Ice Moon Tale
by Eilis O’Neal
Now Laila-in-Shadow was a daughter of the Reindeer people, who call their longhall Lalm, and who live far away, farther than the Seal people, farther than the Fox people, even farther than the Ice Bear people. Each year they traveled farther than anyone else to reach the longhall of the clan to host the Gathering, the meeting of all the clans of the People-under-the-sky. But in the year of our tale, the Reindeer people hosted the Gathering themselves.
For days the People had been flocking to Lalm, and Laila thought that she had never been so eager for the Gathering to begin. The outer edge of Lalm had expanded with each arrival, so that instead of the neat ring of dwellings she knew, tents of all sizes spread out like lichen around the longhall in the center of Lalm. She was outside, near one of the bonfires with her friends, when they heard the dogs of the final clan, the Snow Goose people, barking as they reached Lalm.
“I saw them come in,” Laila told her mother that night at supper. “So the Gathering will begin tomorrow, won’t it?” Laila’s mother, Arna-who-Swims, nodded and laughed at her oldest daughter. “You certainly are stirred-up,” she teased. “Is there a boy you’ll be watching during the games?”
Laila shook her head with a snort. “No boys.” She swirled her antler spoon around her bowl for a moment, agitated. Part of her wanted to keep it a secret, but the other part wanted desperately to tell her parents. She pressed her lips together, trying to keep silent, but she couldn’t help it. “I’m going tell a tale during the gathering of storytellers,” she blurted out.
She had always told stories. One of her first memories was of telling her sister, Freya-Blue-Eyes, a tale about an enormous white fox, even though Freya had been a baby and too little to understand. But even swaddled in blankets within her crib, she had watched Laila, as if she understood. For Laila, telling stories had always been more interesting than the gift that was rightfully hers, the no moon knowledge. She had always watched with envy as the storytellers regaled the People with tales during the Gathering, and this year, as her village prepared to host the Gathering themselves, she had decided she couldn’t stand it any longer. She would join the storytellers; she would tell a story at the Gathering. She had thought of her story weeks and weeks ago, and she had practiced telling it out beyond the last houses of Lalm, where no one would hear her. She had even used her no moon knowledge to hide herself, so no one would ask what she was doing.
She had hoped that her mother would smile at her, but Arna only glanced towards Laila’s father with a worried look. When she turned her gaze back to Laila, a frown had wrinkled the skin around her eyes. “You want to tell a story?” she asked hesitantly. “On the Night of Tales? With the storytellers?”
Laila nodded quickly, though her stomach felt suddenly sour.
Arna didn’t answer, but only looked fretfully at her hands. Finally Laila’s father, Rurik-Great-Arms, said, “Your stories are good, especially in a village with no storyteller of its own. But Laila, you are a no moon child. All those who will tell their tales tomorrow are ice moon children, with ice moon knowledge. You have shadow knowledge, and our people are grateful for it. Who else among us can call down the knowledge of shadows, can hide our hunters so that even the birds in the sky cannot see them? Why do you want to be something you aren’t?”
“But I don’t care about my shadow knowledge,” Laila cried, stomping her foot. “Not like I do about stories. I may not be an ice moon child, but I can still tell stories as well as anyone born under an ice moon. You’ll see–tomorrow.”
“Perhaps,” said Rurik, but he said it softly, so that she could barely hear it.
“You’ll see,” she said again before stomping off to her bed and pulling the furs up over her shoulders.
In the morning, Laila dressed in her best clothes–her reindeer-skin jacket with the blue beads, her boots and hood trimmed with white fox fur. She brushed her long black hair but did not braid it, allowing it to fall loose down her back. In the morning, she would compete with the others who had been born under no moon, to see which of them could hide themselves the best while others of the People searched for them. But that night, she would tell her story, and prove that she was more than just a no moon child. Still, the memory of her parents’ concern last night made her sluggish, so that it took her far longer than usual to get ready to leave the house.
