by Lindsey Duncan
Sarril picked her way down the cavern slope, claws digging into the ice for purchase. Her toes slid up to the joint into slush, and she grimaced in distaste. She hated not having a solid, icy footing.
She reached the cavern’s basin and scanned the shadows. The winds of the snowplains didn’t howl, didn’t even whimper, and the only sound was the nerve-jangling click of dripping water.
She halted by the puddle – a small pond, by now – and drew out the measuring stick. Like most of her kind, she was short, squat, covered in thick fur that was not white but translucent and layered over pale, tough skin. The Sages believed the glaciads were related to bears.
Sarril splashed into the water, frowning at the film of ice. No one had touched it in two days; it should have been frozen over. She found the red dot of paint that marked the deepest point in the puddle and inserted the stick.
Two inches deeper. Blast. She twisted her head to study the massive ice stalactite above her and thought she saw cracks in the surface. She shuddered. Summers before had caused sagging homes and even collapsed tunnels. This was worse – and it was only a few weeks into spring, by the rock calendar in the Sage’s Hall. An unseasonable hot spell? Or the herald of a more dangerous trend?
Sarril wiped the measuring stick on her tunic and put it away. She had left her cloak in her burrow. Now she wished she had worn it to ward off the water droplets. She wiped the back of her neck and muttered.
It was a swift journey back to the tunnels where the glaciads made their home. She continued to the lowest point, past the Market of Teeth, the Boneyard, and the Sage’s Hall. A guard in front of the Deep One’s cavern stopped her until she displayed the black insignia on her tunic, the mark of the leader’s personal scouts. He nodded her through.
The tunnel looped around thrice before plunging downwards in a series of ice steps, dusted every morning with snow. Did Sarril detect melted blotches in the pattern of blue and ivory? She needed to stop spooking herself.
It was refreshingly cold down here: she wished she had thought to reclaim her cloak, then decided to revel in the prickling that swept her fur.
Glow-fish floated in bowls at the bottom, providing illumination for the chamber. They glinted yellow; reflecting off the glacial ice, the light turned green. An unsettling, unnatural hue.
The Deep One reclined in her hollow, a thick, vaguely amorphous figure with blind, blue-veined eyes. While most glaciads had a hint of pink to their skin, she was white through, like bone. The Deep One’s privilege – residence so close to the heart of the ice – was also her prison: after decades, even the briefest ascent would be painful.
“Sarril,” she rasped.
Sarril dropped to one knee. “Deep One.”
“Oh, stop that.” The Deep One chuckled. “Get up and tell me how my grandniece is.”
Even with her worries, Sarril felt the foolish smile surface. “She’s good, Aaunt Veddris,” she said. “Reading more. She’s puzzled out the first page of the prayerbook and wants a proper story to read. I thought of borrowing one from the Sages.”
“Do so. Such talent should be nurtured.” Veddris sighed. “What report from the surface?”
Sarril told her. “I’m hoping it’s just an unusually strong summerburst …”
“And it will fade?” Veddris shook her head. “It is too strong for that. I must send scouts onto the snowplain to see if there is a more tangible cause. Will you go?”
Out into that flat nothingness? Into the hostile sunlight? Sarril shuddered, but nodded. “Of course.”
Veddris quirked a brow. “I only want volunteers for this mission. I will not force you, family or not.”
“What family do we have if someone doesn’t go?” Sarril countered. “I’ll go.”
The Deep One released a long sigh. “And I will pray for you.”
She tried not to think about the beasts and demons that prowled those outer wastes – or the savage peoples with their naked skins. “Pray for my success,” she said.
From the Deep One’s cavern, Sarril ascended to the Nursery to retrieve Nellittri. Her daughter bounced at her side, gleefully recounting the adventures of the day. Even the most ordinary moment – standing on a box to get a toy off a shelf – became epic in the telling.
As the pair entered their burrow, Sarril went to the hearth and rubbed two stones to life. Usually, this time of year, she needed at least four to provide heat and light for the small space.
Nellittri brought down the prayerbook and insisted on reading two gel-pages. The formal language and long words needed frequent help from Sarril.
Later, Sarril watched her daughter playing on the rug and tried to think of something to say to prepare the child in case she didn’t make it back … but she couldn’t think of anything.
They knelt together before the girl went to bed. “Minnen, goddess of the core, center my life. Addev, god of the ice, enfold me. Basshil, god of the winds, blow me to safety.”
