Ice Yearning

Ice Yearning

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The moon was already sinking in the east by the time Maalioh and Tohflair had finished seeing all the patients. Two were in houses with fully-repaired water porches, so they had swum to them, but one was not, and more time had been lost wrapping up against the night's chill. They had made their way to the patient while snow was falling, feeling their way from one waystone to the next, but by the time they had finished the sky had cleared. Kaalohsair was directly overhead, flourishing his spear, but Saliipipi was nowhere to be seen; Maalioh could not help taking that as a bad omen.

It was not nearly as bad as the disease, however. The three new patients, all children, had the same symptoms as Teni, although they were less advanced. Maalioh had seen nothing like it, and Tohflair seemed to be equally at a loss.

When they entered their house, Tiisam was waiting for them, half asleep in a pile of cushions. The pulse of cold air from the door stirred her, and she sprang to her feet.

"I've prepared dinner for you. Fresh ptarmigan and pink gull, with vegetables from our stores." She asked nothing, preparing the meal as Maalioh and his master unwrapped their outer garments. Maalioh relaxed into the warmth of the house, and felt his fatigue catch up with him.

Maalioh found himself picking at his food, as worry reduced his appetite. Tohflair was also eating little, which gave Maalioh the ideal excuse to avoid his ptarmigan altogether. Tiisam was watching them with concern, clearly wanting to ask about the situation. After a few minutes, Tohflair looked straight at her, and gently shook his head.

"Thank you for the food, Tiisam. You should go to bed; you will have to hunt again tomorrow." It was politely said, but clearly a dismissal, and Tiisam took it as such. Tohflair waited, to give her time to get into bed, and then sighed and put his plate down.

"We will have to talk to Liifa tomorrow, Maalioh." Tohflair kept his voice low, but fatigue and worry were clear in it. "This may be the work of a spirit." Maalioh said nothing; it was the possibility he had been worrying about, but hearing it from his master made it all the more real.

"I have never seen anything like this, and I don't remember anything similar from the books," Tohflair continued. "Maybe Saliipipi never encountered a spirit like this." He picked up the plate again, and ate a couple of mouthfuls before giving up, staring into space. When he spoke again, it seemed that he was only half talking to Maalioh.

"I remember the last time I faced something like this. One of the fishermen came back with a fever, and nothing would bring it down. At first, he had a very strong appetite, but soon he lost it. Even feeding him nothing but fish and seaweed had no effect on the excess of fire, and Liifa could find no spirit causing the imbalance." He did look at Maalioh then. "I wish you could have had more of your training before facing this kind of problem." He fell silent, and Maalioh wrestled with whether he should ask the question.

"Master, what happened to him?" Tohflair blinked, and then lowered his eyes.

"He died, after two weeks."

* * *

Maalioh got no sleep that night. His master's answer was a shock. In his seven years as an apprentice, Maalioh had only seen one of his master's patients die of anything other than old age, and he had been gored by a walrus so badly that Tohflair was astonished he had lived to get back to the village. Even then the doctor had been able to ease his pain and clear his head, so that he could make proper farewells to his husband and sons. Somehow, Maalioh had believed that there was nothing his master could not treat; certainly, most of the Piisairtowa believed that, as did most of the surrounding tribes.

He rose, haggard, in the morning, and prepared his master's breakfast. Tiisam rose a little later; she said nothing, but the way her face fell when she looked at him showed that she had understood more from his expression than he would have liked. With an effort, he forced a smile.

"Good morning, Tiisam. Thank you for the dinner last night." She shook her head.

"It was nothing. You need to keep up your strength until you have cured the disease." Maalioh had to work hard to keep his face neutral at that, but he managed a short nod. Tiisam seemed to be waiting for him to say something, but Maalioh could not bring himself to speak. In the end, she gave up.

"Well, I should get out on the hunt. I'm planning to go after gulls today; everyone has been focusing on the ptarmigan. Good luck." As she walked past, she put her hand on his shoulder, and the whole of Maalioh's body tingled. He quickly turned to finish preparing breakfast, mumbling his thanks.

Tohflair emerged almost as soon as Tiisam had left, leading Maalioh to suspect that he had been avoiding her. His face was still grim, but maybe a little more positive than it had been the previous day.