Yet she couldn’t help but feel her spirits rise as she stepped outside into the noise and excitement of the Gathering. It was cold, so that she was glad to have her furred hood, but not cold enough to keep any of the People-under-the-Sky indoors. Though held after the end of summer, when the People had the time to leave their homes and travel to another longhall, only rarely did the snows threaten to close the Gathering early. Under the bright sun, men and women and children watched the various competitions, stood around campfires cooking all manner of food, or merely sat on piled furs and talked with those they hadn’t seen since the last Gathering. Laila watched her father–a full moon child–compete in the shows of strength, and then wandered off to watch the animal calling of the clouded moon children. One old woman from the Fox people managed to call a snow hare to her hand, where the animal trembled as she stroked its fur. After everyone had seen it, though, she let it go; it was bad luck to harm any of the animals called for one of the games.
As for herself, Laila didn’t really try to win any of the games of hiding, though she blushed when a Snow Goose man found her after only a few minutes.
“Your mind was elsewhere,” Arna told her when Laila left the field to seek her out. “You hardly disappeared at all–I could still make out the beads on your jacket!”
Laila only shrugged. Tonight, she thought, it will be different.
But her bravery seemed to falter as she entered the longhall that night and saw the storytellers seated in a circle in the middle of the great building. Ice moon children, all of them, born on the coldest nights of the year, when there was nothing to do but tell stories. She had never heard of someone who was not an ice moon child telling a story tonight, on the Night of Tales. Sometimes a man not born under the full moon might play in the games of strength, or a skilled cook might bake something to show off among the warm moon children, even if she was not a warm moon herself. But the storytellers were different. Their knowledge was special, part of the root of its power a secret.
Sometime during each year, Laila knew, each storyteller wandered into the wilderness in search of a story. The storyteller told the new story at the Gathering, where it would be added to the list of tales of the People.
Laila had known this all her life, had listened to the new stories each year. What she didn’t know was exactly how the storytellers found the new stories, or why they needed to go into the wilderness to do it. That had worried her weeks ago, when she had decided to try her own story among them, and it worried her now. Still, she had told herself that she would tell her story, and she had never broken a promise like that before.
Though no one called her back, the people gathered in the longhall murmured when Laila made her way to the center of the room and took a seat in the circle of storytellers. But she squared her shoulders and managed not to duck her head, even though she could feel her face starting to flush. She had been the last person to take a seat, and finally Ulf-who-Dreams, the oldest storyteller, rose creakily to his feet.
“I am Ulf-who-Dreams, son of the Ice Bear people,” he said, “and this is my story.”
The stories would last all night, so Laila shifted her legs to make herself comfortable on the ground. But as the stories were told, she grew more and more uneasy. Her story, which had seemed so fine as she told it to herself out beyond the edge of the village, now seemed drab, as lifeless as the bear pelt on which she sat. By the time the girl to her right had finished her tale, Laila could feel sweat building on her palms and a knot tightening in her stomach.
She stood as the last words of the previous story died away, her mouth dry. The muttering started again, and her vision swam in front of her. She wanted to call on her no moon knowledge and disappear. “I am Laila-in-Shadow,” she croaked, “and this–”
But she could get no farther. She gazed around, seeing the eyes of the People staring at her, knowing that her story was a thin, weak thing when compared to a true ice moon child’s story, and ran from the longhall. Hands tried to reach her; she saw her father start towards her to comfort her. But she pulled the no moon knowledge around herself and, unseen, dashed into the night.
She ran, her feet pounding over the ground and her arms pumping. She ran past the dwellings of Lalm, past the newly-pitched tents. There was no one to stop her, for everyone, from the oldest grandmother to the youngest baby, was in the longhall. No one could have seen her in any case, not while she ran wrapped in no moon knowledge. Finally, past the farthest edge of Lalm, she stopped and let the knowledge fall away.
It had grown colder while the People listened to the stories, cold enough that she knew she should seek shelter, either in the longhall or in her family’s house. Strange for this time of year, but it was so cold that thick frost rimed the ground, and the moon looked as sharp as a whale-bone needle. Laila could see her breath hanging in the air before her, and her tears, where they escaped her eyes, felt as hot as fire. Still, she only hugged herself with her arms, unwilling to wander back into the village.
Was it so bad, she wondered, to want to be a storyteller instead of just a no moon daughter? To want to be the one to keep the tales of Lalm, of the People? There were so many no moon children, it seemed, when compared to the ice moon children. Hardly special at all. And she could feel the stories sometimes, fluttering inside her, like captured birds wanting to be let free. Surely that meant that something.