And blow the answers into my path, Sarril added silently. “Good dreams, dearheart,” she said, kissing her daughter’s brow.
Six other scouts volunteered, as well as two warriors, there to protect those who had no skill with a spear. They stood in the last cavern, watching the eerie rust of dawn play across the opening. Apart from dripping water, it was silent.
“I’ll head due east with Kevvith,” Sarril said. “You two – north; you two – west; and everyone else take the southern route. Keep an eye skyward – turn back no later than sun-height. Pace yourselves; as the day advances, it gets hotter, and that much harder to make your way back.”
The scouts dispersed, speaking in murmurs. Sarril stayed low as she skimmed across the icy ground, keeping a watchful eye on her surroundings. Except in cases of necessity, the glaciads surfaced only once a year, hunting the great beasts who roamed these ice planes – to supplement a diet of tunnel creatures and ice-mosses. That was enough to know there were only two defenses against the predators of the overworld: stealth and speed.
Kevvith remained a pace behind her. They had paired a few times, and she was fond of him – closer than she was to Nellittri’s father, these days.
The terrain sloped downwards, broken by thrusting rocks and sinkholes. The lowest point sheltered a scrub forest of black, twisted trees. The tallest impressed her – almost three times her height. Was it her imagination, or was the temperature increasing? Perhaps it was only because the hollow was sheltered from the wind.
“Why did you choose east, Sarril?” Kevvith asked. “I would have expected you to strike south. That’s the most likely direction for … whatever’s wrong.”
She shook her head. “We know too little about this to say that for sure,” she said, “and I just … had a feeling.” As soon as she said it, she knew it was true. There had been a touch of tracker’s instinct in her choice.
Kevvith nodded. “Hope it’s not too much for us to handle,” he said, voice light with humor. “Maybe you should have brought everyone this way on your feeling. Just in case.”
“What are you afraid of?” she asked, smiling – though the expression tensed as she felt sweat gather against her collar. She rubbed at the back of her neck.
“I’ll take the north slope,” he offered. “You check the forest?”
“Meet you back here,” Sarril agreed. She picked her way down the slope, claws dislodging pebbles and other detritus. She steadied herself with a hand on one of the trees, then descended into their thin shelter.
She rocked back on her heels as a wall of warmth slammed into her, oozing across her skin and flooding her nose and mouth. She coughed and covered her face with one hand. The heat relented, whisked away by a breeze, but left a sticky pool of humidity behind. Walking felt more like wading, and it sent atavistic prickles of fear down her spine.
A localized source of heat, then? What could it be? She tightened her grip on the spear and shoved it in front of her as she headed through the trees.
An isolated crackle, then another. Footsteps? Sarril turned her head, trying to calm her heart so she could hear over its beat. Yes – footsteps, light, gentle … but making no attempt at stealth. She edged closer, hand locked around the haft of the spear.
A flash of gold, a spin of person-like limbs … clad in an impossible sunset of reds and yellows. She opened her mouth to hail the figure, but it was gone, lost in the embrace of trees that would barely have hid a glaciad child.
“Hello?” Sarril called, wary. “Is someone there?”
“Is someone there?” echoed a sweet, piping voice – definitely female.
Sarril almost dropped the spear. “Yes,” she said. “Who are you?”
“Am I a who?” The speaker seemed to find this intriguing. Sarril squinted in the direction of the voice, but saw nothing. Another surge of heat cut across her skin, burning where it touched. The voice spoke again. “I am Telien.”
“Sarril.” She edged forward, holding her breath. “Are you responsible for this heat?”
“I am bringing you summer. Is it not beautiful?”
Where was Telien? Sarril saw another glimmer of precious gold – long hair, free from the body in the way of the southern savages. Then it was gone again.
Her foot brushed against something. She looked down, not comprehending the cluster of blue and violet leaves. The things – whatever they were – sprouted from a patch of green ground, blazing amongst the rock and snow.
Fear grabbed Sarril at the throat. Combined with the sticky, clammy sensation that stroked her body, it was hard to keep her feet. She told herself it was a small thing – nothing to be frightened of, even if it represented an unknown beyond her grasp.
“Do you like it?” Telien spoke again, anxious, cloying.
“No.” The word snapped out of Sarril. “I don’t. You’re destroying our world. Stop it. You can’t play with us like a child.”
