Ice Yearning

Ice Yearning

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As they treated the few injuries, Maalioh had thought that the storm had inflicted little damage. Now, a few hours later, as he stood on the plateau just outside the precincts and looked over the valley to the bay, he was not so sure. The sky overhead was clear, but the storm still raged beyond the entrance to the bay, now held out by the power of the island's spirits. Hiiron's lake stood out black against the thick layer of new snow, which had also drifted against the houses ranged around the shore.

Looking, Maalioh could not see a single intact water door, although only a few houses had lost the whole structure. Of those that had, a couple appeared to have collapsed completely, now no more than long, slender piles of jumbled blocks of ice. The land doors had fared better; their own was, as expected, completely destroyed, but most were still standing, although several showed signs of lightning strikes. Down at the bay, it looked like several boats had been lost, and he wasn't sure that any were undamaged, although it was too far for him to be sure. The tone of the mutterings he could hear around him suggested that his assessment was not far out.

Kiisair clapped her hands once and called from behind them, acting as her mistress's herald as usual.

"Listen! Liifa will speak." Everyone turned to face the shamans, who stood within the central gate. Liifa herself was just off-centre, while Kiisair was a step behind her, and in the left hand side of the opening. Ketaa, meanwhile, was further back, and almost in line with the right-hand upright. The scarlet bulk of the shrine formed an imposing backdrop.

"Sairtowa and Faaniloh have driven the spirit back, but it was a mighty storm spirit, and we have not escaped unscathed. Thanks to the courage and skill of our doctor and his apprentice, we have no deaths or serious injuries, and thanks to them and the moonchild we were all safely within the shrine for the worst of the battle. Thus we still have our strength, and can face the challenges, and rebuild.

"First, then, return to your homes and assess the damage. Those of you who cannot stay there may stay in the shrine. We will assemble there tomorrow at moontouch, to plan our actions.

"Go, and Sairtowa watches over you." Everyone bowed, and then moved to the stairs in household groups. The snow had largely been blown away from the upper steps by the force of the battle, but as they descended it became thicker, and the going slower. Maalioh was not sure that they would be able to stay in their house, even though Fiitan had remained in the shrine for now, and he wasn't looking forward to having to climb the steps again later, most likely in the dark.

As they walked, Tiisam came to walk beside him.

"Maalioh?" He looked at her, smiled, and blushed.


"I just wanted to thank you again for helping with my brother. I remember what it's like to be an apprentice; the master gets all the credit, no matter how hard you work." Maalioh was blushing even more now.

"Tohflair does do most of the work, you know."

"Yes, that's what I said, too."

"But..." Maalioh was briefly at a loss for words. "But everyone knows that you're a much better hunter than Wohsair. Even she says so." Tiisam smiled again, and laughed a little.

"Actually, she says I have much more potential. And she's still a better wolverine hunter than I am."

"But you are better with birds, already." Tiisam just smiled, shaking her head slightly, and said nothing for a moment.

"Anyway, I just wanted to thank you again, before we all get too busy repairing damage."

"It was my duty. Duty requires no thanks."

"Ah, but it might deserve it. I was listening too, you know." With another laugh, Tiisam bowed her farewell and returned to her parents. Nairla was still muttering and glancing back, but Tiisam and Wohsair had finally convinced her that Fiitan would be perfectly safe in the shrine; Fiitan's repeated protests to that effect had had no effect whatsoever.

* * *

From the outside, the damage to the porch looked even worse than it had from within. The lightning strike had collapsed the whole upper level, filling the interior with jumbled blocks of ice, and the storm's snowfall had settled into the gaps. It took only a few minutes for both Maalioh and Tohflair to be sure that there was no way in through it, and that repairs would take days, even if they had a lot of help.

The damage to the main body of the house, by contrast, was a lot lighter. The hole in the roof remained, but it looked like their props, and the release of the blocks into the interior, had stopped the damage from spreading. Soliin's rip in the quilting was along a seam, and while a lot of feathers had been lost, the leather was salvageable.

Inside, they came to the conclusion that they had been very lucky. The water porch was still intact, and they could see from the shore that many were not. What was more, the damage that the storm had wrought inside was only minor; the wind had knocked all the curtains down, and there was a lot of snow, some of which had melted, but the only serious damage was that one of Tohflair's glass flasks had been shattered by a falling lamp stand. The doctor sighed when he found the shards.

