Why the far north?
Air claws with icy nails into your chest.
Chill will steal that breath.
Wind whips stinging nettles into your face.
Gleaming horizons rob your sight.
Glass shards of snow slice, burning through every gap.
Cold will take your fingers, toes.
The dark will steal your soul.
Just the white and searing horizon.
You who live in the far north.
You are the life.
You need the sun, the air, the ice.
Move to stay warm, never stop.
Heat of passion, the fury of defiance.
Body numb to pain, heart pure of worry.
You are free.
The north will always be...
i. The Harshest Place
Tuesday January 19th, 3046
You say it's silly when I write you letters before a scrounging, but I didn't want you to leave with things so unsettled, just in case. I thought about what you told me last night before I went home. There's a reason we're here. Yes, we were once wanderers, but this is where we belong, and where YOU belong especially.
When you come back, we'll go to the circle of elders for their guidance. Please, stay safe, for me.
Two days the scroungers told each other stories and sang, as they traveled to the hidden cave. Sleds slid over the ice, pulled by dogs white as the earth. Alongside them sixteen pairs of hide boots strapped into snowshoes marched. Hands gripped spears and sled reins. Shallow footprints appeared as their woven shoes crunched into the top layer of snow. Soft clouds of mist trailed from mouths and noses.
As the azure sun slid upward, the white shell of snow covering firs and cedars turned to glittering diamonds. In response, the group placed protective shade goggles over their eyes.
The lead forager raised his fist after uttering the command, and the group stopped. Vari looked up and tucked Ru's scrawlings back into her foxfur coat. She re-buttoned it quickly to block out the stinging nips of wind coming from across the tundra. She adjusted the goggles strapped in place across the smooth bridge of her nose. Their edges dug into the nascent lines on her cheekbones. Vari's braided hair, snaking out from her hood and draped over her scarf, was as dark as her eyes and as straight as the horizon.
Onuil turned his spear over. The lines on his weathered face deepened and his greying strands of hair swayed as he pressed the tip into the ground.
"It's too hard," Ileru, another scrounger spoke up. "Not enough snow."
"Hmm," Onuil begrudgingly agreed, taking down the hood of his sealskin coat. He ripped off a thick mitten and slapped his pockets for a lump of charcoal. As he knelt, he drew the navigation rune in broad strokes, followed by the cave marker.
"Find," Onuil muttered.
From the centre of the main marking, five thin lines of golden light shot out in front of them. Each one disappeared into the thicker portions of the dark conifers that lay in front of them. Onuil consulted the lines on his map, ink tattooed on tanned hide. At last he nodded, folded the paper and smudged the upper marking with his boot until the lights faded.
"The closest site is fourth line from the right," he pointed with his bare hand. "Let's start there. Vari - take Alat and Ileru. Go on ahead and scout."
"Yes, sir," Vari replied.
The thrill of exploring, Ru. There's nothing back home that compares with this, even if this part of me frightens you.
"I'll take the north-west station," Vari turned to the other two scouts. "The two of you can stay closer to the camp."
"I can take the north-west station this time," Ileru said, striding ahead.
"Ileru," Vari snapped. "I asked you to stay closer to camp."
The man stopped in his tracks. He adjusted his shade goggles as he turned his head around.
"I've been on the southern scout duty for the past three forages."
"And?" Vari pressed.
The young forager opened his mouth, then closed it. He walked toward the south without another word.
"He's been in poor spirits lately," Alat observed.
"I'll speak to Onuil when we get back," Vari replied.
"Thank you," Alat said, giving Vari a smile through his furs as he jogged in Ileru's direction.
As the group entered the cover of the pines, the main scroungers whistled to the three scouts, mimicking the sounds of birds long gone south. Return cries flew through the crisp air. All clear. The sound of own their movements were amplified by the absence of other creatures.
The main foraging party reached a clearing, with a dark maw on the far side. The earlier team had removed much of the rubble that had obscured its' entrance.
"Is this it?" the lead forager asked.
"The marker is on that tree," Ertin, a younger male forager replied. He was scrawny, even under his layers of beige furs. The tree Ertin had pointed at was scarred with the same symbol Onuil had drawn on the hard tundra earth.
"Lights on," Onuil said as he reached to the right of his goggles and did the same. With the lead hunter in front, the scroungers descended into the newly-cleared cave.