Telien sucked in a breath. Harsh winds rattled the trees, swept their searing touch over Sarril again. Leaves shriveled up, growing brown and brittle; the ground plants withered.
Sarril rushed forward … then stopped as another wind swept through, this one cool. She sighed, the spear going slack in her hand. She knew without having to search – would a search do any good? – that Telien was gone.
“Sarril?” Kevvith’s voice came from the ridge.
“Come down,” she said. “We need to talk.”
The reaction of the other scouts varied from puzzlement to anger, with fear mixed in. What kind of being could change the climate?
“If it lives here, it can be tracked and killed,” a warrior said gruffly. “Our hunting parties can match any foe.”
Sarril frowned. “I’m not sure she meant to hurt us,” she said, “and we don’t know anything about her abilities.”
“A hot spell can’t ward off a spear.”
“Whatever she intended, she did harm us,” Kevvith said gently. “We need to make her stop.”
“This is not our decision,” Sarril said. “We need to speak to the Deep One.”
Four scouts descended to the deepest cavern. Sarril wanted to strip down and wear nothing else but the blessed cold. Silently, she praised Addev for his gifts.
Veddris listened thoughtfully to Sarril’s explanations and the arguments that followed. “These things are as much beyond my ken as yours, I fear,” she said. “Sarril? You sound sympathetic to the creature.”
“Telien,” she emphasized the name, “doesn’t seem to hold any malice towards us. I would like to try and reason with her. If it were my daughter in a foreign land, unfamiliar with its rules, I’d hope very much that someone else would make the same choice.”
“Do you think you can do this?” Veddris inquired.
“I don’t know.” Sarril grimaced. “But I think we have to try.”
“If we can’t convince this creature to go elsewhere,” Kevvith said, “what happens to us? Could the ice melt so much it’s simply too late?”
Sarril flashed him a sharp look, trying not to feel betrayed.
“That is a valid point,” Veddris said. “Sarril, you have two days. After that, the hunting party will take down this Telien with whatever strength of arms is necessary.”
It made her heart sore to think of harm coming to the strange, innocent creature. “I will succeed,” she said, and knew she had to.
Sarril stopped at the Sage’s Hall and received permission to take home books about the southern lands and summer, hoping for some insight into Telien’s world or – by wild chance – hints of what kind of being she might be. What she found were rumors, guesses and exaggeration. Fields of nothing but green, stretching to the horizon? Trees that rose a hundred feet high? Impossible.
Nellittri leaned over her shoulder, turning her lips over words. “Fir-ree?” she tried.
“Fire,” Sarril said. “It’s like a hearthstone, only it hurts to touch, and it eats wood to survive.”
The girl mulled over this. “Then why do they use it?”
Sarril shrugged. “They don’t have hearthstones, I suppose. Or maybe they don’t work that far south.”
“Or maybe there’s some reason they like it,” Nellittri said.
Sarril ruffled the fur at the back of her daughter’s neck. “Don’t let your imagination run away with you.”
“Why are you reading these books?” Nellittri cocked her head.
Sarril hesitated. She never lied to her daughter, but there was a limit to how much truth should be told. “We think we’ve found a person who can stop the warmth,” she said, “and I’m going to talk to her. These will help me.”
“That’s very nice of her,” Nellittri said. “What is she like?”
“I have no idea,” Sarril admitted.
She set out early the next day full of expectation and returned to the forest grove. She planted her spear outside the treeline and called Telien’s name as she went, not wanting to startle her.
Yet though she felt the rush of warmth, it was not suffocating … and not just because she had experienced it before. Was Telien hiding? She paced through the grove, eyes alert, but soon came to the far side.
Sarril doubled back, criss-crossing through the trees. She bit down on her frustration and mopped her brow. Her arm came away wet, and she wrinkled her nose. She suspected she could walk past Telien and never see her … how, then, would hunters find her?
She seated herself on a rock, hands folded. “I’m sorry if I offended you, Telien,” she said, “but I’m going to stay here until you come talk to me.”
A sharp crackle from above, and loose twigs rained down on her. That had to be good: it meant, if nothing else, that Telien was listening. Or had it been coincidence?
She was ready to believe the latter as the sun advanced and her overtures went unanswered. She wanted to flail like a child. Instead, she remained calm as she trudged back, panting … and then listened to her shouts ring off the walls of the outermost cavern.