"Tama said this was from the Empire of the Sun." He picked up one of the delicate fragments and held it up to the light. "That was probably just talk, but it took him two years to get hold of it. Towa alone knows how long it will take him to find a replacement." Maalioh said nothing, merely nodding in sympathy and busying himself collecting the fragments.

Despite the lack of damage, however, it was clear that they could not spend the night in the house; the large hole in the roof would make it far too cold. Together, Tohflair and Maalioh pitched the tent that had covered Fiitan over the damage, with one eye on the storm that was still furious over the ice, and made themselves a simple meal before heading back to the shrine.

As they climbed, Maalioh could see another family in front of them, and a second one had started up the steps before they reached the top. Maalioh and Tohflair bowed at the outer gate, and again at the doors. As they entered, Kiisair came to greet them.

"We were expecting you. How bad is the damage?" Tohflair smiled.

"Very light, apart from the wreck of the porch. The hole in the roof means that we cannot stay there tonight, but I think we could repair the quilting tomorrow, and the hole fairly soon after that. Clearing the porch should also not take long. Inside, there is not much damage at all." Kiisair looked very relieved.

"It sounds like you got off relatively lightly in the end, then. At least two houses collapsed completely, and the winds wrecked the interiors of others." Maalioh looked around. There were already a couple of dozen people in the shrine.

"There is at least one more family coming," he said. "We saw them behind us. That means that at least half the houses are unusable."

"You are right." Liifa had come over to join them. "We must hope that the men get back soon, because we will need their assistance." They both knelt in front of the shaman, but she quickly motioned them to rise. "We should all rest tonight, because we will have to work hard from tomorrow."

* * *

In the morning, Tohflair decided that they had time to get back to the house, clear some of the fallen ice, and then get back to the shrine before the meeting. Maalioh couldn't argue with his master's logic, but he had been hoping to rest for a while after the exertion of the previous day. In the end, they quickly found that the blocks of ice were too big for one of them to lift out of the hole, and that the hole was too high to reach if they were both inside. Between them, they soon devised a simple winch, but actually adapting the tent and getting the carrying basket securely fixed took them the whole morning, until well after moonrise. They did manage to raise two loads before Tohflair looked at the dart of the rising moon and called it a day.

"We'd better go; we mustn't be late."

"No, master." Maalioh wasn't about to argue. He turned from where he stood on the roof to look out across the bay; the storm still raged over the pack ice. "That's a very persistent spirit." Tohflair looked over.

"Yes, but it will get bored soon. It's clear that Faaniloh is keeping it out successfully." Maalioh nodded, and slid down from the roof. Across the lake he could see other families abandoning their repair attempts and heading for the shrine, so he was not surprised when Tohflair set a fast pace.

The women, and the few remaining men, of the tribe gathered in the nave of the shrine, and Liifa, Kiisair, and Ketaa moved among them, asking for information. Maalioh tried to watch their expressions; Liifa and Kiisair kept theirs neutral, which was not a good sign, but the grim look that settled over Ketaa's face was even worse. Finally, the three shamans met to confer, and then Liifa mounted the platform to address them all.

"It is not good. Four houses have been completely destroyed, and we must assume that the supplies in them are lost. Another six houses have been very badly damaged inside and out, and those supplies are lost. Only one of the four caches that have been checked was intact, and all the remaining houses have some damage. And, of course, almost all the men are on Miisesaa, and are not due to return for several days.

"Those who do not have houses may, of course, stay in the shrine until they can rebuild. But we are short of food."

The tribe erupted in murmurs of consternation. Maalioh held his tongue, but his mind was racing, looking for solutions. He feared that there would be little he or his master could do; medicine was little good without food. Tohflair was also silent, but the look of concern on his face suggested that he was thinking along similar lines. Other groups, families and neighbours, continued talking, and Liifa waited, letting the initial reaction pass.

"Why didn't Sairtowa protect us?" Nairla's voice rose above the background, and was clearly a question directed at Liifa. The shaman turned to look in her direction, glowering.

"How can you suggest that we were not protected? How can you even think that?" Liifa's tone was controlled, but Maalioh could hear the control in every syllable, keeping anger in check. "We were assaulted by a strong storm spirit and no-one, not even the man who was already injured, suffered more than minor bruising. I think Sairtowa's protection is obvious enough."

"That's not much help if we're all going to starve to death." Nairla was still defiant, and there were a few murmurs of support, although Maalioh noticed that Tiisam was looking embarrassed, and avoiding her mother's gaze. Liifa took a deep breath and raised her hands placatingly.