She knew what her father would say; she had heard him say such things before, while he sat in the house repairing his spears. “Each of us is given certain knowledge, a certain gift when we are born. What has it to do with what we want? It is what we are. We are the People-under-the-Sky, and each of us is given the knowledge that will help the People in the best way possible. Be proud of what you are, knowing that it will help your family, your friends.”
I am proud, she thought with a sniffle. I’m glad to be able to hide our hunters so that they can bring back food for all of us. I’m glad to be able to cloak our village if raiders attack, so that they cannot find us. But I want more!
“I can’t help it,” she whispered, bowing her head. “I want to tell the stories.”
So tangled in her own thoughts was she that the sound of hooves on the icy ground made her leap backward, her heart racing. She glanced around half-wildly, looking for the noise, and finally saw the reindeer.
It stood only a stone’s throw away, close enough that, if she had had a spear, she could have killed it. A buck, it was taller than any she had ever seen, even without the massive antlers crowning its head. Its shaggy fur ruffled slightly in the wind, and it gazed at her with large dark eyes.
All this would have been enough to give her pause, from the enormous size of the animal to its odd nearness. But she hardly even considered it. Because by then she had seen the pictures, and she could see nothing else.
There on the reindeer’s sides were pictures, pictures in the fur. They changed as the wind stirred the fur, shifting slowly from one grouping to the next. Pictures of men and animals and tents. A girl alone, walking out past the edge of a village.
My eyes are playing tricks on me, she thought at first, because I have been crying. But she wiped the tears away and still the pictures remained.
Was this what the storytellers meant when they said they had gone out to find a story? For the reindeer seemed to be ice moon knowledge made flesh, a story itself. If I can catch that story, she thought, then surely it will prove that I should be a storyteller. But to catch it, she would need a rope.
The cold forgotten, Laila called on the no moon knowledge and disappeared. She jogged back into Lalm and ducked inside the nearest tent, gathering up a length of rope from the ground. Praying that the reindeer had not fled, she ran back to the place she had left it and breathed a sigh of relief. The reindeer still stood there, having only lowered its head to snuff at the ice-covered ground. It seemed not to have noticed that she had vanished, but perhaps it had not been watching. Perhaps it thought she had gone back into Lalm and stayed there. Except that when she came within a few paces of it, her rope at the ready, it jerked its head up, dark eyes wide, and loped away, only stopping when it had put a good distance between them.
Could it see her? Laila stared at the reindeer, confused. No one was ever able to see her when she held the no moon knowledge so tightly around herself. She had not been paying attention earlier that day; that was the only reason the Snow Goose man had been able to find her. If she had really wanted to stay hidden, even the best tracker would not have found her.
So no, she decided. It couldn’t see her; its running away had just been a coincidence. She started out again, though this time she used all the skills of sneaking that she knew, along with her no moon knowledge. She walked so softly that the ice barely crunched under her boots and came around the reindeer from behind. This time she got closer, close enough that she could almost reach out and touch that pictured fur. But at the last minute, the reindeer danced away.
Again and again she tried. She crept along the ground on her belly and forearms, as she had seen the hunters do. She dashed at it, hoping to startle it into running the wrong direction. She pretended to be looking for something else, only to hurl her rope at it unexpectedly. But every time, the reindeer stepped away, always just out of reach.
Maybe I have to lure it to me, she thought, her breath coming hard from her exertions. They had moved out of sight of Lalm, and part of her knew that she should go back. But the reindeer had entranced her, so that she cared only about laying her hands on the storied fur.
So she dug into her pockets and finally found a crumbling hard-cake where she had secreted it for later. Holding it in her palm, she edged closer to the reindeer, broke off a piece, and laid it on the ground. Then she backed away, her eyes never leaving the animal. It shuffled forward, nosed at the sweet, but did not eat it. Still, this was nearer than it had ever come, and, in desperation, she leapt towards the reindeer.
It shied away and Laila tumbled to the ground, her leg caught under her. Pain arced through her and she cried out, grasping her leg in her hands. She tried to push herself up, but the leg only buckled, unable to hold her weight.
“Fine!” she shouted, though the reindeer didn’t even shiver at the sound. The no moon knowledge fell away, leaving her visible for anyone to see. “I give up! I can’t be a storyteller, I can’t catch you, so you might as well just go away.” And for the second time that night, she felt tears sliding down her face.