"The children are not dead yet." Maalioh nodded. "Even if the books are no help, we can think for ourselves. Moderate the symptoms. Let their bodies heal themselves." The doctor took the offered plate and ate quickly, his eyes unfocused as he lost himself in thought. Maalioh tried to follow his example, but soon realised that his appetite had really not returned, and he certainly couldn't force down even the small amount of ptarmigan he'd served himself. When Tohflair stood and began dressing, Maalioh abandoned his breakfast and started pulling on his own outer garments. Nairla came out of the area set aside for her family.

"You're leaving? What about Fiitan? You haven't looked at him." With a shock, Maalioh realised that he had forgotten the fisherman. Tohflair was about to reply when a voice came from behind the curtains.

"Mother, I'm fine. The doctor has to go to see the sick children."

"But you might fall prey to the illness..." Nairla had turned back to the curtains, and peeped inside.

"If I do, then I'll call the doctor."

"That might be too late!" Tohflair grinned at Maalioh, and the genuine amusement on his face cheered Maalioh as well. His master beckoned to him, and they crept quietly out of the land door while Fiitan and his mother continued arguing.

When they had walked some distance from the house, Tohflair actually laughed.

"Fiitan must be desperate for his fathers to get back; they seem to be the only people who can get his mother to back off."

"What about his husband?" Tohflair snorted in disbelief.

"Are you serious? Laka avoids Nairla as much as possible; she doesn't believe he's good enough for her little boy. I hope asking them to stay in our house wasn't too big a mistake..." The doctor's voice trailed off, as his train of thought seemed to bring him back to the problem at hand. His steps slowed for a while, and then, with a slight shake of his whole body, he picked up the pace again, leaving Maalioh to hurry to catch up.

Tohflair hardly eased up even when they began climbing the steps to the shrine. The wind in the latter part of the night had cleared most of the snow, and although the clouds were thickening they had yet to drop their load of snow, so the steps were relatively easy. Nevertheless, Maalioh was breathing hard by the time they reached the top, and Tohflair actually paused outside the precincts, leaning against the wall while he caught his breath. Not for long, though; he soon led Maalioh through the right-hand gate, pausing only to bow deeply.

As soon as they entered the shrine, they were greeted by a babble of voices. Maalioh understood at once, from the tone, that the children had not recovered, and he quickly confirmed that they were not dead. It took a little longer to piece together the details of the situation, and even Tohflair's requests for one person to provide a straightforward account fell on deaf ears.

This was not, in the end, surprising. Teni and Pesii were no better, although also not noticeably worse. However, all of the other children had fallen ill, even the nursing babies. Their symptoms were the same, and as Maalioh examined them all he felt his panic growing again. He fought to keep it from showing, but he feared that he was failing; certainly, he could see Tohflair's growing concern, and the doctor had far more practice at schooling his expressions.

After examining the last patient, Tohflair announced that he needed to speak to the shamans. Ketaa sprang to her feet, as Liifa said,

"Of course. We will confer in Hiiron's Chamber." Tohflair beckoned Maalioh to follow as they headed for the steps leading down, but at the top Ketaa moved to stand in front of him.

"Wait above, boy." Maalioh took a step back, but Tohflair intervened.

"No, I want my apprentice to join us." Ketaa did not move.

"Ketaa, let Maalioh past. And then remain at the top of the steps to ensure that we are not disturbed." The young shaman briefly lost her poise, flicking a disbelieving look at Liifa, and then a look of hostility at Maalioh. Still, she stood aside, and when Maalioh looked back at her as he descended, she had recovered her normal dignity, standing with her arms folded at the head of the stairs.

Hiiron's Chamber was a natural cave under the shrine, where the hot spring that fed the lake and Hiiron's Flame burst from the ground. As they entered they bowed to the flame, and when he straightened up Maalioh thought that he could see a pair of eyes within it. This close to the flame it was even warmer than above, and Maalioh felt himself beginning to sweat. Liifa sat, with Kiisair standing behind her, and she motioned for Tohflair to do the same. He shook his head.

"I would rather stand, if you would permit it. I am too..." He paused, apparently searching for the right word. "Nervous. Too nervous to sit."

"As you wish, doctor." Liifa's voice was as calm as ever. "What is your diagnosis?" Tohflair sighed, and began pacing.

"I do not know. Most of the children in the village are now showing the same symptoms. They have an excess of fire and water, which is very unusual. However, Maalioh detects the same imbalance, and it would explain both the chill and the feeling of heat. An excess of water would also explain the vomiting." He paused, and Liifa broke in.

"Will they recover?"