Vari stood on the peak of a distant hill. She breathed deep, coaxing her senses to sharpen. This forest was unfamiliar to her, and she would need to commit it to her growing memory of the land around their town.
We go farther every year. How long until we travel for a week? Three? Even this cave has been picked near clean already.
She could hear the other scouts whistling amongst themselves, and to her.
Scouts - see anything?
No, she sounded.
The air was achingly dry. She sniffed against the sting in her nose.
Time had no meaning, here in this ancient forest of frozen ruins. The landscape had looked exactly the same before the Opien had come here. It would still be here when they were gone, minus the artifacts they found. The thought was comforting.
Whenever she came here, Vari wished that she could freeze in time alongside the ancient gnarled bodies of the trees. Some people in her village had done it. Vari had seen the time-preserved in their mausoleums, lying alongside the skeletons of the dead. The magic of time was different from the runes. When she was a small child, Vari's parents had taken her to elder Bin-har's awakening ceremony. It had taken hours, as the doctor and elders worked together to warm up her body, bit by bit.
Vari breathed longer, deeper, drinking the immortal air.
That's why I do this, isn't it. Risk my neck on these journeys? It's pursuing immortality of the Opien, just in another form.
Don't forget, the ancestors echoed back at her in her memory. Time is a spiral.
An urgent trill cut through the air. Vari's chest tightened, then flooded with a kick of adrenaline.
She snapped around, loosened the straps on her shoulders, and threw the portable packsled to the ground. The sled pushed off the slope with a forceful nudge from Vari's foot and started to pick up speed.
Creature, one of them whistled.
No, no, no, her heart said. It's too soon.
Vari jumped from the sled at the base of the hill, swung it back over her shoulder and ran. When she reached the clearing, her mouth felt like it was coated in copper. The band had drawn their weapons and were standing with their backs to the cave entrance, ankle-deep in snow..
"Where?" Vari gasped.
"The beast rune glowed," Alat whispered. "There's something coming towards us us."
How did we not see it when we spread out to scout?
Vari dumped her pack and sled in the middle of the clearing with the rest of their equipment. The group drew itself into a semi-circle, facing outward with spears and bows at the ready. Onuil stood behind them, face set like uncut marble.
"Shall we retreat into the cave?" Vari asked him. She felt sweat beading under her coat, her muscles drawn tight like the bowstring in her hand.
"The nest is there," he answered.
A white and grey-streaked blur launched itself from over the edge of the clearing. It slammed into Nali, so close Vari could feel the wind currents kicked up. She scrambled for cover to the left.
It was a female cahtkr. Her striped, tawny feathers ruffled along the length of her lithe body. She shrieked, pacing on gnarled claws, darting back and forth at them. Her massive wings snapped back and forth when she twisted around to size up her prey.
What is she doing here so late in the winter?
The carefully arrayed semicircle dissolved into chaos as the foragers avoided the cakhtr's beak and talons. Vari had positioned herself so that her back was up against the marker tree, to the right of the cavern entrance. Some others had followed her strategy, using other trees, but a good number of them were still in the clearing. Ertin whooped, distracting the cahktr, while Onuil and Heiju circled her, trying to get a good shot in. Heiju threw his spear with a flick of his launcher. It missed.
There was a second shriek from the opposite side of the clearing.
"The male!" someone cried.
The male cahtktr flared his dark brown plumage as he darted in. Waxy white talons closed in around Onuil's torso. The two of them hit the ground in a flurry of snow, the male plunging in with an open beak.
Crouching, Vari reached behind her shoulder to pull an arrow from the thin quiver on her back. She glanced around the side of the trunk. The cahtkr mother's eyes were half-hooded with a dark, translucent lid. As her gnarled beak clacked open and shut, the closer foragers flinched.
Vari stepped out from her cover. She nocked her arrow, pulled back the string alongside her face. Her arrow whistled through the throng and hit the female's flank. The mother cahtkr lunged, swooping low with open wings and talons over the snow towards Vari.
There was nothing left to do but run. Vari dodged between trees, hoping to slow the cahtkr down. The cahtkr pulled her wings in, scraping her claws among the tree trunks. Snow exploded as the monster careened into a nearby fir.
Vari seemed to be gaining some distance, when a rock appeared at her feet. She tripped, launched over it, and tumbled down an incline. Landing hard, Vari slid down the remainder of the slope. A second wave of adrenaline washed through her battered body.
