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Authors: Mercedes Lackey

Winter Moon (22 page)

BOOK: Winter Moon
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6

Moon

A
ll that day they climbed. Once they were through the hedge of pines, the mountain was not itself irksome, but the slides of impacted snow and translucent ice sometimes presented blocks to swift progress.

They began, inadvertently, to work as a team.

Bittersweet, this. Clirando had never met a man so sane in his judgment of obstacles or so decided in solving them. Nor, where she detected the solution, so willing to agree. She had found many men in the past, even some of the best, obstreperous as it were on principle. Thestus primarily. She would have understood this if she had been a house-reared woman, but she was educated, trained, fit, and canny.

Where necessary, they assisted each other.

They took only short breaks from the ascent. Neither had any food, and only a little water, which they drank sparingly.

Once he remarked that the previous evening's dinner had seemed to nourish them, even if it had been sorcerous and nonexistent.

At this she recalled again the other feast—the sexual and emotional feast of their lovemaking.

She saw that he did, too.

He said, looking at her, “My name you know. It was never Thestus.”

Rage boiled in her, then died.

“I know. But let that be for now.”

And silence returned to divide them as two swords had not.

Twilight, after the unseen sun went down, found them high on the shelves of Moon's Stair.

A broad cave, one of many, yawned in the mountain. They ducked in, and made a fire.

“Who watches?” he asked.

“I.”

“Last night you slept.”

“That was some spell. I shan't tonight.”

“Do you think so?”

Presently they portioned the watch, in the acceptable way, between them, lying or sitting far across the fire from each other.

The full moon of the Third Night swam up the sky, only partly tearing the veil of snow-cloud. Later more snow fluttered down.

How beautiful he was, asleep.

A rift of tenderness opened in her heart. She slammed a mental door against it.

Clirando did not slumber. When he took the watch, she lay static as a log, her back to him.

Outside, at frequent intervals, and as she had heard it during the slog up the mountain, there echoed the dim jeering yodels of the pig things, her personal demons. He presumably heard the abusive shouts of his dead friend and brother, Yazon.

It was not that she dreamed, but she had one brief almost-vision of Araitha. Clirando's own friend and sister floated through the depths of a dark sea, a corpse with golden hair furling and unfurling.

Next morning they drank the last water, some of which was by then ice, and went out.

Inside an hour of traveling, the way flattened to a craggy, endless-seeming plateau. They had gained the top of Moon's Stair.

They paused. Snow armored the crag. Outcrops thrust white into the dead sky. Boulders lay everywhere. There was nothing unusual, but also nothing comfortable up here. It was a place of the known earth, yet
alien
—as only the things of the earth could be.

“There was after all no purpose in climbing here.”

“Nevertheless, we climbed,” he said. “Everything in life is like that, surely. It's our choice and talent to make a purpose from such chaos.”

The wind lifted and fell, cutting about itself with sharp blades.

Into the lea of one of the outcrops they went, for shelter.

Below, far off, slopes, forest, the lost village. It was just possible too she thought, even in the wan daylight, to imagine the mighty outer circle of ocean ringing the island.

 

By nightfall they had trekked some way over the mountaintop. They sought a crevice between rocks for the night's bivouac.

Tomorrow they would descend. There was nothing else to do.

The moon came up in the dark. This evening it was unclouded, shining on the snow.

It was the Fourth Night. The middle night of the seven.

Clirando again took first watch.

In order this time not to gaze at him in his sleep, she stared rigidly out across the fire.

An hour later, in the moonlight and with no warning, Araitha came walking toward Clirando over the mountain.

Clirando got up. She drew her knife—pointlessly.

Araitha wore her traveling cloak, and in her hair were the ornaments she had put there for safekeeping during her voyage to Crentis. No doubt in reality they lay with her on the sea's floor.

Lovely, strong, brave—how proud you could be of her, this ghost.
Comrade—friend—sister—

“Stay back, dead thing,” rasped Clirando. “Only say what you want from me.”

Araitha did not slow her pace. She sighed, and her ghost-breath, clean as when she had lived, touched Clirando's face.

Clirando thought the ghost would keep going until it walked right through her. She gripped her knife and braced herself—but at the last second Araitha dissolved like colored steam.

Yet, in the open area beyond the rocks, everything now was changed.

The mountain plateau was no longer there.

A vast blank alabaster whiteness loomed and curved away. It was not snow, but level, even, and icy
cold
with a burnishlike freezing fire. While above, contrastingly, the sky was an inky-black Clirando had never witnessed on any other night. Stars
seared
on this black like volcanic embers, and of all shades—purple, russet, amber, jade. But the moon itself had disappeared. Instead, hanging low over a distant jumble of countless spiked mountains—as unlike those of the Isle as was possible—
another
moon shone. In colour
it
was greenish turquoise. It cast an underwater light, and formed peculiar shadows. Soon Clirando did not think it
was
a moon. It was some other—lamp?
world?
—or was it in fact the earth, hung in the sky off the moon itself?

She found she had stolen forward. She felt no startlement, only a dull terror when, turning, she saw even the rocks from which she had just emerged were now no longer behind her. All the mountain was gone now. On every side, the white sheer surface ran to its horizon.

