By Reyna Thera Lorele
Copyright © 2018 Reyna Thera Lorele. All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the author, except for the inclusion of brief quotations in a review.
This is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Chapter 1—The Trade
We were a free and sensible people. So I thought then, anyway. After all, the daily trials of survival had become almost a game to us, while the Holder struggled, noses in book.
“Therefore what hath their great knowledge profited them?” as my mother used to say, mimicking one of those books, usually while taking out the garbage. We thought they lived poorly and died uneasily.
My special talent turned out to be for trading, and since we mainly traded for crystals and gemstones, having most else we needed, I was called ‘Crystal’ as my trade name, out of respect, or when people wanted distance from me. My child name was Tae, however, and those who knew me well and also loved me called me that.
But my real name was after the ancient Huntress, and by the time I’d lived full three cycles, I still hadn’t told anyone. My sisters--I had two then--used to tease me that I was yet virgin, but the truth was, I wasn’t. Men seemed to like me, though I was small: small-boned, small in height, with my mother’s black hair, fine and straight and short and shapeless, my mother’s nut-brown skin, and our people’s blue eyes. But I hadn’t found anyone I wanted to give my name to, not in all my time of trying.
The trouble began four turns into my fourth cycle. It was half-thaw, and our custom at those times was to trip south and trade with the Holder, with whom our haven held an uneasy truce.
I was Trader that trip for the second time, and had done extremely well the first time--a lucky break--and had been south with Jeemee as my teacher a dozen times before that, so I considered myself to be a hardened traveller and a Wise Old Woman. Still I was amazed to see again how rivers ran wet between their banks of ice and snow in that part of the world, so early in the thaw. The snow was darker in the southeast too, with layers of gold and auburn amid the streaks of white, and it was more solid, from thawing and refreezing so often. Our sleds glided across it like fat on hot metal.
“They’ve sure got it easy,” I murmured, smiling at my youngest sister Tulli.
She giggled, glove to mouth. She had lived barely two cycles, sixteen turns to be exact, and them just barely, having been sickly as a child. She had no trade name yet, and it was her first trip south of haven.
The eight of us, then, were me, Tulli, Klaza my oldest younger sister, Rafyal, Danyela, Val, Powl, and my mother Kaitharin called Crest, who scouted the way. Kaitharin was a giant, tall and regal, with a hearty bearing, like a mountain.
On the fifth night out, we made camp a short trek from the meeting place. We liked to arrive among the Holder rested. Klaza hunted us some meat, and we made a stew with that and some dried vegetables and melted snow. Then we sat with our tea and told jokes and stories. Tulli even tried her head at telling a tale, and the rest of us rolled on the packed snow laughing, she was so funny. I wondered if we had found a name for her that night.
Flurries fell lightly toward moonrise and, like children, we tasted the flakes with our tongues.
In the morning, we sledded down into the flat plain beside the river where we always met the Holder. To the east and north lay the mountains, and the rocky moraines that marked the mouths of the glacier we called the Hand. To the west lay flatlands, so far as we knew, all the way to the Western Pole.
The Holder wouldn’t let us into their ruined city, and we liked life well enough to stay out of range of their guns. They were afraid of the legends of my people.
As well they should be, I used to think, amused.
So for trading, some cycles before I came to life, the Holder had built a stone shelter against the open and the wind and the cold. It stood on a low rise at the edge of the plain. We reached that shelter just as the sun was cutting through the fog, making the morning snowflakes sparkle like slices of golden citrine.
We heard dogs barking and the whinny of the hairy horses the Holder used for transport, for their sleds were powered by sweat, not stones, as ours were. The sled dogs and pack animals were kept in smelly pens behind the shelter.
To our minds, the Holder spent an absurd amount of time feeding and cleaning and coddling the creatures, while we simply would have eaten them. Of course, we restrained ourselves for the sake of our hosts, and besides, the wild held plenty of beasts for feasting.
We palmed the powering stones off our sleds and trooped indoors to greet the Holder.
There were a dozen of them, all male, of various ages. Even inside, they wore their great quilted coats and hoods and leggings of brown or blue coarse-woven cloth, and woven mittens unembroidered. Their eyes were deep-set and always struck me as hidden. Their skin was pale, almost white, and they were tall and spare, and they all looked to me to be too thin and weak to carry much weight, but then, that was their problem, not mine. No wonder they needed the animals.