Feathers, talons and bloodshot irises flashed in the corner of her eye. The cahktr was gliding down the slope of the cliff. Vari rolled up onto her knees and placed her spear in front of her, between them. The spear jolted.
In a haze of feathers, she saw the cahtkr's hind legs flailing. As they kicked, the talons cut through her clothing and caught in the skin of her legs and forearms. Vari screamed, fumbled for her bone dagger. Gripping the handle, she thrust it over and over again into the writhing mass above her. Hot blood began to drip into her eyes.
The hind legs thrashed with renewed vigor, then slowed, twitching. The bulk of the creature sagged down further down the spear. Vari collapsed backward under the weight. After a moment, she loosened her goggles and wiped the tears out of her eyes. She lay still on her back, breathing deeply. The anticipated pain came at last, first in ebbing waves, then in a tidal wake.
Through shivering lips she whistled.
There was no return sound, and Vari's heart fluttered. If the male found her, it would kill her. Better to remain silent if there was no rescue.
Where are they?
Her head felt thick, and for a moment, she drifted off. When she came back, the sky between the pines was fading, azure to amethyst.
How long has it been? I have to keep moving.
Vari blinked hard, pulling away the curtain that shrouded her consciousness. She grasped the rocks around her with a groan, inching herself out bit by bit from underneath the beast's body. Feathers and furs were caked into the blood on her forearms and upper legs. She freed herself with one last pull.
It didn't feel like pain anymore. It felt like yet another animal attacking her. A blanket of knives. Distancing herself from the feeling helped her cope.
Or is it the blood loss?
Vari lay panting on the snow. Her dizzy mind, still meandering from shock, conjured a phrase from some book she had read, long ago. In situations where causality is attributable to a number of factors, resolve to eliminate as many as possible to improve validity.
Of all things to think of at a time like this.
She scooped a little snow into her mouth, held it until it melted, then swallowed. With care, she rubbed more handfuls of the snow over her arms and legs until she felt a bit cleaner. In stages, she was able to maneuver herself to her feet. Vari kept her head low, breathing though the ebbing and flowing nausea. The snow made her shiver a bit, but her body was still warm enough avoid hypothermia. At least, she hoped.
Her arms were beginning to feel fuzzily numb. Pulling on the embedded spear did nothing, so Vari retrieved her dagger instead, wiping it on the ground and sliding it into its sheath. Shouldering her pack came last.
The cliffside loomed above her.
Back up I go.
Her heels dug through piles of snow as her hands wandered among the tree trunks for purchase. Pungent sap and bits of bark stuck to her gloves.
Her back leg slipped and Vari crumpled, tumbling back down to where she had began.
"Gahh..." she said, exasperated.
Was there another way? No path looked any easier to climb right now. Through numbness, came veins of fire arcing up her muscles. Her lungs were already burning with the cold, dry air.
I can't make it back like this.
She whistled again, as loudly as she could.
Vari dug around in the snow until she found a stick suitable for her purposes. She drew the navigation rune and the marker for nearby human in the snow.
"Find ," she spoke.
Vari counted the seconds out slowly in her mind. 1...2...
The line sputtered into life, pointing to the northeast.
Vari almost laughed in relief. Someone survived the attack. They're still in the cave.
Tears came against her will. She wanted to go to them, but she was fading.
Think of something, damn it!
Looking around again, there was nothing but more of the same - still, dark pine forest. The trees wouldn't help much, unless she wanted to build a shelter. One possibility...there were outcroppings of rocks opposite the slope.
There could be a cave.
It felt like giving up. On the other hand, it was better than risking further injury.
Vari stumbled away from the cliff and the dead beast.
Tree...rock...branch...snow...as they passed, they all became the same to her. The throb of her heart and her wounds, stinging in unison. All things distilled into a mantra.
Live...live...live...live. At least for now. I have now.
A small hollow appeared in one of the outcroppings. Lichen and dried moss formed on its exterior.
The rocks haven't been moved in a long time. It should be safe.
The entrance seemed to be too small for a cahtkr. It would have to be. Vari could leave her rune marker outside, just in case the others tried to find her.
Vari hastily drew her personal marker with a nub of coal on the ground outside the outcropping. She then pushed her pack through, and crawled inside and pulled the snow inward with her mittens until only a small sliver of deepening purple light was left.
In the morning, she would go back to the scrounging cave, and find the others who were left behind. For now, it was best to rest.