She stepped inside and found Kevvith waiting for her, anxious. “No luck,” she said shortly. “Telien is hiding. If I could think of some way to lure her out ….”
He squeezed her shoulder. “I’m sure something will come to you,” he said. “Any theories?”
She shook her head, then added slowly, “It’s almost as if she’s sulking. Maybe a gift … but I searched through books for hours yesterday, and I still have no clue what a southerner might like.”
“Books?” he asked.
She nodded. “The Sages let me take several books – and they promised to research, as well. We can find a way to communicate and convince her. There doesn’t need to be any bloodshed.”
He smiled, and at first, she felt reassured, but then she had the sense it was a shallow expression. “I have every confidence we can save the glaciads,” he said.
Sarril visited the Sages again, but they were distracted with cosmic musing, and the books they gave her were obscure and irrelevant. She rubbed her brow, trying to banish the headache, and aware of her daughter peering from across the room.
“Can I help, mommy?”
Sarril shook her head. “I don’t see how, dearheart,” she said, “but thank you.”
Unwilling to give up, she read into the small hours of the night. She was foggy and slow the next morning, but her feet already knew the way to the grove.
This time, she went without a spear – folly that would earn her a lecture from Veddris if known – and knelt in the dirt, making herself as small as possible. “Telien,” she whispered. “Come out.”
The wind took on a keening note as it circled the trees. Sarril leapt to her feet, body tense and ready … but it rushed away, loose pine needles swirling where it had passed.
She swore under her breath. So close.
It was as if this being she sought – so swift to take offense – also had the patience of the rock itself. Were it not for the heat, she would have worried Telien had slipped away, gone to haunt some other hollow. She wiped her brow and settled again, trying to keep her limbs from sticking to each other. She felt as if she would melt – an unstable, unsettling feeling.
The day advanced. She tried pacing the grove; she tried standing still, her palms raised as if in divine supplication. Inside her head, she prayed; she raged. She was silent, patient, waiting … and she spoke to Telien in soft phrases and floods.
“I’m doing this for my daughter,” she said. “She would never survive in a world of summer. She would love it – she would run to it with open arms – but it would destroy her.” Sarril swallowed, feeling the lump in her throat shift. She wanted to say the rest, that it would destroy every glaciad, but she was afraid the idea would scare Telien further away. Who could face that kind of responsibility?
“You have a daughter?”
She jerked upright. Had that been her imagination? Was she shaping words out of air to match her desires?
“Yes,” she said, clinging to the thought it was Telien speaking. “She’s seven. She’s the gleam in my darkness, and I would do anything to protect her— -”
“It’s not fair.” Telien’s voice ripped through the grove, louder on each syllable. Trees bent under the weight.
Sarril forced herself to stand motionless, her face plastered with a silly, soothing smile. Another part of her mind railed at her for not shouting while she could. She felt as if her head was going to ooze down her neck.
“What’s not fair?” she asked.
A shrill, huffing sound, a cracking of broken branches, and winds that made her understand the concept of fire as they swept west. Towards the ice caverns.
No. Don’t think of that. Sarril waited, listening to her heartbeat. “Telien?” The first time she said it, it was a whisper. She repeated it more loudly, seeking. “Telien!”
It was almost sun-height, but she tore through the grove, then again, her hastened step turning into a run. After the fourth cycle – or was it the fifth? – she gave up and dropped, hands limp on her knees, the heat pounding through her, blending her blood into fog ….
She sat panting until she could move again, cursing herself for a rookie mistake. By then, there was no thought that Telien might return … she’d failed. It was done.
She made her way across the plains, dimly aware she wasn’t keeping as close a watch as she might have. But fortune was with her, as if offering consolation: nothing leapt out of the vastness to attack her. She almost cried when the first rush of icy air touched her lungs. Home.
She reported to Veddris, a flat recitation. The deep chill froze the sweat to her skin. She felt like the ice itself.
“Sarril,” Veddris said, “you’re not well.”
“I’m fine.” As much as she could be.
“See the healer.”
She shook her head. “I have to go with the hunting party tomorrow. To see this thing through.”
The Deep One’s eyes darkened. She rose from her couch with surprising ease, straight and sure. “To the healers,” she said. “Now. We will discuss tomorrow when it comes.”