"I don't know." The sentence was short and sharp, and brought Tohflair to a sudden stop in his pacing. He breathed deeply for some time before continuing. "I don't know. I have never seen anything like this, nor have I read about it. The imbalance is highly unnatural, so normally I would expect it to right itself quickly, within a day or so." He paused again, this time looking straight at Liifa. "If the cause is removed, they should recover quickly. But I do not know what the cause could be."

"You suspect a spirit." It was not a question.

"My lady, I am not knowledgeable in the ways of spirits."

"You are not completely ignorant, either," Liifa pointed out. "I agree that it is a possibility we need to consider. However, Sairtowa did not detect any disease spirits entering the area."

"My lady, I do not know what could naturally cause this." Now Maalioh could clearly hear the tension in his master's voice.

"Then I must also accept that it might be a spirit. Your knowledge of natural philosophy is unmatched in the Frozen Islands." Tohflair nodded, once; that was not flattery so much as a universally recognised fact. Maalioh was well aware that he, personally, was his master's only possible competition, and he knew far less than his teacher. Liifa continued. "The storm spirit was large and powerful; a subtle disease spirit could have slipped in while both Sairtowa and Faaniloh were occupied with it." Maalioh's eyes widened slightly in surprise, a reaction that did not escape the shaman. "Yes, Maalioh, both. If you are to succeed your master, you need to know more of the truth, but you must say nothing of what you have learned. You do not yet have the discretion to decide for yourself what can be made public."

"Yes, my lady." Maalioh felt greatly privileged, a feeling reinforced by his master's next words.

"You do my apprentice an honour, my lady."

"You clearly trust him, doctor, or you would not have brought him to the meeting. On this, as well, I will follow your judgement." Tohflair bowed, and then smiled.

"Truly, Sairtowa has blessed us in your leadership." Liifa looked at him for a moment, and then chuckled briefly.

"Very well, doctor." Maalioh had no idea what that was about, and Liifa left him no time to think further. "We will search for a spirit. What can you do while we are searching?" And then Tohflair said something that turned Maalioh's legs to jelly.

"My apprentice will explain." Maalioh's mind went blank. What could he explain? Tohflair had not discussed this with him. His eyes searched his master's face, but he saw only expectation. Could he have forgotten a discussion? No, that made no sense. He turned his gaze back to the old shaman, who was looking at him expectantly.

"Well, Maalioh?" she asked. Maalioh floundered again.

"I... Well... That is..." Taking a deep breath, he pulled himself together. "I am deeply honoured to be asked to speak." He bowed formally, kneeling and pressing his forehead to the floor, buying himself a little thinking time. By the time he stood up, most of the pieces had come together.

"First, although the patients complain of the heat, they are actually cold. They must be kept warm.

"Second, as they have an excess of fire and water, foods rich in those should be avoided. Fish and seaweed are heavy in water, while berries have a great deal of fire. Roots and tubers have more earth and wood, while birds have more air, so they would be suitable.

"Third, there is the problem that they do not seem to be able to hold food or water down. Water may not be a problem for a while, as they have an excess already, but we must look into ways to help them feed." He finished, looking over at Tohflair, who simply nodded, his face neutral.

"It is as my apprentice says. I believe that they may be able to keep very small amounts of food down, but we have not yet tested that idea." The shaman nodded.

"Will this cure them?"

"It may," Tohflair answered, "depending on the strength of the cause. However, it is more likely to simply keep the symptoms under control and give us more time to look for that cause."

"And could they die?" Tohflair frowned; he clearly did not like discussing the subject.

"They could starve to death. The chill does not, yet, seem life threatening, but I fear I do not know how this disease will progress." Liifa nodded, her face grim.

"We will search for spirits; the care of the sick, we leave to you."

* * *

Maalioh thought that they got home before sunset, but the heavy clouds, which had sporadically dropped snow during the day, made it hard to tell for sure. After the shrine, they had been round all the homes with sick children, confirming that the symptoms were still the same everywhere. As soon as they entered the main house, Nairla emerged from the curtains and hurried towards them, pursued by her son's voice.

"Ignore her, I'm fine." She stopped in her tracks, her face darkening, and disappeared back behind the curtains. The argument that followed was conducted quietly enough that Maalioh could not hear the details, but at least it kept Nairla out of their way.