Reaching inside her coat, Vari found a ration of jerky. She chewed it slowly, savouring the smokey flavour of the hearthfire that cooked it. Washing it down with another handful of snow, she curled into a ball, wrapping her tattered clothes closer.
Vari slowly slipped into uneasy dreams.
They were at the north-eastern beach. It had been kind of Ru to indulge her. Vari's books often spoke of how the peoples of warmer climates amused themselves, and so, she wanted to see what all the fuss was about.
The sun flickered in and out of the clouds, and as it did, they soaked in the sweetness of the sun's warmth.
It was mid afternoon, and to Vari's surprise, there were a few others on the sandy shore. Children flew kites of old newspaper and birch bark, built houses out of sand and sticks.
Ru spread the towel and they ate a light meal. The greenhouses were bearing fruit, as the long days fed their struggling plants. Vari retrieved two apples from her pocket. They were tart, small and green.
"Are you going to swim?" Vari asked.
What? Why in the five moons should I, was the response that Vari was expecting from Ru. Because that's what you do when you're at the beach, Vari would reply. But instead, Ru looked at Vari with an impish grin, and unbuttoned Vari's coat.
"You have to come with me too," Ru said.
"Of course," Vari said, reaching with her fingers to the base of Ru's neck, under her dark, earlobe-length hair to undo Ru's coat. Ru's onyx eyes crinkled as Vari's hands brushed along her body.
She called my bluff. I remember.
Stripped to their underwear, they stood side by side at the water's edge.
"You know, they say you should wait if you've eaten," Vari said.
"I can't believe you," Ru laughed. "What happened to the brave warrior you're always calling yourself?"
Vari flushed hot. "Fine then, I'll-"
Ru sprinted into the water, and jumped in, completely submerging herself under the waves.
It's shallow. You'll be fine.
The sand squelched between her toes as she began to wade through the surf.
"What are you waiting for?" Ru asked. Her hair fanned out around her like a black jellyfish with pale face the shape of a green apple.
"I-" I don't know how to swim, Vari wanted to say, but the words were stuck in her throat.
Ru swam in closer.
"Are you ok? We can stop."
"I'm fine!" Vari exclaimed. Without thinking, she jumped forward and plunged into the water.
Instead of the bottom, Vari saw a dark blue expanse. She thrashed, trying to find the surface. Her lungs were burning again.
The light turned from dark to light blue, then, white -
Her eyes opened to the dark again, except this time the silver moonlight peeked through the hole in the snow. Several deep breaths later, Vari remembered where she was, and realized why she'd awoken. Her bladder was full. Pushing her pack aside, she crawled outside.
The stars were out, and the landscape was thinly outlined in their light. A few moments' walking revealed to her a desirable spot, out of the wind. It moaned around her, creating phantoms and dangerous creatures where she knew there were none.
I hope they either killed the male or injured it enough for it to not bother looking for me tonight, Vari prayed.
Her body wracked with a body-deep shiver. She gripped herself, trying to patch up the holes in her coat with her hands. Her body was healing, rather than creating extra heat. She could try to will it to do both, but was worried about her energy reserves.
The cahtkr weren't supposed to be there, she thought. They were lucky that Heiju had the sense to check the beast rune at all. The creatures were supposed to leave their eggs in the hatchery and fly south to hunt.
If I make it through this, I'm telling Unilk that we need to trade for more guns. The elders had resisted equipping them with guns. They were costly, and more dangerous in the wrong hands than a weapon that took more practice to master.
Vari squatted, trying to stifle the moan that lingered just behind her teeth. Her muscles and skin had re-awakened to her wounds.
Only one of the five moons were present. Small and blue, it glittered in the dark sky. Her kin called it Jaim Meior - the crystal ice moon. Regardless of the moon's beauty, Vari had no desire to linger outside. Having satisfied her need, she waded back through the snow to her cave. She curled up again amongst the stones, preparing to go back to sleep.
An air current was coming from somewhere in the cave.
Part of another dream?
Vari opened her eyes to nothing. It took some time for them to adjust to the thin light again. Yes - there was a very faint but definite breeze coming from somewhere deeper in the rock pile.
She took off her gloves, slapped the pockets of her coat, then rifled through her backpack until she was able to find her box of matches. Thin light danced over the alcove when she struck one on the wall.
Reaching again into her pack, Vari retrieved a small deer tallow candle and touched the match to the wick. She extinguished the match with a snap of her wrist, followed by a wince of immediate regret.