She took a breath. Very oddly, it seemed to her the air here was not air at all—and still her lungs expanded. She thought,
I am on the moon's world now. Or some part of me
—She did not know which part, nor how she breathed that which was not air. But she did. For she was not meant to perish yet, oh no. Araitha, vindictive, had undone the barrier between the worlds, and Clirando had been sucked through.

The shadows though—they moved.

They slithered forward, growing solid as they did so—be ready!

They are not shadows.

How many of them were there? It was a herd, a
battalion
of the blackish pig creatures, tusked and spined, their misshapen heads lolling, glassy little eyes riveted on her.

Before she could do anything at all, they had pressed inward, forming a circle about her. She was surrounded. Two or three animals deep, the live cordon wobbled on narrow feet, grunting, snuffling. Until at last the familiar hideous jeering screams broke from them, deafening now and no-longer weirdly synchronized, but all out of rhythm.

Clirando hissed in fury. It thrust out her fear.

Knife in hand, she flew at her tormentors. She raked and slashed them. She felt the blows strike home. She saw the blood spurt burningly red in the uncanny light. They did not resist, nor did they attack—but the jeering cacophony never ceased.

All around the circle she pelted, and around again. Still not one of the black pigs retaliated. None
harmed her. She stopped all at once, panting, somehow disabled—Each blow had lessened her.

And only then the circle gradually fell quiet.

After the unbearable horror of the noise, the
un
air of this second world congealed inside her ears. It was as if she had gone deaf—

And
now
they must close in. She had hurt them. They would trample her and kill her. Eat her alive.

Clirando straightened. She could sell her life expensively, even if she must sacrifice it in the end.

And so she saw.

It was like a blindfold dropping from her eyes.

The creatures stood there quite motionless and still making no sound. They were striped and running with blood. Much worse that this, from their greenish eyes enormous glittering tears poured down like rain.

Crying, they clustered in their circle, and they looked at her. And as Clirando stared into their weeping eyes, she saw through to the backs of these eyes, as if through polished mirrors, and then straight down to some other thing, repeating, amplifying, which she could not make out.

“Why do you do this?” she whispered.

They only wept.

Clirando took now a few tentative steps. She approached the nearest of them.

It lifted its head. It was ugly, terrible, piteable. The crying seemed to have made its eyes much larger. They were deeply green, like the leaves of a bay tree.

Memory flashed in Clirando's brain. Her mother
was picking her up from the courtyard, where she had fallen, Clirando then about four years old. “Don't cry, my love.”

“Don't cry, my love,” Clirando murmured.

She found she had dropped the knife. She put out both her hands and touched the pig's nightmare face quite gently. “Don't cry. It will be better soon.”

To her bewilderment, the pig at once nuzzled in close to her. It was warm. It smelled healthy and wholesome, but not really animal. Her hands slid over it. It had no spines after all. It was smooth. Under her fingers, the wetness of the blood, the wounds she had caused, healed like seams sewn together.

Now the next animal was nudging at her. Eagerly?

“Come here,” said Clirando.

She had shut her eyes.

She took the second pig into her arms.

She took all of them into her arms, one by one. She stroked them. She kissed their bizarre faces, she kissed the tears away and their wounds healed.

All this, with her eyes shut.

She too was crying, she discovered. And then, softly laughing. And from the pigs as she went around to them, embracing them, soft laughter, too.

She knew when she had reached the end of her ministrations and closed the fateful circle. That was when she opened her eyes.

Twenty or thirty other Clirandos stood all about her. They were her age, and her height and weight, clothed as she was under the furs, in summer garments, tanned and fit, shaking back brown hair.

The pig-creature had been—herself? No, no—
facets
of herself. Her
self.

Jeering, tormenting—
ugly.

Was this then what she really was? Or what, deep in her mind, her heart, she had
believed
she was?

If so, then she had mocked herself, and driven herself,
hurt
herself, made herself
weep
if not actual tears, then
symbolic
tears. To lose love was a very terrible thing. To lose affection for one's own self—this must be worse. For you could, at least in your mind, move far off from others. But from yourself you never could, until death released you.

She regarded the other Clirandos, and they her. Clear-eyed, these looks, and mouths that did not laugh, calm mouths, quiet.

They were separated from her, her other selves. Her anger, and her attempt to suppress anger, both, had done this. And her pain and her denial of that pain. For pain and anger needed to be felt and to be expressed—and then let go.

She tried to count them, the other Clirandos. Twenty—thirty—ten—she could not get the number to come out.

But she had split herself into these pieces. She thought of a mirror made of glass, as they formed them in the East—shattered.

Clirando bowed her head. Anger was spoken. Pain acknowledged. Both now must begin their journey away from her. She visualized a glass mirror, mending…

Did she feel her other selves return? Perhaps—
perhaps. When she raised her head, they were gone. Only she remained. But all of her now, she thought, all mended and in one piece.

And so when, next moment, she saw rushing across the moon's long vista, the dappled lion-beast she had first seen on the cliffs of the Isle, she did not draw her knife. Now, she
knew.

As it sprang, she too sprang forward.

BOOK: Winter Moon
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