Maalioh was exhausted, and sank onto the cushions next to the hearth without waiting for permission. Tohflair said nothing, simply sitting down across the hearth from him and putting his head in his hands. They sat in silence for some time. Maalioh was remembering the crying children, complaining of the heat as they tried to throw all coverings off their icy bodies, vomiting through their sobs when they had tried to eat. In the end, they found that very small amounts of completely fresh meat did not provoke vomiting, and the parents had been left with instructions to feed the children small amounts of fowl many times per day.

After sitting for a few minutes, Maalioh finally noticed that he was hungry, and started to stir himself to prepare dinner. Before he could do much more than stand up, however, the curtains were pushed aside, and Tiisam returned from her hunting. She looked at him, and her smile quickly changed to a look of shock.

"Maalioh! Sit down again! You look dreadful. Let me get undressed, and I'll prepare the dinner."

"Thank you." Maalioh sank down again, and the ache in his head subsided a bit. Tohflair had still barely moved since sitting down, and had yet to acknowledge Tiisam's return. The hunter hurried over, talking brightly, and Maalioh thought she was making a determined effort to be cheerful.

"Don't the houses feel warm when you come in from hunting? Oh, I suppose you don't know, but I imagine it's the same when you're visiting patients over land. Of course, they feel cold when you come in through the water door. It's strange, I hardly ever do that." Maalioh smiled as the young hunter busied herself around them, first hanging up her catch for the day and then moving to prepare the food.

"Hunting's getting a bit harder now; the birds seem to have re-settled after the storm. I think a couple of hunters even came back empty-handed, although the ptarmigan still seem to be disturbed. Prohlima managed to catch three hares, though, which is impressive for the middle of winter." She paused. Tohflair had yet to even acknowledge her presence, and Maalioh felt compelled to say something.

"I'd quite like to eat some fresh hare." Immediately, he blushed, realising that it could sound like a criticism of Tiisam's hunting.

"Really? I'll trade something with her, then." Tiisam looked up at the day's take, her face thoughtful. "The guillemot, I think. There are more ptarmigan around, but I'm the only one who's caught guillemot recently." She was preparing the stove as she spoke, pushing bones, skin, and fat into the fuel area and getting it burning steadily. "So, I guess I'll be cooking the ptarmigan tonight." Fortunately, she wasn't looking at Maalioh as she said that, because he didn't manage to keep his face completely under control. He put it in his hands, copying his master for long enough to restore a calm expression.

"It seems warmer in here than normal. You don't mind if I take my tunic off, do you? I suppose it's because I'm cooking." Maalioh looked up, and Tiisam had already grasped the hem, but she did seem to be waiting for permission.

"Er, no. No, I don't mind." She pulled the tunic over her head, dropping it behind the cushions, and continued her preparations naked. Maalioh knew he should look away, but he couldn't. The smooth brown curves of her body held his attention, even though she was a member of his tribe. Her long limbs, strong from constant exercise. Her black hair, shining as it fell straight to her shoulders. Her skin, richly coloured, smooth and dry.

Dry. Suddenly, Maalioh was fully alert.

"Tiisam, could you come here a moment?" She looked round, puzzled.

"Of course. What is it?" Maalioh stood up, and once she was in front of him he put his hand quickly on her forehead, between her breasts, and then, reaching round, on the small of her back. Her forehead felt normal, but her chest and back were distinctly cool. Peering at her chest, he thought he could see the beginnings of red lines. It was only when he finished that he realised Tiisam had gone very still. He looked at her face, which was creased with worry.

"Maalioh, do you think...?" The question tailed off; Maalioh guessed that his face had betrayed him again. He couldn't bring himself to answer her directly.

"Master, I think you should examine Tiisam. She is complaining of the heat, but her body is cold." Tohflair's head came up sharply, and it took him long moments to suppress the panic written on his features.

* * *

Tohflair was not willing to commit himself after the examination, but he had made Tiisam put her tunic back on, on the grounds that it was no warmer than normal in the house. Maalioh helped her to finish preparing the meal, watching her carefully, and even Nairla emerged to make sure that her daughter was all right. Wohsair returned from her hunt, empty-handed, just before the meal was ready, and was quickly pulled aside by Nairla.

By the time they sat down, around Fiitan's bed so that he didn't get bored, Tiisam was fidgeting constantly with hem and collar of her tunic, although she never complained about the temperature. Watching her carefully, Maalioh concluded that she was trying to create evidence that she wasn't ill. As the meal progressed, she started eating more slowly, the muscles in her throat working hard with every mouthful. Maalioh wasn't surprised when she sprang up, before finishing, and ran for the latrine. He was quick enough to get a clean bucket, and stop her.