She would have cried long and hard, except that now, sitting on the icy ground, she suddenly felt coldness sinking into her bones. I have to get up, she thought. I’ll freeze to death if I stay here. She tried again to get to her feet, but pain radiated out from her leg in sharp, shooting spikes. Even dragging herself along the ground made a sheen of sweat break out along her forehead and, try to grit her teeth and ignore the pain as she might, she had to stop. A rain moon child could have laid his hands on her and made the pain vanish, knit the bones or muscles back to their proper state. But she didn’t have rain moon knowledge; she didn’t even have anything to use as a crutch.
“Help,” she called out through chattering teeth. “Can anyone hear me?” But there was no one, she knew, no one to hear her.
The moon, so sharp and bright in the sky, seemed to be covered in ice itself. It was getting colder by the minute, much colder than it should have been during the Gathering. Only once, Laila remembered, had the snows come while the clans were gathering together. Usually, everyone was home before winter truly set in. But tonight, it would have snowed, if the sky had held any clouds.
No one knows where I am, she thought dimly. And even if I yell until I can’t yell anymore, no one will hear me. She closed her eyes. I just wanted to be a storyteller. I didn’t want to die out here.
With her eyes shut and her thoughts so jumbled, she had not heard the reindeer approach. It was only when it blew a warm breath onto her face that she jerked her eyes open and saw it standing above her.
“I don’t understand,” she mumbled. It snorted once and lowered itself to lie down beside her, its fur pressed against her side. Gingerly, Laila raised a wondering hand and laid it on the side of its face. The pictures on its fur showed the figure of the girl, her arms around a kneeling reindeer.
“I don’t understand,” she said again, and closed her eyes. She was shaking even with the new warmth from the reindeer, and she could no longer feel her nose or her cheeks. Even the pain in her leg had been replaced by numbness.
She had almost drifted off into sleep when she heard the barking.
It’s just part of my dreams, she thought. No one knows where I am. But then she heard a voice calling, “Laila! Laila!” It was Rurik’s voice.
Laila struggled to sit upright, though the reindeer hardly shifted. “I’m here!” she called. “Please, I’m here!”
And then the sounds of booted feet and dogs running over the ground clashed around her. A group of people led by her father rushed over a slight hill, dogs barking madly around them. In a moment, they surrounded her. She thought the reindeer would run then, but it only blinked placidly at the tumult around it.
Her throat felt as creaky as an old sled, but she managed to whisper, “How did you find me?”
Rurik, dropping to his knees beside her, hugged her to himself. “I went to look for you when you didn’t come back. Your mother thought you needed to be alone, but I was worried. Thank the knowledge you ran hard enough to leave some tracks for us to follow. What were you thinking, leaving the village on a night like this?”
Laila started to gesture to the reindeer, but just then another man knelt down beside her. Not only hunters had come, but a clouded moon woman and a rain moon man. Clearly her father had not known what danger awaited, and so had planned for anything. The rain moon man examined her, his healing knowledge seeping into her leg when he laid his hands on her. For the first time since she had fallen, Laila felt warm and free from pain.
“I cannot do all my work here,” the rain moon man said finally, “but she will be all right to move back to Lalm.”
No one had asked about the reindeer yet, but as her father reached down to lift her into his arms, the reindeer stood, too. A murmuring rose through the group as they noticed the pictures on its fur, which now showed a group of people surrounding the figure of the girl. Even surrounded by warm moon children, hunters all, the reindeer seemed calm and unperturbed. It merely shook its head, blinked once at Laila, and turned away, as if it had accomplished some task. It trotted to the next hill and then stopped, looking back over its shoulder towards her. Then it ambled over the hill and was gone.
Overhead, the icy moon shone down.
Laila woke in her own bed, under a pile of blankets so heavy she had to struggle to push herself up. Outside she could hear the voices of the People, but inside all lay quiet.
“Ah, I seen you’ve come back to us,” said a gravelly voice.
Laila blinked, trying to make her eyes work. Though her leg didn’t hurt anymore, she felt muddled and strange, and even more so when she finally recognized the speaker as the old storyteller, Ulf-who-Dreams.
“Where’s my family?” she asked.
