fiction17 Nov 2008 09:00 am

The last installment…

They stopped to eat and sleep, when the crescent of the sun came to barely skim the horizon. The Northern sun never truly rose or set, knew Iliss, but in her wildness of heart, she had not kept proper track of the seasons, and was not sure if it was true Summer or Winter. It mattered little to her single-minded purpose.

“Who follows us?” Waevan said, as he fed the dog pack. “I don’t understand.”

“I know who,” Waylak said. “It must be Gavvar. He is a bright warrior, brother. But what you never noticed all these seasons of blind sorrow, is that he had always wanted to be like you, always wanted to have what had simply been yours. And now he lusts for this woman.”

“Well then,” said Waevan softly. “He will come upon us soon, to make a challenge here in the wilderness, and I must be ready for him.”

“You?” Iliss snorted. “I would think it is my own concern to handle this one….”

“And if he kills you, who would be left to destroy Trei?” Waevan mocked her.

“If he kills me,” she replied, “I will leave that duty to you.”

Thus, they waited. And then they slept fitfully through the night, huddled together in the shelter of the sled, keeping sporadic watch.

Iliss did not care if the very stars fell out of the sky overnight, cared even less if someone came upon them or not in the darkness, and slept through her own watch. If he had any honor, Gavvar would not touch them in the night.

And she was right. When it was dawn, a man-shape greeted them with a loud voice of challenge, and there was barking of the dogs.

Before Waevan was even on his feet, Iliss stepped forth, free of the fur shuba, to facilitate her movements, icy wind swinging her dirty copper-brown long hair into a thorn-tangle about her tanned face. In her hand was a long knife.

It was indeed Gavvar, clad in rich furs, striding toward them. She saw a glimmer of water-pale eyes that glanced her way intensely. And then the man haughtily ignored her, looked past her toward Waevan, and made his challenge.

Voices were mingled on the wind with the barking of the two dog packs as they strained to fight, like their masters strained.

“I have made my will known before the Eldest, before all Gowirak,” Gavvar said in her own broken language, so that she too would know his intent. “And again I claim this woman, mad or not.”

“Then speak to my face, gazhig, address me, not this one!” Iliss exclaimed, stepping to block his way.

From behind, Waevan’s voice was low, apathetic. “I have no claims on this woman, Gavvar. But we are on a hunt now, on the most important hunt of our life, and to tell you the truth, you waste our time with this nonsense. Go back to the village, young buck, and when we return, make your claim then.”

“No, Waevan. She comes with me, now. Fight me, if you are man enough! I have waited long for this moment….”

Waylak arose on the other side. “Gavvar,” he said quietly. “What foolery is this? If you challenge my brother, you must challenge me also –”

“Be silent,” Waevan said to his brother. And he came forward, carrying his own great axe, stopping next to Iliss to whisper harshly, “Out of my way, woman….”

Iliss gave him a long silent look. And then, like a bolt of lightning, her right hand swung, and her fist connected with his temple. So swift was she in landing the strong accurate punch, so unexpected her action, that Waevan did not even make a whimper as his giant form crumpled onto the snow.

“Don’t!” she cried at Waylak whose first reflex was to come at her. “Or you’ll join your brother on the ground. Rather, be kind enough to get him out of the way.”

And then she turned her attention to Gavvar. “Now,” she repeated, and this time was not ignored, “you will address me.”

Gavvar’s eyes filled with fury. He lunged at her in a manner that was uncertain, still full of surprise, so it was easy to avoid him. Iliss was well-versed in hand combat, and as she slid away, she also managed to twist his great tall frame, and made him fall on the ground.

Gavvar sprung back with lightness, suddenly fierce, and no longer careless. “I will make you pay for this shame, woman,” he hissed. “I wanted to have you in honor, but now I will have you here, right on the snow…. And when I’m done with you, I will carve you open –”

But Iliss sprung at him with an inhuman cry of hate, and rabid eyes. Without the furs she was blue from the cold, but quicker by far, and was made even stronger by the urgency of her heart.

One second they danced the warrior stance, circling in the snow, the next they were a mass of movement, and the next, Iliss plunged her long knife into the man’s only exposed part, the vulnerable throat.