"In here, please." Tiisam doubled up, vomiting into the bucket. When she finished and sat up, Maalioh took a deep breath and smelled and tasted her vomit. Fire and water were both strong, and Tohflair confirmed his diagnosis.

Tiisam was remarkably calm. Nairla was not.

"Are you saying that my son and daughter are both sick?"

"I'm not sick, mother," Fiitan put in. "I have a broken leg." Nairla completely ignored him.

"Is this the sort of protection and treatment we get from the doctor? We come into your house and the first thing that happens is that Tiisam falls ill." Tohflair tried to calm her down.

"Tiisam is strong. I am sure that she will overcome this illness."

"And if she doesn't? And what if the rest of us suffer? Something has unbalanced her elements, and it could unbalance ours. I'm starting to feel warm."

"That's because you're shouting and storming around, dear. You look warm." Wohsair rarely intervened in her wife's tirades, and even this gentle intervention brought Nairla to a stop. She said nothing for a moment, and then strode off to the other end of the house.

"Doctor, I apologise for my mother." Tiisam's voice shook slightly, but she still managed to sound in control. "What should I do?"

"Keep wrapped up. You are not warm, no matter how you feel. Eat small amounts of fresh fowl at frequent intervals. Don't eat so much that you throw up, but as much as you can short of that."

"What about hunting?" Tohflair paused before answering.

"We will see in the morning. You may not be fit enough to hunt. It might be advisable to sleep now, however."

Tiisam nodded, saying nothing, but her eyes seemed to glitter more than normal as she prepared for bed.

* * *

Maalioh fell asleep almost as soon as he had burrowed into the furs, and had no idea what time it was when he was awoken by a hand insistently shaking his shoulder. He opened his eyes, but at first could see nothing in the darkness. He put one of his hands on the one shaking him, and then carefully raised the cover on the lamp nearest the furs slightly.

To his surprise it was Tiisam, not Tohflair, crouched by his bed.

"Can I talk to you?" Her voice was low, but there was a level of urgency in it Maalioh had not heard before. Maalioh nodded, and quickly wriggled out of the furs, turning his back to Tiisam and pulling an indoor tunic on before she could see that he was becoming erect. It was too dark for her to see him blush, fortunately, and he tried to get his mind back on to things that she was actually likely to ask about.

Once he was ready, she picked up the lamp and beckoned him to the land door end of the house. As they walked, Maalioh realised that she was naked under the single fur blanket thrown around her shoulders, and that she did not seem to be paying too much attention to it. She led Maalioh to some cushions near the door, where the air was quite cool, and sat down on the side nearest the exit. Maalioh quickly began to feel the chill, but Tiisam showed no signs of it.

"What is the matter with me, Maalioh? I am too hot to sleep, but Tohflair tells me that I need to keep warm." Maalioh said nothing for a while, weighing his options in the darkness. How much could he safely tell her? Tiisam soon noticed his hesitation.

"Maalioh, I'm the sick one. Surely I have a right to know what's wrong with me?"

"I suppose you do. You have an excess of fire and water, quite a strong excess of both."

"What does that mean?" Maalioh cursed himself for an idiot. Tiisam had no philosophical training, unlike the shamans.

"You know that everything is made up of six elements, right?" Maalioh was not entirely sure that she would, but it would be insulting to get it wrong.

"Yes, I heard that."

"Well, you are the same, and the elements should be in a certain balance if you are to be healthy. Illnesses happen when the elements get out of balance."

"So I'm ill because I have too much fire and water relative to the other four?" Maalioh smiled. Tiisam was not stupid.


"Why are they out of balance?" Maalioh felt himself start to shiver in the cold air, even as he wished she hadn't asked that question.

"We don't know yet. Fire and water oppose each other, so it is very unusual for them both to be in excess."

"Oppose each other? What do you mean?"

"Normally, if you have too much fire, it reduces the amount of water, and vice versa. That's how illnesses get worse; the excess of one element reduces its opposing element, which makes the balance even worse than it was before."

"You're shivering. Here." Maalioh gratefully accepted the blanket that Tiisam draped around his shoulders. "So, what could make both have an excess?" Maalioh sighed.