"We are not all going to starve to death. We are short of food, but not that short." Nairla was still unconvinced.

"So, are you saying that it is time for Sairtowa to decide who will continue the tribe? Time for a kinslaying?" Everyone fell silent, and Maalioh felt as though Soliin had punched him in the stomach. Could Nairla be right? It wasn't Liifa who spoke up, however.

"Not yet. Kaalohsair's bounty can still sustain us." Maalioh turned to look at Prohlima, and the priestess looked determined. "Even in the heart of winter, there are still beasts to hunt."

"But not enough." Nairla sounded defensive now.

"Enough for what? Enough to live luxuriously, with weekly feasts? No. Enough for everyone to survive, if the hunters work hard? I believe so. Liifa said that one of the caches was intact, and we still have the stores in about half of the houses. It will be a hard winter, to be sure, but we need not die."

"I will help. The murre, guillemot, dovekie, and ptarmigan can all be hunted in winter without a special pact." It was Tiisam, and she spoke loudly even though she looked rather flushed. She was pointedly not looking at her mother.

"Thank you, Tiisam," Prohlima said. "Kaalohsair will bless your hunting. I will hunt hares and lemmings." Maalioh began to feel better about the situation; with Tiisam and Prohlima leading the hunters, they would surely find a good amount of food. "And when the men return, they can hunt the walrus." That was also true; the men would be back before too long, and the walrus stayed close enough to the island to be safely hunted in winter. Liifa nodded her acknowledgement to Prohlima, and spoke again.

"Things are not good, but we are all alive, and we still have the resources to survive. I will negotiate with Hiiron for permission to fish the lake again. It will be a hard winter, but we are a strong tribe, and we will survive."

Maalioh let his breath out, and nodded to himself. It was hard, but far from hopeless. Around him, he was aware of other people doing the same; even Nairla had subsided into silence. Liifa waited a few moments, and then continued.

"The hunters must hunt. We need all the food they can gather. Everyone else must work on repairing and rebuilding the houses. Repair must be the first priority, so that we can get as many people as possible living in the village again." She paused, and Tohflair spoke up.

"I do not think it will take long to repair our house, and once it is repaired we can house another family. Thanks to Sairtowa's protection, we do not need the infirmary space." Liifa smiled at him.

"Thank you, doctor. That confirms my belief that we should repair your house first; if there are further injuries, we should have a functioning infirmary. But we must discuss this in detail. I will confer with the heads of families for a while." Liifa nodded to Kiisair, who clapped her hands and formally closed the meeting.

"Liifa has spoken. Sairtowa has heard, and remembers."

* * *

Tohflair was counted as a family head, despite being a man, and thus was called away to the meeting. Maalioh stood around feeling useless for a few minutes, and then decided to go to check on Fiitan. He found the man in conversation with his sister.

"... have to do it publicly." He sounded rather annoyed.

"Neither did she. I don't think we are doomed, and I want to do my part." Tiisam sounded half defensive, half defiant, and Maalioh thought she blushed briefly as she looked up and caught his eye. "Oh, Maalioh. I didn't see you." Fiitan quickly looked over, his eyes suspicious, measuring, and then relaxed, apparently judging that the apprentice was not a problem.

"Maalioh. Thank you for coming. My leg isn't too bad at the moment. Mind you, feel free to take your time repairing the infirmary." Maalioh grinned, but Tiisam looked puzzled.

"Why?" She looked between her brother and Maalioh.

"I don't believe Fiitan is looking forward to the return journey. Don't worry, Fiitan. Without a storm spirit, and with someone other than Soliin carrying you, you should be fine." Tiisam had started smiling, but she suddenly frowned, shaking her head.

"She'll hear you!" she hissed, keeping her voice down. Maalioh looked at her in surprise.

"But she's right over..." he gestured to the back of the shrine; Soliin always kept herself out of the way, making her distance from the rest of the tribe obvious. And, indeed, she had been over there, but she was now striding across the floor, bearing down on them, her ice bear hood pulled over her head. "Oh, Towa's toenails. She did." Maalioh felt his heart sink as his stomach started to churn. There was nowhere to run, and he just stood there as the moonchild approached.

"So, you didn't like my assistance. I should have left you in the storm to die." Soliin kept her voice low, apparently not wanting to draw Liifa's attention.

"I'm really sorry, Soliin. I didn't mean it like that..." She cut him off.