She killed him with a sobbing growl of fury, and twisted the knife in place. She watched with her own incandescent gaze the agony in his water-pale eyes, the moment of disbelief, the shock, and finally something else, remote and alien, a welling of moisture. His eyes cried, not stoic at the last moment — cried silently, as a young life was extinguished.

She wiped the knife in the snow, stood up, her expression like the night. Waylak had been frozen all this time, not interfering, horrified, watching her from his dazed brother’s side. And only when she finally turned her eyes to meet his, he ventured to speak.

“There was no need to kill him… like that,” he said. “You could have knocked him out, like Waevan. And we would’ve been safely on our way.” He paused. “Woman. There will now be an old heartbroken mother, back in our village. Gavvar was too young. You didn’t have to kill him.”

Iliss looked at Waylak grimly. And then she smiled.

“But I wanted to kill him,” she said. “He stood in my way. And — I just wanted to see if his dying face was like my own brother’s. You Northsmen killed my family. I am finally paying back.”

“Then I am sorry for you…” said Waylak. And he did not meet her eyes again.

They traveled, driven, without pause, for two full days. When Waevan came around, rubbing his aching head, he only nodded at her, saying, “A blow for a blow, that makes us even.” Only, there was a different expression in his eyes, a kind of remote appraisal that was a mixture of anger and acknowledgement. Before continuing, the two brothers laid out the dead man on his own sled, covered him, and bade the trained dogs return to the Gowirak settlement. As they worked, they threw occasional strange glances at Iliss, which she chose to ignore.

At dawn of the third day, they saw the Northern Rainbow.
The sky was a dark glorious cupola of colored lights, and the sun floated on the horizon, lending glitter to the hollow great expanse. The land had become bare of all but the whiteness, and there were no more tracks of beasts of any kind.

Waylak looked around in awe, and spoke softer than usual. “Tread softly, my poor brother, for here it is. The Land of the Gods….”

“I know,” responded Waevan. “The Lights in the sky are Windows to their Silver Halls….”

And Iliss noticed at last that there was something different about this man Waevan. Imperceptibly, over the last several days, he had changed. It was a gradual change like moving ice. He seemed to come awake from an old dream, and, unlike her, harbored a regret.

“Must you go on?” Waylak said. “I fear, my brother. I truly fear now. This place is sacred somehow. And we bring with us a taint….”

In answer, Waevan only frowned and glanced at Iliss.

“You… need not go on,” she said, for the first time in earnest.

“Neither must you,” Waevan said. And he looked in her eyes.
But Iliss ignored his meaning, smirked, and turned her eyes away. “Having come this far, you may wait for me here — if you like. I may not come back. You may return to your Gowirak hole. Or you may dissolve into the sky, for all I care. While I go on alone to meet Trei.”

Waylak cast his gaze down, while Waevan said tiredly, “Then go, woman. I set you free. I will not go with you, for my own hate has at last burned out.”

In the heart of the North, Iliss stood alone. The twilight-day sky domed above her, while the sun touched the rim, and the Northern Rainbow glowed.

She stood, raising her head to the sky, and opened her mind.

I am here, Trei. I have come at last.


And then she saw His shadow cast upon the ice. A great fur-shape, a Northern beast as great as half the sky, shimmered in the air before her, and a Voice sounded in her temples.

To the death…

The White Bear growled like thunder, and came upon her, while the North winds screamed.

But Iliss fought back, larger than life, in a fury of hate, like a Southern maelstrom of burning darkness. She grasped the Fur of the Bear, touching glaciers of ice, and slashed with her dull gray steel. And the blood of the Bear came forth like water…. And the eyes of the Bear, water-pale, cried wordlessly as He dissolved before her.

Iliss withdrew her knife and blinked. But there was only the surrounding whiteness and the Bear was gone, while the canker of hate in her heart still burned, the same as before.

Like a bear herself, she howled her frustration to the sky, and the emptiness answered in echoes.

And then a Howl came in answer, a chorus of all winds, from behind, and she whirled around to see Him again, this time a great silver Wolf.

The Wolf bounded down the sky, gathering solidity as it neared her. It stopped an instant before her. Intelligent burning eyes, so familiar — hunter and victim. And then it pounced.

