Forrendh hunkered down into her furs. The way would be open to her in the morning, once the blizzard subsides. For now, she channeled heat through mu’Lyssar that had been carved into the cave walls thousands of years ago. Wind and snow piled up at the mouth of the cave. Forrendh wiped the sleet from her brow and hair before it froze in place. Though she was sheltered from the wind and snow, her cheeks and nose still stung from the cold. It was a pervasive cold; one that could linger despite the Lyssar and the charred wood and bones in the hearth. Countless generations of magicians had used the caves of southern Tarkhbad before Forrendh, carving runes and holes in the stone. There was always nuts and dried fruit in the deeper recesses, or an extra blankets stuffed with down.
Bathed in a dull, orange light, Forrendh chewed on a joint of dried elk. She still had most of her teeth and the cold kept the meat from rotting. In her age, hairs grew on her chin as much as her head and her bones creaked like dusty chimes. Her sled dogs were growling and fighting over a leg of meat. She had named them after the colour of their coats; black, smoke, grey, dust, dusk, and snow. Smoke was gnawing on the bone, dusk held his tail between his legs.
“Good tea, good, mmm,” Forrendh told herself, nodding at the iron kettle. It tasted mostly of muddy water, but it was warm. It spread to her fingers. “Smells, it does, smells.” There were no salt or herbs in the cave’s icy stores, but there was old hay, ashes of old bones, dried tealeaves, and a mouldy blanket Forrendh found, covered in dust.
As it always did when the winter coiled about her, when she found herself in a dull silence, Forrendh’s mind wandered to Degress. To her rosy cheeks and single copper plait. She shifted beneath the furs, hoping the Lyssar would hold out the night. Before she was born, they had found a shaman in the cave, frozen, after the Lyssar had malfunctioned and the heat coil failed to perpetuate throughout the night. They’d snapped his fingers off when they tried to drag him back the coming summer. But, Forrendh had inspected the runes herself and the runes had been mended recently. So, she drifted off with thoughts of her granddaughter’s rosy cheeks and copper hair.
The tracks were fresh, dirty water slowly freezing in the indentations. The Desoro people of the White were not friends of Tarkhbad province, but, they held a certain kind of respect for shamans like Forrendh. She had a pouch of crafts to trade; a fine-worked steel dagger and carved bone hilt, a flask of Varangian whiskey, small mu’Lyssar works which generated heat, and a great helm forged by the royal blacksmith at Tarkhbad Keep. The helm was solid steel, padded with leather and felt, and worked into the shape of a snarling ice bear, a beast the Desoro people held in reverence.
Summer was short in the White. No relics brought warmth or sunlight, only cold and ice. Few trees broke the snowy horizon, and those that did were stunted and drear. The great Ostspikes rose to Forrendh’s right, their peaks frowning in sullen clouds. In all other directions, there was an unbroken, vast realm of snow and white and shadow.
The Desoro people saw her first, Forrendh was sure. She didn’t know where they could hide, but, in her rangings in the White, she was sure they had made camps in the Ostspikes. Four of them urged their squat sows across the snow, but, she knew there were more of them, hidden. The leader was an old man, with a face carved from stone and nightice, a grizzled beard studded with white. Beside him, rode a woman, perhaps his wife, who’s hair was short and black, and who’s skin was pale as milk. Behind them were two young men, both with beards, one red and one black, and not enough teeth between the two of them. All wore thick furs and drawn hoods so Forrendh could only guess at their build.
The man hailed Forrendh in his own tongue. He did not smile.
“The merchant’s tongue, the merchant’s tongue, speak you that, aye?” Forrendh had studied the Desoro people’s speech, but, she found her accent was too strong to be understood.
“Aye, I do, eccscythe,” the wife answered. Her eyes were blue as ice at noon, and her cheeks weren’t flushed despite the wind and cold. “This one roaring at you is named Jhureg Benethorson, son of Benethor Khellegson. I have the pleasure of being Zoe of Fenway. What brings you to the White?”
“A Divinghawke she is, Divinghawke.” It was rare to see a greenlander at Tarkhbad Keep. Any further south was all but unheard of.
“Aye, though in my day ’twas called Boarhall Province. I never cared much for Tade Boarhall, but, Vyctora Divinghawke should never have sat his throne. He shat all over the province when he did that. Small wonder there was rebellion.”