"Oh, really? How did you mean it, then? It sounded a lot like you were saying that it would be better if I didn't help you."

"No, just..." Maalioh trailed off, floundering. Soliin was right; it had been an unfair joke. "I'm really sorry."

"I don't believe you. Down on the floor. Kneel down and kiss my feet." She stuck a bare leg out of the cloak, and Maalioh began to lower himself to his knees.

Suddenly, Tiisam was standing between him and the moonchild.

"He just made a joke to cheer my brother up, Soliin. Leave him alone."

"Why are you defending him?"

"He saved my brother's life." Soliin had no answer to that, and Maalioh bit back his instinctive denial. Now really was not the time. There was a pause, and Maalioh stood up straight again, moving aside to look at the girl and woman staring one another down. Soliin was already slightly taller, and the snow-white of her skin and hair, even paler than the fur on her cloak, was a sharp contrast to Tiisam's deep brown skin and shining black hair. The bear's jaw shaded her face, reminding everyone that she had killed it single handed, and unarmed. Tiisam's tunic was fringed with the feathers of dozens of birds, however, and she didn't back down. Tiisam's eyes, wide and brown like most in the tribe, returned Soliin's red glare without flinching. Soliin shifted slightly, and Tiisam responded.

"Soliin!" Tiisam's voice was barely above a whisper, but urgent nonetheless. "We're in Sairtowa's shrine, and face a crisis. Don't!"

"Don't what?" Soliin's voice sounded innocent, but the pause before she spoke and the relaxation in her body betrayed her; with a shock, Maalioh realised that she had been planning to attack the hunter.

"Don't think you can bring in more food for the tribe than I can." Tiisam responded very smoothly, and Maalioh was impressed. Soliin wasn't, however.

"Why would I hunt for the rest of you? You aren't my tribe." Stark white amid the brown skins of Maalioh and the others, she certainly seemed separate, but Tiisam merely shrugged.

"Well, if you're that sure I'd win, I won't press it."

"You win? Don't be absurd. I can bring in more meat in one bear hunt than you can do in a week of hunting your little birds."

"You say."

"Watch me!" The moonchild spun round and stalked off to the doors, flinging them open and storming out of the shrine. Tiisam and Maalioh both shook their heads as they watched her go.

"So easy to manipulate," Tiisam said. Maalioh smiled, but shook his head.

"She might bring one bear in, to prove she can, but she'll quickly decide that she doesn't need to prove she's better than you." Tiisam looked quickly at Fiitan, who grimaced, and nodded in agreement. Her face fell.

"Oh well. At least I stopped her from hitting you."

"Yes. Yes, thank you for that."

"You're most welcome." Tiisam smiled brightly at him, so that after a moment Maalioh had to drop his eyes to the floor.

* * *

It was no surprise that the heads of families had agreed with Liifa that Tohflair's house should be repaired first. From the bits Tohflair mentioned, Maalioh gathered that agreement on future priorities had been much more difficult, and that the offer to Nairla to let her family be the one to stay in the infirmary had been necessary to break the deadlock.

Maalioh definitely had mixed feelings about that, which he tried to put in some sort of order the next day, as a couple of dozen people helped them to repair their house. In the end, of course, it wasn't everyone; there were some children too young to help, and some men and women too old, and a couple of women had been set to carrying more supplies up to the shrine, to handle the people who would be staying there. The hunters, of course, were out, which meant that Tiisam was not helping. On balance, Maalioh was glad of that. Nairla was focusing most of her grateful attention on Tohflair, for which Maalioh was simply grateful.

He was stationed on the roof, at first helping to operate their winch, which gave him a good view of the storm, still thundering although it could not, apparently, approach the island. He couldn't remember another storm spirit that had been so persistent, and the nervous looks from the other villagers suggested that this wasn't entirely due to his youth.

It took very little time to clear the ice from the hole in the roof, but then they had to move the winch to the porch, and that took a lot longer. The deep drifts of snow against what remained of the walls made access difficult, and although they made a first attempt just before noon, the winch proved not to be firmly fixed. In the end, it was moonrise before they moved the first load of ice, and the arrival of a group of hunters brought them to a halt.

"Maalioh!" Tiisam called and waved, sounding happy. She held up three birds; Maalioh peered at them, and realised that they were ptarmigan. He groaned, and then quickly schooled his face to look pleased. It did look like a good haul for one morning, and most people liked ptarmigan; it wasn't Tiisam's fault that the smell alone made Maalioh want to vomit. He waved back, and, noticing that everyone was going to talk to the hunters, jumped down from the wall to join them.