"Well... You mustn't tell anyone else, but it could be a disease spirit. We haven't started eating anything new, and the disease hasn't affected everyone yet, so it is hard to see what in the environment could have caused it. And, of course, it's hard to..." He stopped abruptly as he realised something.

"Tiisam, you mustn't sit there naked! You are not warm." Quickly, he pulled the blanket off his own shoulders, and tried to put it back on Tiisam. She pushed him away, trying to stop him.

"I'm so hot, Maalioh. I feel like my insides are on fire."

"That's the excess of fire." Maalioh had not stopped trying to put the blanket around her, but she was not helping. "The excess of water is actually chilling you, so that you are really cold. If you don't wrap up, you might suffer from it."

"You don't understand. I'm burning. Feel!" She grabbed one hand, and put it squarely on her chest. At first, Maalioh's only conscious thought was that he could feel one of her nipples, but that was quickly followed by the realisation that her chest was very cold, almost icy. His stomach churned in panic, but he forced himself to speak calmly.

"Tiisam, your chest feels very, very cold. You must wrap up. Let's go and sit near the water door." He took one of Tiisam's hands and tried to pull her up. She resisted briefly, but then gave up. He led her back down the house, the air getting noticeably warmer. As they passed the spaces where Tohflair and Tiisam's family were sleeping, it suddenly occurred to him that he would be in trouble if any of them saw him leading a naked Tiisam by the hand. It was almost enough to make him drop it, but not quite.

He tried to lead her into the water porch, but she baulked at the threshold.

"Isn't this far enough? I really don't feel..." Her voice trailed off, and Maalioh conceded. The air here was warm enough for him to be comfortable in his tunic, so if he could get the blanket back around her, Tiisam should be fine.

Of course, Tiisam was not having any of it, pushing the blanket away as soon as he tried to put it round her shoulders.

"No, Maalioh, please. I can't bear it." Maalioh remembered the crying children, and with a nervous look back into the house he let the blanket drop. Tiisam looked very uncomfortable, shifting constantly in place and glancing towards the land door repeatedly.

"Tiisam, listen to me." The young hunter turned to look at him directly, hope in her eyes. Maalioh swallowed hard, not wanting to disappoint her but not sure what he could say. "If you keep warm and eat small amounts, your body should correct the imbalance by itself."

"But what if it is a spirit?" There was an edge of panic in her voice.

"Then Sairtowa and Liifa will find it and drive it out. And then you will recover. You must keep warm until that happens, though."

"Could you keep your hand in a fire if I told you to?" She was shifting more noticeably in place now, as if she wanted to get up and run. If she really felt that bad, it could be a real problem.

"Tiisam, breathe on my face." She looked a little puzzled, but leaned close and breathed gently on him. Even her exhaled breath was cold, but that was not what Maalioh was after; the smell of fire and water, a faint but unmistakable tang, confirmed his fears. The imbalance had got substantially worse. A glance down at her chest revealed a regular network of red lines forming diamond shapes across her breasts, and Maalioh reached out to touch them. The lines were almost hot to the touch, contrasting strongly with the cold skin between them. For a moment he wanted to wake Tohflair, but he shied away from the prospect of explaining why he was awake in the middle of the night with a naked woman from his own tribe.

"Tiisam, you must be strong. Go back to bed. Stay inside the furs." Maalioh had a sudden thought. "Or get in the water, and I'll stay with you. I'll even get in with you." Tiisam shuddered, and pulled away.

"I can't get in the water!" She managed to keep her voice quiet, but the horror in it was clear enough. Maalioh quickly tried to reassure her.

"That's all right. Just staying in bed should be enough." She didn't look very pleased at that, but she nodded her head, conceding. "Tomorrow, Tohflair and I will look for ways to treat the symptoms. But please keep warm until then." She nodded again, and let Maalioh lead her back to the area where her family were sleeping. She slipped inside the curtains with a hunter's grace, and Maalioh remained standing outside. He still wasn't sure that she would do as she was told, but as long as she stayed inside the house, she would survive. Moving as quietly as possible he gathered furs from his sleeping area, and carried them to the land door. Laying them on top of the trailing end of the curtains, he wrapped himself up and settled down to sleep.

* * *

"Tiisam! Tiisam!" Nairla's voice woke Maalioh, and for a moment he wondered why he was sleeping in the doorway. Then he remembered, and sat up sharply. The curtain was undisturbed under him, and he breathed a sigh of relief. Getting up, he pulled his tunic on as he hurried to see what the problem was. Nairla was standing in the centre of the house, looking around.