Forrendh remained silent. The pain of Divinghawke Province was of little concern to her. She had her own pains to occupy her mind. Rosy cheeks. Copper braids.
Jhureg Benethorson growled. The two lads adjusted themselves on their mounts.
“Why are you here?” Zoe of Fenway asked again.
“Your husband seems angry, yes, angry.”
“Jhureg is not my husband. The Desoro do not take husbands or wives. Rearing a family in the Ostspikes is too hard; the threat of death and loss, too imminent. The community is broader, with less emphasis on the relationships of two people, but on all. But, traveler, you are not answering Jhureg’s question and you have not told us who you are.”
“Yes, yes.” Forrendh shivered. Her dogs were eyeing the Desoro people uncertainly. Steam was billowing from their mouths and their sides were heaving. “My name is Forrendh of Tarkhbad. I have been sent by Lord Tarkhbad to come and commune with the Lights. The Lights, mmm.”
Zoe of Fenway spoke quickly with Jhureg Benethorson. The old man nodded and growled. The two men behind them casually moved their arms to axes at their sides. Zoe replied, her voice cool and soothing. Forrendh could barely hear them; Carkrest had been saying for years that her ears were failing, but, she now managed to catch ‘merchant’, ‘ice’, ‘food’, and something that could mean either ‘bear’ or ‘angry’, depending on context. The youth with a red beard said something that Jhureg laughed aloud at. Forrendh regarded her pining dogs. Black was the oldest. She had always been Degress’ favourite as a pup. Summer was never warm in Tarkhbad, but, the snow would thaw for a span or more and then Forrendh would watch Degress and black run over the spring grass and flowers. Even then, black was quick as a winter gale.
“Jhureg wants you to turn around and return to your stone tower.”
Forrendh laughed. “What we want and what we get are not cut from the same bread.”
“The Desoro have a similar expression, though I don’t think I could translate it well enough.” The corners of Zoe’s mouth twitched. “I said that your passing could be of use to us.”
“You didn’t lie, no.”
“He said the last shaman from Tarkhbad to walk through the White brought steel. He still has the axe.”
Jhureg held a simple axe for Forrendh’s inspection. The quality certainly spoke of Tarkhbad, but the makersmark was not one she recognised. It was an old weapon, the shaft having been replaced several times.
“I think I may have a few things he’ll like, yes, a few.” Forrendh drew out the Varangian whiskey and a burnished copper chain. She gave her dogs a little meat and fumbled with some of the fastenings on her sled again. She found some tinder and flint, and withdrew the steel dagger and offered it to the Desoro. Jhureg grinned as he took the dagger in his hand, and the red bearded youth had an eye on the whiskey. The other youth offered a massive ice bear pelt in exchange. It was white as snow, heavy and warm. The Desoro worked hides and furs better than any in Gaera and a pelt such as this would fetch a year’s worth of gold stars at Frumcynn. The inside was layered with fine ermine fur, and studded with pockets. A bronze badge could fasten it at the neck. Steel and whiskey would never buy such a cloak.
“A fine fur,” Forrendh declared.
Zoe nodded. “And this is fine steel. Though we cannot call this an even trade.”
Forrendh shrugged and unveiled the ice bear helm. “Steel for fur, bear for bear.”
Jhureg began to bark, his face ruddy and grim. Soon, he was wearing his new helm and Forrendh was wearing her new cloak. She almost felt warm, though that cold was still there and would never fully retreat. The young men kicked their sows into a trot and they vanished across the snow, towards the Ostspikes. Jhureg spoke to Zoe, gesturing southwards. His eyes were like burnt shards of obsidian beneath the visor of his helm. Zoe nodded solemnly.
“Jhureg says that the Lights have been wild,” Zoe explained. “He said you will see much and more in them. He hopes you do not lose yourself.”
“I haven’t yet, Zoe of Fenway, no.”
“And he asks for you to tell him what you see. He said that what happens in the Lights affects all.”
Forrendh nodded. “Any effect, however small, will send ripples.”
Zoe shook her head, “No. This is something bigger, something, less subtle. Be well, Forrendh of Tarkhbad.”
Her dogs pulled her out beyond the mountains and stunted trees. To a place where the horizon was round and unbroken and where it was night for months at a time. It was bitterly cold. None of Forrendh’s skin was exposed to the air. Otherwise, it would be black and detached in hours. Dawn only manifested as a pink razor in the north, never touching the glassy smoothness of the White.