“Your mother went to get a pot of stew that some of the other women made for you, and your father took your sister out so that she wouldn’t disturb you. I asked to sit with you while they were gone.”
Ulf, who had been sitting on the other side of the house, rose and came over to the bed, dragging a stool behind him. When he had settled himself, he looked at her seriously. “Do you know what happens when a storyteller goes out in search of a new story each year?”
Laila shook her head.
“He–or she–wanders in the wilderness outside the village, calling out in his heart for a story, until he sees an animal. But a special sort of animal, one that is not a true animal at all.”
Laila swallowed, licking her lips. “Then I was right. It wasn’t a real reindeer. It was a story. But how is that possible?”
“The same way that the knowledge of the People is possible. The knowledge is out there, hovering unused in the world, until a child is born. Depending on the way the moon is when the child comes into the world, a certain type of knowledge then leaves the world and settles inside the child’s body. The knowledge is always out there, and so are the stories, waiting to be found by the People. With the stories, however, it is up to the storytellers to catch them.”
“But I didn’t,” Laila admitted, her shoulders drooping. “I couldn’t catch it. I tried to use my no moon knowledge, but it didn’t work. It could still see me, and it kept getting away. I guess that’s why I’m not a real storyteller.”
But Ulf only chuckled. “Wrong. You have only learned what all storytellers learn. You can’t catch a story by force. You have to go in search of a story, lay yourself open to it, yes, but then you have to let it come to you. As you did.”
Laila’s heart, which had felt so heavy a moment before, suddenly slammed into her ribs. “I don’t understand,” she said, then shook her head ruefully. She was saying that so often lately.
“Tell me,” Ulf said, “what story did you find last night?”
Laila’s cheeks flushed hotly. She knew what she thought she had seen, but it sounded arrogant to say, silly somehow. “I thought . . . It looked like my story. A story about me.”
Ulf smiled, his face crinkling with a thousand wrinkles. “Exactly. The first story you find is always your own. It’s only afterwards, in other years, that you begin to find other stories. Though,” he laughed, “it may be hard to find a stranger story than yours.”
“But I’m a no moon daughter,” Laila insisted. “You’re acting like I’m a storyteller, a real one.”
Ulf’s face grew more solemn as he said, “You will always be a no moon daughter. It is what you were born. But sometimes, very rarely—so rarely that I have only heard of it happening one other time, when I was a boy—a person can become a two moon child. So that they have the knowledge of the moon they were born under, and the knowledge of another moon. But it only happens when the desire for new knowledge as fierce as an angry ice bear. Last night, in your distress, you called a story and one came. Only an ice moon daughter could have done that.”
She had never heard of such a thing; it went against everything she been taught. But Ulf, she knew, would not lie to her. Strange and fabulous tales they might tell, but storytellers never lied. Somehow, she could be both: an ice moon daughter and a no moon daughter. Laila felt her head spinning, but she was laughing, too. “But I don’t know all the stories of the People,” she said finally. “And there are so many. How will I learn them, when Lalm has no storyteller of its own?”
“I have already told my clan that I will remain here this winter, to teach you some of the stories. You will have a lot of work in the months ahead. But by next Gathering, you will be able to tell some of the old stories.” Ulf reached over and patted her hand. “But you should get some rest now. For tonight, you have a new story to tell. Your story.”
She didn’t really feel like sleeping; she felt like running through Lalm and crowing out her good news. She almost told Ulf that, except that a ferocious yawn escaped her at just that moment. So she only rearranged her furs and settled back down with a smile. When she finally fell asleep again, she dreamed of stories, dancing over the frosty ground.
That night, the People-under-the-Sky crowded into the longhall again. When everyone had arrived, Laila rose to her feet. Her heart beat faster as she gazed out at the People, but this time she had no desire to run away. After all, she belonged here, in the circle of storytellers, where she could keep the tales of the People.
“I am Laila-in-Shadow, Laila-Two-Moons, daughter of the Reindeer people,” she began, “and this is my story.”
Eilis O’Neal lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she is Managing Editor of Nimrod International Journal. Her YA fantasy novel, The False Princess, is forthcoming from Egmont USA in early 2011. Her short fantasy has appeared or is forthcoming in Realms of Fantasy, Strange Horizons, Fantasy Magazine, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, and others. She can be found online at www.eilisoneal.com
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish