shocked into silence. But then, Waevan said impassively, “Well. Come along then, brother, come along with us.”

And that was that.

In the South, there is much legendary lore woven about the art of the Northern Hunt. They speak of the raw skill, the barbaric strength of the Northsmen, the terrible enemy that they make. They craft tales of ice-lit Northern lands, and the stalking warriors that can read animal tracks of gossamer lightness in the snow, even after a new snowfall comes to obscure them. No beast escapes, for they can track even his shadow. Their relentless hunt even extends into the southerly Northern Forests of evergreen, bordering the tundra….

Iliss remembered those Southern tales when they set out. She wore a man’s Northern clothing, and carried her knife. It was interesting that Waevan allowed her this much, in his blunt indifference. Between them lay a wordless temporary understanding that they would both cooperate until they achieved their mutual, secret, deadly goal.

Waylak and Waevan sat before her in a large sled, the likes of which she had not seen, long and intricate, placed atop wooden needle-rails, and driven by a pack of dogs twice the number of her own small pack. She, together with the supplies, sat behind them. Her place in the rear of the sled was a sheltered nook that, she supposed, was reserved for the likes of “women-chattel” like her, and that would serve as warm tight bedding overnight. And she did not care.

Iliss was in her customary dark temper. She hummed a little children’s song the words of which she had turned around and made adult — obscene, some would say, or maybe only very sad. It was all about broken innocence and death and war. It rushed like the wind in her mind.

The air was crisp and dry and sharp as sunlight over ice. As they flew over curving ice-dunes of the tundra toward the unknown, their faces almost swallowed by garments of fur, the beauty of this North, of this striking glorious place almost touched Iliss. For a second only, it scratched at the armor of her heart’s outer door. And then once more, she knew only the icy haze of sunlight and the humming wind.

Somewhere ahead, was the enemy. Trei, the abomination, walked the land.

“We may ride far,” Waylak cried to her from up ahead, wind singing at his back and cutting at his every word. “My elder brother does not say where we go, only that we hunt. And I obey his wisdom.”
continued from part II…
In answer, she sulked, and said nothing to the kind brother. And thus they rode through endless expanses of white light, and the sun rode low at their back.

The land stretched barren with snow. Occasionally there were clumps of evergreen, and even more rare, trees of pine and fir, amid exposed rock. Once there was a shadow over them, quick and violent, and she again saw the Northern bird, sirnak, brother to the eagle of her native Plains, circling the sky. Otherwise, there were no signs of life.

“How much longer?” she ventured at last.

Waevan almost did not answer. “Soon,” he said after a pause, looking in the face of the wind.

“Where do we really go, brother?” Waylak again tried. “If I knew, I might be of some help.”

“We go North. As far as it takes us. Where there is Mother-of-Pearl in the sky….”

“To the land of Gods!” Iliss said.

And at her words, Waylak showed pain, and he bent his head sadly. “I was afraid of that, brother, that is why I came along. And now my fears are justified. This woman’s madness has tainted you also, and her words of blasphemy awakened your heart to the old anger….”

And then Waylak turned back to Iliss, saying, “My brother’s wife was taken from him by the will of Trei Who is Winter. Treiga bore the name of the God, but He did nothing to protect her when the Ice Winds came. As she slipped into death, there were no prayers that would bring her back. And Waevan my brother went mad from sorrow, all that Winter, until the snows receded in the Spring. He had cursed the God and sworn revenge, until there was no more pain left but hollow silence which he then bore for three Winters. And now he was almost free of the dark. Until you brought it back.”

“No! She comes as a sign of the Gods, brother!” Waevan cried then. “Don’t you see, she comes because it must be done! She will be the one to assist me –”

“Assist you?” Iliss began. And then she said nothing more, but thought, If I must, I will fight you before the God for the privilege of destruction.

“Then you are both insane,” Waylak said, his eyes tragic. “But I am responsible for you, my brother, my closest of kin, and I will be at your side. Only — you will never find a God unless it is fate indeed, unless a God is willing.”

“Will Trei run and hide from me?” whispered Iliss. “Not so. I will follow until there is no more North in North, until I run into the face of the sun, or of night.”

“Soon, woman…” Waevan said. “We will have what we both must have, and we will touch the Northern Rainbow.”

But Waylak’s next words made them both alert like razors. Turning back to the trail that they left behind, Waylak pointed out a fleeting speck of blackness, trailing like a far-off star behind them. “We are being followed,” he said. “And the pursuer has been behind us since the beginning of the trip.”

check back in two weeks for the final part…


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