The wick danced in the direction of the breeze. Vari followed it to a pile of rocks near the far wall.
It's bigger than I thought.
Placing the candle on the floor alongside her knife, she pulled at the rock with bare hands until she made a sizeable entrance.
Vari stared into the blackness.
No one knew about this place. There were likely artifacts of the ancient ones inside. She could explore this place, perhaps bring something back to the village, secure more food and power to sustain them for the rest of winter.
What about the others?
They aren't going anywhere until daybreak.
Vari crouched and stepped inside. The walls quickly widened until it was possible to stand. The cavern floor was smooth, covered in dry animal droppings and tiny bones. The walls and ceiling had a more textured appearance to them. Streaks of green and white mold dripped down rusty stalactites. There was no sign any animal had used the cave in recent times.
Vari's excitement now fully overrode the pain and fear. Her heart had leapt into her throat and pulled her forward. The only sound she heard apart from the lively flutter in her ears was the echoing shuffle of her boots as she strode down the narrow passage.
She watched carefully for worn-away patches in the floor. Every few footsteps there were depressions in the cavern walls, heavily coated with mineral deposits. As she travelled deeper these deposits grew thinner until the walls became an opaque black, reflecting her candle and her wavering shadow.
Vari's mind raced ahead of her feet, as she imagined the expedition that would be sent, what they might find. For now, she would see what she could in the limited time granted to her by her candle and her own endurance.
As she reached the end of the narrow passage, the cave opened up into a vast darkness. Part of a horizontal bar flickered in front of her. Tentatively, she reached out a hand and touched it. It was cold, bent out of shape in places, but was otherwise smooth and round. It was supported by vertical beams along its length, slowly curving out of sight on either end.
Vari followed the railings' curve, stepping gently over mounds of calcium deposits and shallow pools of ice. Stalactite, stalagmite, she recalled from her schooling. Her light, rapid breaths fogged in front of the candle. Her heart hammered on, knocking at her ribs. The air grew colder.
She decided to look over the railing. There was nothing but a circle of thick blackness. She reached for another match, struck it, and dropped it down the hole. Nothing but snaking debris, rock, and the quickly shrinking flicker of flame.
Another step. And another. Her boots shuffled dully in the depths of the cavern.
Vari shrieked and dropped the candle. It sputtered into darkness.
Something was stirring in front of her. There were scrapings, melodic sounds, whirrings and unhingings.
Then a soft, sighing sound -
No, what -
Something was touching her face. Vari stopped scrambling for the lost candle and froze. Thousands of tiny strands brushed over her face, hands, and body.
The tendrils pushed their way up her nose. Her sinuses began to sting. She gasped shrilly, scrambling to get away. An icy hand, then another, thrust out in quick succession and caught her head in an inescapable grip. Her eyes filled with tears as the pain intensified, until it fell away as suddenly as it had come.
The hands and tendrils released her, and she dropped to the ground. Her elbows hit the ground hard.
Vari scrambled backwards across the floor. She rose to her feet, turned, and began to run -
She froze again.
It was a human voice.
"I...I can't see without my candle," Vari stammered at last.
"Candall?" came the soft voice, almost in song.
"I dropped it...I'm going to light a match to find it. Don't move. I have a knife in my hand." An empty, babbling threat. Vari knew what the creature's hand could do.
Vari slowly reached into her jacket, withdrawing her pack of matches. She struck the match on the side of her boot.
In the flickering light, the candle was visible on the floor, between her and the being. It was standing perfectly still, pale face expressionless.
Vari kept her hand firm on the hilt of her dagger.
"I'm going to pick up my candle and leave...please don't hurt me again or I will have to...hurt you back."
"You hurt me," Vari retorted, feeling a sick sense of bravado infiltrate her chest.
Nothing to lose. The body is impermanent. The body cares about death, but the mind lives forever. Remember the spiral.
If it wanted to, it would have killed her already – probably.
"You didn't realize? You…you went into my head - it hurt. What did you do?"
Vari crouched down, picked up the candle.
The face did not move.
Vari lit the candle.
"I had…to hurt," it said.
Vari looked at the being. Its face looked human, but was expressionless. Its skin was a silvery white, eyes dark and irisless. Its' face, like its' body, was angular and neutral, and half obscured in the flickering lights. The probing hairs, a darker silver, floated as if they were suspended in water.
Before she knew it, her knees hit the floor.
"You're...a companion," Vari stuttered. "And you're alive."