There was much nodding of heads and clasping of gloved and mittened hands and baring of teeth in semblances of smiles. I realized anew how nervous of us the Holder were.
Along the back wall was a high nurlwood counter, and behind that stood another Holder man. He would be their Trader, and the one holding the stock. I clumped over to him in my heavy fur-lined boots.
I hadn’t seen this trader before. What had happened to the old one? Another winter death? This one was taller than I by a foot--as tall as Kaitharin, maybe taller. I guessed he was about ten turns older than I. He was the only Holder with his hood thrown back, and instead of the thin, lanky blond hair common among his people, his was browny-blond and curling slightly above his high forehead and feathering behind his high curving cheekbones and wishing it could sprout on the too-pale skin of his chin.
Holder men shaved their faces, called it ‘civilized,’ and looked naked to me.
So, then, this one was tripping north to trade for the first time? They had sent a neophyte to trade with me, star light of Jeemee’s tutelage?!
I almost hate to use him this way, I thought smugly. I greeted him and said my trade name with a smile. What fun it is to trade!, I was saying with that smile, with my name that danced light across it, so he would be beholden to me from the outset for a good time.
He looked at me with steady ice-blue eyes, and never smiled, and never frowned. Had he been warned about me, then?
He said, “I am Kilian. I am the Leader of my people.” The words were strangely accented, but the same as ours.
“I suppose you could call me ‘leader’ also,” I lied gaily, seeing he wanted to deal with rank, and smiling at the foolishness of one who could or would call himself ‘leader.’ I could hear my people giggling.
He got right to business, pulling out a gloriously fashioned red woven cloth--a trick, I knew, to make the goods within seem worth more than they were--and unwrapped it.
They had brought turquoise. As always, the blue beauty of it laced with gold-brown threads took my breath away.
I pulled off my hood and my thick gloves, damp now from melting snow and sweat. It was hot as bane’s breath in that shelter, and smelled too strongly of woodsmoke. I loosed my fur coat as well, taking my own sweet time about it, not to be rushed, and I fingered a few of the pebbles. Rough. Uncut. Ennis would be pleased; he liked to cut his own. Most of them were about the size of my fingernail, but a few were good-sized chunks, and looked promising. Snowstones, moonstones, a cluster of garnets, some pink quartz crystals, and a handful of amber beads of unfortunately poor quality made up the rest of the load. A decent haul, if I could bring it in. Not great, but fine in its way.
I started calculating rates in my head, saying aloud, “Let’s take them out into the sun. It’s too dim in here.”
Kilian nodded and rewrapped the treasure. A man of no wasted words. I liked that. He followed me outside while the others made awkward small talk and watched us go.
I crouched in a patch of smooth snow beyond the boot-trampled slush around the shelter, while Kilian laid the red wrap open again before me. I turned the turquoise over and around in my hand, checking the curves and angles, seeing where each could be cut and enhanced, and where the threads would run, threads through the heart of them and into the caves, across the mountains, speaking for us, and I felt the raw unsung power in them like the shimmer of a new moon shining on old ice in dark of mid-winter.
Yes, I liked them. I picked out a few amber bits that were harvested poorly and tossed them aside. By then, my companions and Kilian’s had shuffled out of the shelter to listen to the trade.
“This one is fine!” I said, beaming a smile and holding one of the longer quartz crystals up to the sun. “See that cluster at the end? It looks to me like flowers in a vase.”
I wanted memories of the last Melt to flood us all, to make us feel warm and fragrant and new inside.
“This one and this one are also good,” I said, picking out a couple of garnets. “The rest are minimal,” I lied. I shrugged and frowned, and tossed them back down onto the red cloth. I curled my arms around my knees and peered at the gems. “With some careful work, we might be able to use them.”
That the Holder never understood how we used them sometimes made it difficult for them to get the best stones, but they had more of a feel for it than they knew, and then, some things are not meant to be easy.
But before I could make my offer, this Kilian spoke. The rudeness of it shocked me and my friends, but I held my speech.