Weary, shivering, Sarril bowed her head. She retreated from the Deep One’s cavern, spots gathering in front of her eyes. She made it as far as the Healers’ Hollow before her legs gave out on her.
A stout healer hovered over her. “Get her inside.”
Heatsickness, the healers told Sarril when she awakened – the worst case they had seen in decades.
“Four days of bed-rest, minimum,” the stout one said, his voice firm. “Then we’ll see what your condition is. You’re lucky you came in when you did.”
“Does someone have my daughter?” Sarril asked.
“The Nursery kept her overnight. We can send for her, if you’d like.”
Had she slept through the night? Sarril sat bolt upright, her teeth jarring as she remembered – the hunting party. But they had no way of luring Telien from hiding, and an armed group would have less chance of finding her than a lone woman. She would surely run from them.
Forcing herself to relax, Sarril said, “I would, please.”
Nellittri bounded in, hopping onto the bed to give her a suffocating hug. “You’re not allowed to be sick,” she said in a tone of reproach.
Sarril laughed, ruffling the fur at the back of her neck. “I’m doing my best. It’s just a little sniffle, dearheart, I promise.”
The stout healer gave her a sour look over the girl’s head, but said nothing.
“Do you want me to read to you?” Nellittri asked. “You always read to me when I’m sick.”
“No, that’s all right.” Sarril couldn’t help the smile. “I think I’m all read out for now.” Her ears detected a crowd moving up the tunnel outside the Hollow. She couldn’t make out individual words, but the purpose in them was obvious.
“Is that the hunting party?” she asked.
“Must be,” the healer said. “Good fortune to them.”
She shook her head. “They’re not going to find anything.”
He gave her a sour look. “You want them to fail? I hear the Sages gave them an answer last night: a way to lure the monster out of hiding.”
She stared. “But that’s not … I’ve ….” Pieces clicked together in her head. She had told Kevvith about her search. The Sages had been distant when she went back, the books even less help than the first batch. Had he convinced them to withhold their answers? “They’re going to kill her.”
Nellittri tugged at her arm. “Kill who?”
Sarril froze. She had forgotten her daughter’s presence. “The southerner,” she said.
The small brow furrowed. “The one who could help us? That’s not right. They can’t kill her.”
Sarril clasped her daughter close. “Relax,” she said. “It’s all right.” There was no conviction in her voice, but she said the words, rubbing the girl’s back.
Nellittri sighed. When she spoke again, it was brighter, buoyant. “Can we still read about summer? And fires?”
Even with the lead weight in her stomach, Sarril chuckled. “If that’s what you want.” And why, really, was she concerned about Telien? How did she know the being was not immoral, malicious, her innocence merely a ploy? Only instinct told her that … and instinct could be wrong.
“Your mother needs to rest, Nellittri,” the healer said brusquely. “Come along.”
The girl kissed her mother’s cheek and scampered out. Sarril fought with herself, then slid down in the bed and succumbed to slumber.
Raised voices, arguing, woke her. Grimacing at the sour taste in her mouth, Sarril started to sit up. The content of the argument stopped her.
“… can’t rush in there and tell her the girl is missing,” the stout healer said. “The shock will damage her health.”
“She has a right to know. She— -”
“What can she do that can’t be done by someone not on their sickbed?” The healer shook his head. “You don’t understand how easy it is to exacerbate a condition like this.”
Fear got Sarril out of bed. She pushed across the stone-pitted ice floor. “What happened to my daughter?” she demanded.
The healer fixed her with a bland look. “What makes you think we were talking about your child?”
Sarril glared. The hammering of her heart made her dizzy, but she refused to sway. “Don’t insult my intelligence. What happened?”
The other person was a Nursery glaciad. She said, “Your daughter disappeared an hour ago. We think she went to the upper caverns.”
Sarril felt a weird sense of premonition, a sudden certainty where her daughter was … but she strained for any other explanation. “Think? Where have you looked?” she pressed.
“Sarril, sit down,” the healer said, “you— -”
“I’m a mother without my child,” she said. “I can’t rest.”
The healer shot the other woman an aggravated look. The Nursery worker shrunk up on herself, but continued, “We searched the near tunnels and checked to be sure she wasn’t with her grand-aunt. Some of the children said they saw her headed up and – a couple adults agree. They thought it was strange to see a child wandering, but didn’t think to do anything about it.” Her voice was agitated.
