EXCERPT FROM IDOL OF BONE
Copyright © 2015 Jane Kindred
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd publication
It was a deliberate act of mental vandalism. Like a round moonnut shell with the meat hollowed out and its sweet milk drained, her head was empty. Nothing remained but a lingering dream of warmth and the heady perfume of petals drifting under an endless indigo night. But there was one thing she was certain of: the world had not been this white or this cold when she died.
For the moment, this was her most pressing concern. The sea of whiteness that predominated in every direction, from the heavy clouds above her head to the damp ground beneath her huddled form, was as cold as ice. The chill settled in her bones, a dense precipitation scattering over her skin and catching in the silk of her hair like tiny blossoms floating on the surface of a dark river. A tremor ran through her as this sparked some memory, but it was clear from the ensuing pain in her head as she grasped at the fleeting thought that whatever memories remained were not meant to be disturbed.
She knew without a doubt this unseemly act of cowardice had been her own. But she must have left herself something.
“I am Ra,” she breathed. The words seemed to hang in the air before her with conviction. This had been her name and was her name again.
Violent shivering seized her before she could dwell on this. The environment wasn’t suitable, this whiteness, this… “Snow.” The stuff began to fall faster as the word left her mouth, as if her voice made the world more tangible, and with the memory of this word came another recollection: to speak was to create.
“Cloak,” she gasped, and a warm garment of sable flowed around her. Ra rose and gratefully drew it close. “Boots,” she added quickly. Soft leather enveloped her feet and climbed upward, topped with a pelt of fox.
It was easier to think now. She turned about to get the lay of the land. Behind her, a tall mountain loomed, jagged and menacing. Ra pulled the cloak tighter and looked to the other direction. It appeared at first to be nothing but gentle rolling hills, but in the lowering twilight, she began to see flickers of illumination dotting the landscape—signs of habitation. She made for the promise of warmth and company.
The first snowfall had caught him off guard. Ahr nursed the thumb he’d slammed beneath his hammer while installing the winter casement—“storm glass,” Jak called it. His friend had warned him not to wait until the weather turned to do it. It was a bitch to manage with the chill and the damp, and it meant he wasn’t spending these critical hours of first snow protecting his remaining crops, not to mention the pipes that carried water from the reservoir. He felt a fool for not taking heed. But he was used to feeling a fool here.
Three years in the settlement of Haethfalt had made him no more welcome, and little wiser. Most thought him mad for building his homemound nearly half above ground. Jak had advised strongly against it. There was no practical need for a “view”. “A view of what?” He could hear the words in Jak’s dry tone.“Three stunted trees and an endless sea of hills?” There were more than three trees, he’d argued, knowing Jak was baiting him, as always. But view or no view, the absurd Deltan window was the one thing he loved.
It wasn’t that it reminded him of home, he insisted to himself. Ahr simply needed the light. He hadn’t reconciled himself to a life beneath the ground. He understood the necessity; the winds from Munt Zelfaal—Mt. Winter, he amended—could be brutal in the spring and summer, and winter was as long as it was cold.
The mounds were beautiful in their own way: stone spirals rising in clusters from the earth, covered in the green of moss in the months without snow, revealing just the suggestion of their size and purpose. But light, as everything in the highlands, was different here from that of the Delta. The sky seemed subdued, its color an uncertain blue, and the sun paler and more distant, even when the weather was warm—and it was never as warm as Rhyman.
The fiery hues of late-autumn trees were the most intense the highlands had to offer—for a few brief moments, making his humble window a temple glass of orange and red, etched in light and shadow with the esoteric ciphers of distant gods. But the snow had ended that. And gods, in any event, did not bear thinking on. They were buried in the rivers and the sand, decayed blossoms crushed under the weight of their own majesty. They belonged to the suffocating fragrance of the past.
Ahr sighed and squared his shoulders. He was being self-indulgently morose, and he had work to do. Dusk was beginning to make ghosts of trees in the copse as he lingered at the window. The thought must have prompted his eyes to play tricks on him, for it seemed from the corner of his vision as he turned away that there were ghosts moving among the trees. Or one ghost, at any rate. Jak would have said he was seeing the Hidden Folk—elemental nature spirits to which the locals paid homage when they built and planted, though it seemed they did it in irony, not being big believers in mysticism and magic.
He narrowed his eyes and peered into the gloom. No one else lived this close to the mountain, yet someone was walking away from his end of the valley, dark and determined against the snow.
Silver lace blanketed the moor under the rising moon as the clouds parted in wisps for a moment to let it through. High-country autumn had gone in an instant, the stone spirals of the Haethfalt mounds buried beneath the shroud of winter within a matter of hours. Jak breathed in the crisp winter air. There was nothing like a stroll in the soft silence of a light highland snowfall for clearing one’s head. The mound had been stifling. Maybe continuing to live with one’s ex wasn’t such a great idea. Getting caught in bed with another member of the moundhold by one’s ex certainly hadn’t been.
It didn’t help that Jak had broken things off with Geffn on the pretext of becoming celibate. And it hadn’t been pretext, exactly; it only seemed that way in retrospect. Celibacy had been Jak’s intention, and was still—the indiscretion with Mell notwithstanding. The one-night stand with her, in fact, had clarified things in Jak’s head. Sex complicated everything and poisoned relationships. Maybe it wasn’t that way for everyone else, but like a drunkard offered a single drink, Jak simply couldn’t do sex in moderation. One “drink” led to another, and another, until all perspective and sense of self was lost, swallowed up into primal urges that seemed to eclipse any kind of meaningful interaction with another human being. Every encounter led to a mindless binge.
So Jak was done with it. Never mind that there was no one else in the moundhold with whom another indiscretion would have happened anyway, and that with winter coming, they’d see very little of any of the others in the collective. It might be uncomfortable being cooped up in the same mound with Geffn—and his parents—not to mention Mell and her lover, Kieran, but it would be like going off drink by staying away from pubs and taverns until the urge for it abated. At least, that was what Jak hoped.
The temperature dropped swiftly as the last dim glow of the sun beyond Mount Winter faded. Jak pulled up the collar of the wool coat that had seen better days. In the pale colors of twilight, Haethfalt had a startling beauty. Like everything west of the Delta, city folk called it “the wasteland” to discourage emigration, but between the prevalent peat and the gray stone tors, the black highland soil was surprisingly fertile.
At the edge of the copse of rowan, the pale blue glow of foxfire illuminated the underbrush. Or maybe it was fool’s fire. It seemed to waver as Jak drew nearer, and then disappeared entirely. Jak gave a wry tip of the hat to whatever Hidden Folk or ancestor might be lurking about. Just in case.