“Twenty wraps of tubers, fifteen wraps of grain, and five of dried berries,” Kilian declared.
As if on cue, every one of my companions started laughing. I only smiled. What kind of tubers? What kind of grain? He hadn’t even asked for salt! I savored Kilian’s lack of precision. I could seal that deal and watch the Holder die of malnutrition. But I hadn’t studied trading with old Jeemee for nothing.
Slowly I stood and stomped the caked snow off my fur-booted feet. The Holder looked suddenly whiter than ever under their quilted hoods.
How primitive we must seem to them, I thought, stamping about in our dead animal skins! I was truly enjoying myself.
“Well,” I said cheerfully, “for twenty and fifteen and five wraps, perhaps we’ll wait until you bring us diamonds.”
That stung Kilian Their Leader, I could tell, but I have to say for him that he did well covering it.
I made my offer. “I say ten of tubers, two of them being your choice and the rest being lat-pod, eight of grain and they all of milti, but I’ll throw in an extra wrap of berries, for in truth, you all look to me like you’ve got scurvy.”
My friends laughed.
So the dealing began in earnest. I soon found Kilian’s strengths and weaknesses, as he no doubt found mine. He was somewhat too serious for my taste, and I perhaps a great deal too comical for his, but I couldn’t resist the temptation to tease him and his people. Sometimes they got the joke (frowns and darting glances) and sometimes not (vacant stares), but they never made their own, and I loved playing to a straight man.
Kilian, for one, never smiled, and “Good graces, what an unhappy race,” I said later to Tulli.
But he was firm and smart, and determined to do well for his people. Steady, that was Kilian.
Well, and I didn’t want the Holder to starve, of course, so I upped my offer pretty easily, taking as payment a toll on their pride instead, for the amusement of my people, and what’s more, the Holder hardly noticed!
By high sun we’d settled. I felt sorry that they didn’t eat flesh, for to me they looked undernourished, and I gladly would have traded them some. As we divvied our stores out of our skins and into their long woven wraps, and they began loading the wraps onto their sleds, I wondered that they could stand to eat anything that had once been kept in dead animal skin, but starvation is a great motivator, as my mother used to say.
Then came the turning point. One of the Holder came over to me and asked to speak with me privately. He was slight and also short for his people, only a couple of inches taller than I, and I liked the look of him even less than the others. I think it was his eyes, not just that they were brown, which was unusual, but that they seemed feverish, glistening above his sallow cheeks.
Still, it didn’t occur to me that there could be any danger. I swallowed my distaste and motioned him away from the others so he could have his say, and often since I have cursed the day I wasn’t born a seer or dreamer like others among my people.
The slight Holder turned his back to the others and faced me, and he pulled out of his brown quilted parka a small, plain, brown woven bag. He loosed the top of it and jiggled some of the contents into his cupped mittened hand.
They were black, solid black, and shiny, reflecting light as if too full of their own darkness to take any light in. They were each about half the width of my palm. Their uneven shapes looked unfinished, more so than most stones, as if they had been wrenched liquid from the earth and frozen in the cold air.
The Holder’s voice was low and defiant. “What do you think they’re worth?”
I eyed them. I had never seen such stones before, and had no idea of their worth. “Why were they not offered along with the turquoise?”
“Our Leader refused to trade them. But I’m the one who found them, and I say they are mine to trade or not. What do you think they’re worth?”
I saw the eagerness in his feverish face, and realized he was young, much younger than I was, barely a man. I took the stones and felt the cold weight of them. They seemed young like their finder. Again that sensation of not finished forming came upon me, but there was something in them drawing me as well, that made me think they might be useful.
“And why did your Leader Kilian refuse to trade these?” I asked, wondering if I’d get an honest answer.
The boy hesitated, then lifted his chin. “He says your people are too ignorant to know what to do with them.”
I had to smile. He was clearly lying, but the challenge was tasty, as no doubt the weaselly pup had intended.
“Perhaps we can figure them out,” I said cheerfully, oozing sarcasm. “Actually, their uses are small,” I lied, “but not to offend you, I’ll give you a tenth wrap of berries for the pouch full, take it or leave it.”
The Holder’s face flushed and he shook his head. Well, and he should have been insulted too, at an offer so low.