“Did she say anything?” Sarril pressed.
The woman frowned. “She did. She said something to a worker about going to see the fire.”
Panic fell into place. “She’s gone after the hunting party.” Sarril ducked under the woman’s arm. “I have to catch up to them. Before she gets hurt in the fray.” What if she fell behind and got lost? What if a roaming beast found her? What if … decision spurred her towards her burrow. She needed her spear.
“You need to be under healer supervision!” the shout echoed after her.
“Then come with me,” she said. “If you can keep up.”
She heard him scampering, sliding, huffing as he followed. “At the very least, don’t put yourself on the ice before you’ve even started,” he said.
She moderated her pace, but only a little. He was right – if she spent all her energy now, she wouldn’t make it to the grove. “What’s your name?” she asked.
“Herrth,” he replied.
She pushed into her burrow and grabbed her spear. “Well, Herrth, follow me – if you can.”
The morning glinted gold with the last remnants of sunrise. Sarril realized she had grown used to the heat: though the first moments in the sun sent a flush down her spine, she hardly noticed.
That did not stop her from feeling its effects, however. Black spots rushed across her gaze and shudders gripped her limbs, her body protesting. She was glad for Herrth’s presence: knowing he would stop her and drag her back kept her from showing any sign.
“What will you do when you get there?” He huffed for breath, watching her keenly.
“Get my daughter out of harm’s way, if I have to stab Telien myself.” The spear felt heavier than it ever had.
On the horizon, dancing shimmers of green and blue fire. She remembered tales, passed down from her great-grandmother’s time, about the shimmer-lights the Sages could summon, and how they had attracted the last group of southern traders.
Suddenly, Herrth’s shoulder was there, and she found herself leaning heavily against him. “Steady,” he said. “We can rest a while.”
Sarril recognized she would have fallen without his help, but pushed herself upright. “No. We can’t.”
She crested the ridge and looked down on the grove. The hunting party had surrounded it, warriors standing at intervals with spears. The shimmer-lights flickered and whirled above. Sarril clutched her chest, feeling her heart spasm. They hadn’t closed in. She wasn’t too late.
She scanned the scene, looking for one small shape behind the warriors. There were too many places a child could hide ….
Herrth gasped and touched her arm. She whipped about and caught only the hint of a golden flicker … but that was enough. Telien had appeared to study the shimmer-lights, and now Sarril could see the figure traipsing through the grove.
Someone reached out to stop her.
If Telien was bright and indistinct, there was no mistaking her roly-poly companion. “Nellittri!” Sarril shouted, but neither child – she wondered how she hadn’t realized Telien was a child before, but there was no doubt with the two side by side –- reacted. A few of the nearest warriors glanced up the slope.
Sarril stumbled down, a pellmell slide with the healer huffing behind her. “You have to wait,” she said. “My daughter is with Telien.”
“You shouldn’t use Nellittri like that,” Kevvith said, turning from his perch on a rock. “Your way didn’t work, Sarril. It’s the hunt’s turn.”
“She’s not lying,” Herrth said. “The girl is there. I can’t recommend you expose a child to such risks as to charge into the grove.”
Kevvith stared. “Who are you?”
“I’m the healer in charge of this madwoman’s health,” Herrth replied.
“Introductions later,” Sarril said. “Who’s giving the signal?”
“I am,” Kevvith said.
She spun to face him. The movement was too fast; it left her swaying, spear wavering in her grip. “Then stop this.”
Kevvith regarded her, then Herrth. “She’s really out there.”
“Yes,” the healer rumbled.
The glaciad remained silent, frowning. Sarril’s body vibrated with tension. What was he thinking?
Slowly, reluctance extending the motion, he rose and approached the nearest warrior. “Signal them to lay still.” He sighed as he turned to Sarril.
“Get your daughter. Then get out.”
“Thank you,” she said. She started into the trees, stride lengthening into a sprint.
Behind her, she heard Herrth rumble a protest, and Kevvith’s reply, “The nine plagues wouldn’t stop her where that girl is concerned.”
“Nellittri!” she called, trying to orient in the direction she had seen them moving. “Where are you?”
Her chest hurt; her eyes watered. She dropped the spear butt down in the dirt and leaned against it. “Nellittri!”