Iliss dropped her knife, and used her bare hands to grasp the vulnerable part of Him, the throat. And then, with all the strength of her, she tightened her fingers, and squeezed….

She thought she saw traces of a burning Southern village, the crackle of flames. And in her mind’s eye she saw all her dead. And her sister, Naiass, with shattered bottomless eyes….

There was a sound like the breaking of bones, and the neck of the Wolf snapped. And as He too became vaporous, He gifted her with a look of intensity and sorrow.

Again, silence. And all around, the white. A burning hole of emptiness in her soul.

Damn you, Trei! Why?! she cried to the skies. Why must I have no peace even now? I have slain you twice!

And then the Voice came softly to whisper at her ear:

You must slay me for the third time….

The Northern bird, a great sun-white sirnak, dropped out of the sky and landed on the ice-whiteness before her. The Bird folded its wings, and sat regarding her out of its one beautiful piercing eye.

Come… said the Voice. Slay me now, for the last time. And you will be free.

And yet the Bird did not move, but watched her. Suddenly vacant, glassy eyes. It waited.

Iliss could not move. Indeed, as she stood there, she realized that she could not bring herself to move; something inside prevented her.

The God was there, before her. The Bird sat helplessly on the snow.

In the sky danced the Northern Rainbow.

And Iliss released a long tense breath, with it releasing something that had been with her for a long, long time. Out of her soul’s pale lungs into her heart’s dark gut it moved, churning….

Fading from black to gray smoke, to nothing.

She bent down then, and gathered a handful of crystalline whiteness in her hands, shaping it into a ball. And when the ball was well-formed, she took careful aim and threw it at the Bird.

Her throw was gentle, a light toss. And yet, when the snow came to scatter on the white plumage of the Bird, there came an aftershock of light, so bright that it echoed across the sky and resounded in the Northern Lights.

Like a whisper, the Bird was gone. And in His place stood a translucent figure of a Man.

The God, Trei.

And Iliss looked at Him fully, and she heard His Voice.

You have slain me three times over, Daughter of South. And the final killing took away the final hate. Now I grant you that which has driven you to me.

“That which has driven me…” she echoed.

Your sister’s mind. Your own mind. I release you all from the Winter Ice.

And the God came forward, bathing her in the Rainbow aura, and enveloped her in arms of light. And Trei kissed her on the face, and on the forehead, and on the eyes.

Know this, said the God. It is not I who sends death to your kin. It never is. North and South, you all destroy yourselves. And with each killing stroke of the axe, or sword, or arrow, you slay me also. Over and over, a million times. And for each beast that runs or crawls, for each bird that soars, I too feel the moment of their slaughter. Each skin cries out to me, until I can no longer hear the Wind or the Sun for their clamoring cries…. For I am a part of you all, a part of your passing, and will always be. I am the World’s Winter.

“I see now…” Iliss said. “I remember seeing You looking at me from out of the eyes of the dying…. That wolf, those animal furs, the Northsmen, my brother too…. It was You I saw, Your name I heard, but I did not understand it then. I saw You and believed You to be the cause. While all along You were but dying with them…. Forgive me, Trei.

Forgive yourself, said the God. And in the blink of an eye, He vanished. Iliss knew this time He would not return, ever.
And Iliss stood free, beneath the Northern Rainbow.

“You may stay here at Gowirak, if you like, woman,” Waevan said, watching her expression. Searching for something. Former madness?

Iliss was tired. She looked at him with her direct clear gaze. “I have killed Trei thrice over, and this is all you have to say to me?”

Waevan’s mouth strained to hold back the ember of a smile.

But her next words drowned his budding warmth, replacing it with inner regret.

“I cannot — friend,” Iliss said. “I must return and see something for myself. Return South, to my own Plains. There, I must look into my sad sister’s face. To see for myself if the God spoke true, and if indeed Naiass no longer has Winter in her eyes….”

For the first time in a long time, the world that Iliss was seeing, blurred. In her eyes was a thaw, rising water.

“And then, maybe –” she continued. “Ah, by Gods, who knows? I might want to venture to the farthest South of Souths, where the other Gods dwell. And there I may witness the Birth of Summer.”


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