“I don’t want berries,” he snapped.
“What then? Tubers? Rye? Eggs? Rubbi fat?” I was getting rude, which gave me no pride. Of course Holder didn’t eat animal fat. But I didn’t like the sound of the boy’s voice, and my companions had finished their tasks and were looking our way, wondering.
“Say what you want, and hurry,” I said.
“Knowledge, Crystal,” he breathed, his eyes gleaming.
“Knowledge?” I threw back my head and laughed. “What could a bookish Holder wish to learn from such a savage as me?”
He whispered, “Diamond fire.”
I was speechless.
“Diamond fire, I’ve seen it! And I never will forget! Teach me. Take me with you north.” He shook the brown pouch. “There is much more of this, and I’ll even show you the place, and you can dig up all of it!”
I stared at him. As if I’d be as greedy as a damned and foolish Holder! I almost spat the insult back at him, but over his shoulder I saw Rafyal and Klaza and Kaitharin my mother crunching toward us over the burnt-gold snow, and with them were Kilian and several of his men.
I summoned steel of soul and spoke, quickly and low and harsh to get the point across. “You have seen daydreams, little boy. There is no such thing as diamond fire. That’s the knowledge I give you, and no charge for it.”
I started to shove the black lumps back into his hand or his pouch or his quilt coat pocket, but he wriggled away from me.
“Keep them.” He grabbed them out of my palm and thrust them into one of my own pockets. “You’ll want more and you’ll know where to get them,” he said, fury and almost-tears in his eyes, the boy-man fighting. He staggered at a run toward the stone shelter, and I watched after him as the others came close by.
Everyone looked at me, wondering, for it was clear the boy and I had been arguing.
Kilian spoke. “Has my son been bothering you?”
His son! Good graces! Oh, well, my pardon! Having said that, what could I say?
Kilian’s eyes were like granite, impenetrable, withholding secrets. But I know granite, and I could see he was troubled. Sorrowed. Yes, I saw grief in him, and it was strong. I couldn’t help it. My anger fell away like snow. I wondered what pain or loss had come his way, to make his hurt so great.
I would have asked him, as I would any of our people, but we knew little enough of these Holder, and this one in particular was new to me. Besides, the look in his eyes seemed to say I would trespass if I asked. Pride among the Holder was different than ours, and that was the day I truly felt it.
I couldn’t make my voice light and flippant, so I gave up. I said, without teasing, “Your son wanted to come away and--come away with us, for a time.”
That angered and hurt him, I could see, though he hid it next to his grief and all his other secrets.
In the silence that followed, I found myself wanting to pull that tall, pale man into my arms and speak his sorrow for him, but all I could think of to say was our old triteness, “The boy is young, and does young.”
Nonetheless, that seemed to relieve the moment.
Meanwhile, I was hiding something as well. I felt the cold weight of those black stones in my pocket. I knew if I spoke of them, I’d have to give them back or make an offer, and I couldn’t resist the free bargain, and I couldn’t resist the stones, no more than Kilian’s son could, even then.
Kilian collected himself and invited us inside to share some stories now that the trading was done.
Kaitharin gave me a sharp look and I ignored her, for I felt I had skated over the trouble well enough. As for the black stones, they were my business.
Inside the shelter, the two hearth fires at either side of the room still blazed, though it was full day and the sun shining. I and my companions shed three layers’ worth of outer clothes.
As usual, the Holder had brewed a hot cider. The sweet smell made my mouth water.
While we drank together, the Holder liked to read to us from out of their many books, which they held in metal cases and guarded warily. No doubt they thought they were educating us ignorant, bookless primitives. We put up with their attitude because most of their stories were damned good.
That day, after the usual boring admonitory excerpts from the Final Reports of the World Summit Conference (this one called ‘The Effects of Hydraulic Fracturing and Related Wastewater Disposal on Seismicity,’), they gave us a fellow named Dickens who was hilarious and sad, and then there was a wonderful Shakespeare, whose words poured over us like water in the Melt, whose meaning was as unfathomable as the gaze of the Goddess of Ice.
By the time every Holder’s voice was tired, the sun had set. We began to make a meal together, meatless, in deference to the builders of that shelter. It was only when I hunkered down to peel a stot that I saw my hands were covered with a thin film of sickly yellowish-green dust. The rocks Kilian’s son had given me had left their mark.