She shoved off towards the voice, stumbling, running. Adrenaline pushed her forward even when she couldn’t breathe. She crested a ridge and saw her daughter crouched there, tiny body pressed to the ground.
“Mommy, shh!” Nellittri insisted.
She dropped to her knees and reached for the girl. “Dearheart, you scared me ….” Relief, crashing, unbearable, swept away under astonishment as she got her first full look at Telien.
Apart from a mane of gold curls that grew bizarrely from her head and fell to mid-back, Telien was furless. Her light brown skin glowed with inner luminiscence. Like blood through veins, something green rippled under the surface, ever-shifting through her body. Though bipedal and shaped mostly like a glaciad, she was far too thin, her limbs long and spindly. And her eyes were a vibrant, surreal green, intensities of color Sarril had never seen before.
“What are you?” she whispered.
Telien shrank back, heat shimmers dancing around her. Her scarlet and yellow dress rippled. At further guess, she must be a little older – nine, ten?
“This is my new friend,” Nellittri said. “Telien, this is my mother.”
The child’s eyes sharpened with suspicion. “Did she throw you out, too?”
“I didn’t throw you out,” Sarril protested. “We need— -”
Telien scuttled across the hollow, placing distance between them. Nellittri gave her mother an exasperated look that clearly meant, “I’ll handle this.”
“No, my mother loves me,” she said. “She always lets me read and sometimes stay up late. She wants to help me be important when I grow up.”
So that was what her daughter thought of their relationship, Sarril thought with some bemusement. She shifted her position, feeling the heat wash her skin, but dared not move further.
Telien flicked her a wary look. “What do you want to be?” she asked.
“I want to be an explorer,” Nellittri said confidently. “Not just a scout like mommy – I want to go out past the caverns and see other things. What do you want to be?”
Now was not the time for this conversation, with the hunting party poised around them. A minute longer, Sarril told herself. See what her daughter could do.
Telien shrugged. “I was going to be the goddess of Summer, but my mother changed her mind. So now I don’t have anything to be.”
Sarril suppressed a gasp. Children had their wild imaginings, but this was not – one look at Telien told her that. The pieces whirled in her mind and locked together like snowflakes. Why Telien had reacted so strongly to adult disapproval; why she had hidden from everyone but Nellittri; why she had been drawn to Sarril’s talk of her daughter.
How much trouble they were in if Telien became truly angry.
“Well, why don’t you be one of us?” Nellittri said, as if this were the most reasonable thing in the world.
Sarril cleared her throat. “I don’t think— -”
A voice barked from beyond the grove. The rustling of warriors on the move hissed in her ears. Sarril grabbed for her spear and rose into a crouch. No doubt the signal hadn’t come from Kevvith – the wrong direction. Miscommunication, and they were out of time.
“Mommy,” Nellittri said urgently, “what’s going on?”
Sarril shook her head, straightening to her full height – heedless that an over-eager throw could catch her in the chest and ignoring the black
spots that flashed in front of her eyes. She had to catch their attention, somehow interfere. But would they believe her, or merely remember she had failed two days running?
Telien’s head snapped up. She stepped forward, grabbing Nellittri’s hand. “Are they coming to hurt us?”
“They won’t,” Sarril said.
But the young goddess ignored these words, whistling through her teeth. Searing winds streaked past Sarril, leaving a kiss of heat on her skin but not harming her. The trees bent under the blasting gale … and burst into flame.
Nellittri yelped in delight, squeezing the hand in hers. Shocked, Sarril fumbled with the spear. Red cascades slithered upwards like the evil twin of an icicle, glinting, growing.
“Sarril!” Kevvith’s voice called, followed by a snarl of pain.
Sarril’s first instinct was to grab the unearthly child and shake her. One look at the taut expession on Telien’s face and the way she gripped
Nellittri’s hand, and she knew that would only hasten the destruction. It was up to her daughter to calm things down, and so save them … could she trust a seven year old to find the words to say?
She looked down at Nellittri, a fearless soul in a tiny body, a brilliant mind waiting to flower. The spitting image of her great-aunt – a Deep One in training.
“That’s Kevvith,” Nellittri said, tugging. “You can’t hurt Kevvith. He’s a good friend of mine, and I won’t let my friends fight.”
Telien paused – as did the flames, suspended above the trees. “But they’re going to hurt us,” she said.
“So give them a little push,” Nellittri said. “Make sure they can’t come any closer. You can do that, right?”