For days, Forrendh followed the turning of the stars. The two vivid pinpricks of the Runner and the Chaser marking the way south. At times the sky was dark with clouds and Forrendh had to listen to An’elyserra, hoping it would lead her safely. Tonight, the sky was midnight blue, cold and vast and studded with stars. The Runner and the Chaser burned bright overhead through the clouds.
The altar was simple. Ancient runes carved into flat stone tiles. A tall, smooth relic which glittered like pearl. No roof. No candles. No carpets or murals. Just a wide expanse and a space to worship it.
The dogs huddled together against the wind, grey was staring off at the pink light to the south east as it winked out and they were all plunged into a night that stretched for a world. Ice had permanently gathered on the altar, writhen about the corners of the stone and the edges of the relic, sculpted by the wind. Forrendh sat herself down at the altar and placed her fur-clad palm upon the relic’s skin. For skin, she felt, it was; alive somehow. If she thought about Degress, her tears would freeze on her cheeks. There was a pain in her jaw as she clenched it tight against the cold and the past.
The Lights would come when the clouds were gone. When the stars were strewn across the sky as fine and clear as sand. Forrendh sat on the altar, drank some herbal tea, ate a handful of rust-coloured paste made from mushrooms and leaves, and waited.
They started either late in the night or early in the morning. It was impossible to tell in the White. The wind was roaring in Forrendh’s ears and the dogs were howling. She thought she could hear laughter, or the ringing of a china bell. She looked up and saw the first pulses of colour in the sky. They came from beyond the White, from a night that never knew the sun. From the birth of ice. First, there were shimmerings in the sky, faint and smokey. They were reflected in the Relic, bringing a soft glow to the icy altar. Before long, the sky opened up, a deluge of awe, like a spilling rainbow. For the first time in days, shadows were riven in the snow and tiles and fur, Forrendh could see wisps of ice tearing across the flat, icy expanse.
The Lights were chaos, like the kaleidoscopes a tinker brought to Tarkhbad one spring. She and her friends had stared into the small tube for hours until Forrendh had thought she could see through to another world. She could feel her fingers and toes growing numb, not from cold, but from her tea and paste. Her tongue was itchy. Soon, the cold wasn’t so cold. Forrendh’s head began to cloud.
The colours overhead began to form themselves; slender legs, cloven hoofs, massive antlers, shaggy fur. The moose trumpeted and shook Forrendh’s chimey bones. It took a step forward, staring intently at Forrendh on the altar. It looked sad.
“There will be pain. So much pain.”
Forrendh knew this. There is always pain, she thought. Pain in my knees, pain in heartbreak, pain in the capitol, though the Deifa know what they bemoan.
“No. There will be loss. You will lose, yet, you will gain.”
The great moose convulsed and split into a thousand kines, all gnashing their teeth and biting at each other’s necks. When, at last, one remained with blood dripping from its lips, its ears grew into a single copper plait. In the vast sky, Degress stared down at Forrendh. She was crying or was she laughing?
“Gran, Gran. Wake up, run, sleep, wake up, run, sleep, wake up, run, run, run. Magic will be eaten by castles, but it will eat its chains, but the chains will run with blood, unless you wake up, run, sleep, wake up, run, sleep, wake up, run, run, run.”
“Degress.” The tears froze on Forrendh’s face, they hurt her eyes and they scratched, but they did not melt. They were hard and cold as armour. “Degress, black’s here.”
“I know, Gran.”
“Degress…I’m sorry, yes, sorry.”
“No, Gran, you’re not.”
It had been seven years. Seven years of long winter and fleeting spring-summers. Seven years of hiking through the White, of treating with the Desoro tribes, of bringing tidings and pelts to Tarkhbad Keep. Seven years without pause, because Forrendh was convinced if there was so much as an instant of quiet, ghosts would tear through the now and carve the skin from her face. But, there was no reason to make so much noise and drown out the ghosts. There never had been. Forrendh had known this all along, she just needed to hear it. No fault had been hers, and her blame was baseless.
“No. Thank you. Now, first, wake up.”
By the time the Lights were extinguished, Forrendh’s frozen body was as still and cold as the ice on which she sat.