I stole outside to wipe my palms clean in the snow, feeling guilty at my secret--no, my two secrets: the new unfinished gemstones, and Kilian’s son’s foolish boy-talk of diamond fire.
Eating was a time for small gossip, which bored me, and Kilian sat far from me as if reevaluating the day’s trade and contemplating what might be his losses, instead of talking trade with me, which I would have enjoyed. As for the son, he stayed farther away from me than Kilian.
Outside, the night wind uplifted and began to shriek and clamor against the stone. We pulled out our rugs and sleeping skins, and the Holder built up the fires again.
It was our turn.
Our friend Rafyal spoke out in his best curling, growling, soothing voice, and we settled in for the night.
“I am called Teller,” Rafyal intoned, “and I trade in stories. In thanks for yours,” he nodded his heavy head to each of the Holder in turn, “I offer you one of ours.”
We applauded and smothered giggles at the insinuation that one of ours was worth several of theirs, but the Holder didn’t get the joke, and thought we were only encouraging our story-teller.
Danyela called Whisper began to play her wooden flute underneath Rafyal’s words, and so the story flowed. He told three, in fact, all true from our past, and each one more poignant than the last, until all of us from haven were wiping tears off our cheeks and trying not to snuffle too much. The flute died away like the heroes of the final tale, and in the silence we rubbed our eyes and didn’t trust ourselves to speak.
Then, to my surprise and pride, Rafyal Teller turned to my own little Tulli sister and said, “Tell us the one you told last night.”
She blushed dark on her dark skin, and I saw how beautiful she was becoming. I also saw I wasn’t alone in seeing it. Several of the pale Holder were watching her, and Rafyal too, and him having traded names with Danyela only a cycle since, and her sitting right beside him!
Soon it would be that trade for my baby sister. She was far more beautiful and gentle than I was. I had a good smile and good skin, but she had good everything.
I thought our mother was thinking the same, for Kaitharin’s eyes were soft as she leaned over and touched Tulli’s cheek.
So now Tulli, true daughter of her mother, composed her features, sat as straight as she could, rested her delicate brown hands on her knees, and started to tell her story.
Well, the Holder didn’t know what to expect, but we ourselves were soon howling with laughter and Tulli was chirping like a flock of birds as she played the different parts.
Do the Holder need sound written down before they understand it?, I wondered. But at last they stumbled across the drift, and by the time Whisper began tootling her flute at the most inopportune moments, everyone was crying with laughter, and after, we all went to sleep happy.
Yet I woke in midnight to a sound like one long icicle creaking in the wind. Something seemed wrong to me. Then, in the half-light of the banked fires, I saw the heavy shelter door slowly opening, and two shadows slipped out, carrying bundles of sleeping gear, and one of them was Holder, beardless, crouching, and one of them was Tulli.
The door shut with a muffled thud behind them, and I shuddered as if that icicle had slid into the furs with me. Something--a lot of things--bothered me about these Holder men. Straight-faced, hardly smiling, handsome in their way, but thin and fanatical. Who was this one? Not tall enough to be Kilian, was he? In the dark, it was hard to tell.
Was I jealous at thinking he might? That thought made me angry at myself.
It was her right, I told myself sternly, and his, if they chose to. I had neither claim on any Holder nor rule over my sister. Besides, it was high time she tried it, and I only hoped she remembered what her mother and sisters had taught her. Tulli was smart, I told myself. She would protect herself.
Having thought those things, I still couldn’t get to sleep again, and tossed and turned until almost daybreak, when I fell into a hazy dream of open fires on fresh powder under a coiling blackened sky, and people made of diamonds with voices like the flood.
In the morning when I woke again, I felt as if every bit of my power and strength had been drained from me. I was glad to drink my tea and pack quickly and be gone from there, with Tulli burbling happily beside me, and Kaitharin our mother looking proud and sad of her.
I don’t remember what I said in farewell to Kilian Their Leader, but I’m certain it was falsely cheerful and suitably wispy and devoid of meaning.
Thank you for reading Chapter 1 of Holder's Clay. To buy the whole book, click here.