"We had good hunting, Maalioh. There seem to be more ptarmigan around than normal, and I got a guillemot as well." Wohsair, looking equally pleased, came up beside her.

"I only got a couple of ptarmigan, but for a morning, at this time of year? That's lucky. Maybe Sairtowa struck a deal with their guardian spirit." Their happiness was infectious, and Maalioh found himself smiling. Maybe the tribe wouldn't have it so bad after all. Behind them, a third hunter, Katen, shook her head ruefully.

"I only got a couple of dovekies." She held the small birds up, and forced a smile; they really were small. "I think the storm scattered them. Still, they'll be back."

"So, Maalioh," Tiisam said. "You can have first choice. Which bird would you like?" Wohsair frowned, and Tiisam seemed to notice. "For you and the doctor, of course." Maalioh could feel the blood rushing to his face.

"Ah, that's very kind. Er..." Although he desperately wanted to pick the guillemot, he knew that his master really liked ptarmigan. For a moment his selfish desire wrestled with his duty, and then duty won. "That ptarmigan, please." He thought he had picked the second-best one, and as Tiisam started to hand it over, Wohsair put a hand on her arm.

"No, Tiisam. This one." The older hunter indicated the best of the three, smiling and nodding at Maalioh. "Maalioh knows his manners, but that's still no excuse for slighting the doctor." Tiisam's skin darkened, and she dropped her eyes to stare at her feet for a few seconds.

"I'm sorry," she said, looking up. "I should have thought." Maalioh shook his head, accepting the gift, but couldn't think of anything to say. He just smiled instead, and that seemed to be enough.

Tohflair was very pleased with the ptarmigan, and had Maalioh put it in the store; he said they would eat it to celebrate the repair of the house. The hunters shared a simple meal with the workers before setting off again, confident that they could catch more before sunset. The work on the porch progressed well, and by sundown Maalioh could get into the house through the land door fairly easily. Tohflair had taken a look at the gap and declared that he wasn't going to wriggle through that at his age, which raised a laugh, and they returned to the shrine for the night.

Since the work on the land porch was going so well, a couple of the women went inside the house the next morning, and started working on fixing the quilting. Two builders started sorting the discarded ice, looking for reusable chunks, and sent a small group off to the mountains to bring some new blocks back from the glacier. With fewer hands, work on the porch slowed, but it was still clear soon after moontouch, just before the women sent to the glacier returned with a laden sled.

Repairing the structures needed a bit more thought, and the people with no useful skills were sent to the next house. That turned out to be Katen's; it had lost its water door completely, and most of the lakeside end had caved in. Katen's young daughter Teni was already trying to remove blocks of ice when they arrived, but she was only six, and had made no difference. When they started work, they found that the warmth of the lake had remelted some of the ice, and even with over two dozen people helping they had made no visible impact before sunset. At the shrine the builders were joking that they'd have Tohflair's land porch finished before everyone else could clear the wreckage at Katen's.

By the next night, they were laying bets, rather than joking.

At noon the following day, the rubble was finally cleared, and the workers ran round the lake to where the builders had just started on the roof of the the land porch. They complained good-naturedly, and demanded a second opinion. Tiisam was back from a hunt, leaving another ptarmigan with Tohflair, and she volunteered to check, soon returning to confirm that it was cleared. Maalioh waved to her, and she smiled and waved back but, glancing across at her mother, did not approach. Maalioh blushed again, wondering what she had guessed. The builders tried to argue that, if they finished on the same day, it counted as a dead heat, so the bets were off, but the others were having none of it, and all work stopped for a while as they went to get the materials to pay their gambling debts. The storm still continued, hanging over the ice, but that night, as Maalioh lay in his usual bed, with Tiisam and her family behind curtains a bit further towards the lake, he reflected that the tribe seemed to have pulled through the crisis well.

* * *

Maalioh was first up in the morning, taking his bucket to collect fresh snow. For the first time since before the storm the sky was covered in grey clouds, although it didn't seem that any snow had fallen yet. He glanced out across the bay, and then looked back. The storm was gone; the spirit had, it seemed, finally given up. He wondered whether that accounted for the change in the weather, as he looked around the surrounding hills, trying to decide where would be the easiest place to get undisturbed snow.

As he stood there, Katen came hurrying towards him.

"Maalioh! Maalioh! Get Tohflair! Teni is sick!"

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