Telien nodded, biting her lip. The winds changed, growing fiercer, but chilling to an arctic swirl. The sounds from the warriors increased, but they were annoyed and embarrassed now, not fearful.
“Now what?” she asked.
It was the question on Sarril’s mind as well. The girl’s mere presence made the region warmer. Of course – she was Summer, or might have been.
Was there a place for that?
Nellittri clearly thought nothing of this. “You come home with us,” she said.
“Dearheart,” Sarril said, “she can’t. The warmth – the summer – will melt the ice.”
Telien’s eyes dimmed. “You don’t like it,” she said. “My gift. What I am.” There was sorrow beneath sorrow in those words, a flailing for some truth she was too young – even as a goddess – to understand.
“I like it,” Nellittri said firmly. “I love it.” Her eyes went to the flames and lit with admiration. It was the same thirst with which she had regarded the gel-pages of their prayerbook. “And they’d love it, too, except adults can’t change.”
“Oh.” Telien looked lost. “Then what do I do? I don’t want to be alone.”
“I’ll take you south where everyone will love you,” Nellittri said. “Where you can be what you are, and no goddess of summer can stop you.”
“Nellittri!” Sarril said sharply, fear overcoming her shock. “You’re too young for such a journey.”
Her daughter looked betrayed. “But she needs— -”
“Oh, time doesn’t matter to me,” Telien said with a toss of her head, as dismissive as an immortal might be – that same patience Sarril had sensed before. “I can wait. I can wait until you’re old enough and then we can have centuries to explore.”
“Dearheart,” Sarril said softly, rubbing Nellittri’s shoulder, “you can be anything – Sage, healer, maybe even Deep One some day.” More than maybe: no question Veddris doted on her grandniece and would readily train her as a successor. “But not if you make a promise like this. This is not a game.”
“I get to protect everyone, mommy,” she said. “Isn’t that why you scout?”
Sarril swallowed, speechless. Not the same thing, she wanted to rail – but it was, though Nellittri didn’t, couldn’t understand the sacrifice. Not so young.
And Sarril couldn’t let her, even if it risked everything. Not her child, not any child.
She turned to face Telien. “You have to let her choose,” she said, keeping her voice soft, but as firm as the depths of the ice. “When she’s old enough – when she’s grown, when she’s had time to love and learn – then she’ll come with you. Or she won’t.”
There it was – and all the goddess-child had to do was respond in a fit of pique, and the blaze would begin anew, and the warriors would beat their way straight into the heart of a conflagration. Sarril’s tongue was heavy, as if wrapped around her heart, but she did not move. Her body burned with the sickness.
Telien stared up; her face shifted, the tendrils of green playing beneath it seeming to blend into the wonder of wide eyes. “You love her,” she said. “I understand.” Her tone grew wistful; she shifted from one foot to the other. “Can I still come and play?”
“In our summer,” Sarril said, light-headed with relief. “As long as you’re careful.”
Telien laughed. “Of course.” She caught Nellittri’s other hand and spun her about. The girl squealed in surprise as they twisted, whirled, the winds gathering and sweeping up sprays of pine-needles around them.
Suddenly nervous, realizing they could both be carried away, Sarril reached out for her daughter’s shoulder … even as Telien vanished in a flash of light.
The winds whooshed outwards, dousing flames with one great exhalation of breath. The air went chill, no longer dominated by the pervasive, pounding heat.
Sarril’s fingers buried into Nellittri’s fur.
“Thank everything,” she breathed, gathering her daughter close.
The shouting of the glaciads converged on their position, but it was clear to even the slowest warrior that the warmth had abated. They advanced cautiously, confused, spears lowered.
“Sarril?” Kevvith was first to arrive, the healer at his back. “What happened?”
“She’s gone,” Sarril said. “Just a lost creature looking for her home.” The rest of the story could wait until they were back in the caverns.
“Remarkable,” Herrth rumbled.
“Then the threat is past? We’re safe?” one warrior asked.
“We’re safe,” Nellittri chirped, smiling from where she burrowed against her mother’s side – and as before, she spoke for all of them.
Lindsay Duncan’s contemporary fantasy novel Flow is available from Double Dragon Publishing, and she’s had short works in numerous publications, including Leading Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy and GUD. We’ve also published multiple stories of hers here in Abyss & Apex.