"Maalioh! Tiisam is gone!" Maalioh stopped dead, as his heart went cold and his stomach lurched. She couldn't be gone; Maalioh had been sleeping across the exit.

"No," he said. "She can't be. She must be around somewhere. Tiisam!" He pushed past Nairla into the family's sleeping place, and threw the furs in Tiisam's place aside, as if she might have been missed underneath them. Wohsair and Fiitan looked at him curiously.

"What's the panic? Maybe she's just gone hunting," Wohsair suggested. Maalioh could only shake his head, as he ran out again, heading for the exit. Tohflair was awake now, and saw Maalioh run past.

"Maalioh! What is it?"

"Tiisam has gone outside, master, through the water door. I was sure she couldn't use the water door. It was too hot but she's gone and we have to find her now." Maalioh was already pulling his outdoor clothes on, while Tohflair stared at him. For a moment the doctor didn't move, but then understanding broke over his face, and he raced over to join Maalioh.

"Quickly, Nairla, Wohsair, we have to find her soon. She might be out in the snow." Nairla just looked puzzled.

"She couldn't go into the snow from the water door. She'd be naked."

"Exactly. So we have to find her soon." Maalioh couldn't keep quiet, but Nairla still seemed undecided. Wohsair, however, came running out of the sleeping area, her inner tunic tangled around her shoulders as she tried to pull it on without stopping moving. Nairla just looked at her, still uncomprehending.

"But she can't be in the snow."

"Nairla, she might be out there naked."

"But she'd freeze to death."

"Exactly!" Maalioh almost screamed, as he pulled his boots on and grabbed his gloves. Finally, Nairla understood, and she did scream, running to join them at the entrance.

Maalioh was already on his way out, shouting Tiisam's name as he pushed his way past the curtains.

Snow had fallen in the night, but now the sky was clear, and the upper limb of the sun's crescent was just rising above the eastern hills. Vapour from the lake formed a light mist in the air, as Maalioh looked around desperately for any sign of Tiisam. The white of the snow was almost untouched, so Tiisam would have left tracks. He turned, running to the side of the house. Tiisam could hardly bear the heat, so she would have got out of the water as quickly as possible. For a moment he dared to hope that she would have simply stopped in the snow on the side of the lake, mere moments ago, but there was no sign of her on either side.

At first, he thought that there were no tracks, either, but then he found a large depression in the snow, where it started to stick a short distance back from the lake, as if someone had thrown herself into it to cool down. It had clearly snowed a little since then, but, now that he knew where to look, Maalioh could clearly see Tiisam's tracks leading away. She must have still felt hot, he reasoned, and tried to get away from the lake.

Moving as quickly as he could through the deep, soft snow, Maalioh followed the trail, something even he was up to. He passed the entrance to the house before anyone else had emerged, but he didn't wait. Tiisam had little time now that she was out in the cold.

The trail led across the village path and into the hills, into the snowdrifts. Suddenly, he lost it. For a long moment he stared around in confusion, and then he caught sight of something dark. Kneeling, he started brushing the snow from Tiisam. She did not respond, but Maalioh was sure he could see her chest moving. As soon as he could see her body clearly, he put his arms under her shoulders and struggled to lift her, sinking deeply into the drift as he did so.

He let her go, struggling out of the snow, calling to her.

"Tiisam! Wake up, Tiisam! You mustn't go to sleep here, it's too dangerous." He moved around to stand downslope of her, grabbing her shoulders to turn her body so that he could move it across the snow to somewhere with better footing. As he did so, Wohsair and Tohflair came up beside him, taking some of the weight. Wohsair quickly spread a fur on the snow, and they dragged Tiisam onto it, wrapping her as they picked her up to carry her back to the house. Tohflair had pulled a glove off, thrusting his hand inside the furs as they moved back. He left the hand inside for a long time, and withdrew it slowly. His face set, he turned to Wohsair, who was staring at him with as much intensity as Maalioh felt, and gently shook his head.

Wohsair shook her head more fiercely, and picked up her speed, making Maalioh stumble as he tried to keep up. They got Tiisam into the house, and Wohsair carried her straight down to the far end, to immerse her in the lake. As they reached the water door, Tohflair spoke, his voice gentle.

"Wohsair, it's too late. She was out too long."

Maalioh looked at Tiisam's face, the dry, open eyes staring at the ceiling, and the denial died in his heart.

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