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Authors: Suzanne Francis

Wintermoon Ice (2010) (8 page)

BOOK: Wintermoon Ice (2010)
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"How long what?"

"You know, until the next ones get here."

He shrugged. "It is hard to say. Maybe a week, maybe less."

Tessa had borrowed Jakob's pajama top, and kept the robe, but still she shivered. "But tonight? They won't be back tonight?"

He covered her hand, as he had once before. "No, you are safe enough for tonight, I promise."

This time Tessa did not move hers away. "I am sorry," she whispered. "I should have listened."

He shook his head wearily. "I didn't... explain it very well. I don't blame you, not at all."

"Would you now? Explain it, I mean?" She gazed at Jakob, wondering at the brute strength she had just witnessed. Now his mouth looked soft, and tired, like a little child's.

"I can try. But I don't know if..."

"Could we get into bed first?" Tessa was a little surprised at her own boldness. "I am freezing cold, and I really don't want to go home. Please?"

He stood and stretched, so full of leonine grace and power that Tessa had to look away or she would have blushed like a teenager. "Sure. Come on. I will get another blanket. Do you want the light on or off?"

Tessa smiled, touched by his thoughtfulness. "Off will be OK, as long as you are sure..."

This might have offended him, a little. "They are old friends, the Polys. I know their ways."

She crawled into his bed, and he flicked off the light. The ancient mattress bellied downwards when he lay opposite her, and Tessa let herself roll with it, so she could press her body next to his. He radiated a fierce heat, like nothing she had ever experienced. It filled her, roaring through her veins.

Though she had asked him to explain, he did not speak, only put his arms around her tightly. And when she placed her mouth over his with an impatient sigh, it felt like the most natural thing in the world.

His hands fumbled with the fastening to his pajamas, her hands tore off the borrowed shirt. They kissed as though the world might end. Within a minute, he threw himself on top of her. She felt his weight crushing her into the mattress, and wondered if it would leave an impression on her skin.

Jakob raised his head. Even in the dimness, she could see the endless sweep of the ocean in his eyes. "Are you sure this is what you want?"

Tessa had been on the Pill for years, for her infrequent sexual encounters with Ted. She would have called them lovemaking, before now. But how did they compare with this force of nature -- that washed over her roughly, and yet filled her with such tenderness?

"Oh yes. I am sure."

Thirty seconds later, he rolled away again, with a mortified groan.

She reached towards him in the darkness. "It doesn't matter, Jakob. We can try again, in a little while."

"I'm sorry. It's just that I haven't been with a woman for a long while, not since Maia..." Tessa waited in the darkness, and held her breath. "Died," he finished forlornly. "They killed her."

She didn't have to ask who
they
were. "Start at the beginning. Tell me how you came to be here, and why." She curled into his side again, and he stroked her hair.

"May I ask you something first? Two somethings, actually." She heard the smile in his voice. "Would you mind terribly if I smoked? It doesn't seem to be a very popular habit on this world."

Tessa, who had been dearly wishing for a fill of her pipe, chuckled sympathetically in the darkness. "May I join you? But I am afraid I didn't think to bring my pipe and tobacco when I left the house earlier this evening."

Jakob patted the nightstand, listening for the crinkling sound of cellophane. "I have these things, called cigarettes, kind of like a pipe, only made with paper. Do you want one of those? They aren't as good, but they do in a pinch."

Tessa accepted gravely, not letting him see her smile. They lit up using old-fashioned fireplace matches, and smoked in silence for a few moments. Then she asked, "What was your other question?"

He touched her hair again. "Why is your hair cut short, like a Guardsman's? It is so beautiful, the color of ripe corn. You ought to let it grow and grow."

She sighed as Ted's nasal voice sprang unbidden into her head.
"Long hair just isn't professional, babe. Do you want all those dirty old men in the department hitting on you?"
Funny how she hadn't seen the irony until now.

"Someone told me I should cut it, and I believed him. But really, I liked it better long."

"Oh." He took another puff of his cigarette. It took a few more minutes, but finally he started.

"I grew up on an island called Asaruthe, with my parents, my twin brother and my half-sister." Tessa lay quietly in the darkness and vowed she would ask no questions until he had finished. "I had a good life, but everything fell apart when I turned seventeen. My mother died, and my brother blamed me for it. The grief left my father unhinged, and he died too. For a while I felt very alone, but then I found Maia, and together we traveled the worlds between."

When he didn't speak, Tessa broke her vow. "What happened to her?"

"My brother Lut had been hunting the man who killed our mother, and he came to me with a warning, saying Tristan had canvassed soldiers from a new azimuth. They were fell, white-skinned beasts called Polydactyls, for the fact they have six toes on each foot. He told me they were searching the worlds, looking for something that had once belonged to our grandmother."

Jakob's voice grew bitter as frost.

"I hadn't seen him for many years, and it pleased me to think I had finally been forgiven, so I asked him what I could do to help. He told me I should send Maia to a place of safety first. He even suggested a destination: a world called Rythis that the Polys did not know."

He sighed in the darkness, and Tessa could feel trembling deep in his chest. "But that was a lie. When Maia and I came there, they were waiting. She didn't stand a chance."

The bleakness in his voice made Tessa want to weep. "Are you saying that your own brother deliberately set her up?"

He nodded grimly. "He did. To exact his revenge for our mother's death."

Tessa knew she ought not to ask, but she did, nonetheless. "Why did Lut blame you?"

Jakob fumbled for the cigarette packet and shook out two more. After lighting both he handed one to Tessa and took a long drag off the other. The flaring light of the match had given her a heartrending glimpse of the guilt and shame etched on his face. "Never mind," she said quickly. "You don't..."

He spoke over her words, as if he hadn't heard them. "I suppose I just didn't grow up quickly enough. I wanted to leave Asaruthe, and in leaving, I opened a door that should have remained closed. When you add that to the fact I had already gotten my brother banished for something he didn't do, and broken up his engagement, he had quite a lot to be angry about."

"Quite," agreed Tessa. "But you paid dearly, by the sound of it."

"
She
did. And Lut will too, one of these days, when this business with the Polys is at an end."

"But he must be dead now! If he was a friend of Suvi's, as she claims, in her journal. That was a long time ago."

Jakob shook his head gently, making the lighted end of his cigarette trace a bright aurora in the gloom. "Time... Well, time is a funny thing, Tessa. It winds about the endless Gyre -- no beginning, no end, but everything is really happening now. You have only to travel between the worlds to go anywhen you want."

Tessa lay silently beside him for a moment or two, pondering this. "When you disappeared, before, is that what you did -- pass into another world? What are you -- that you can travel that way?"

"I told you. Just a mariner. Nothing special."

She snorted in disbelief. "How did you pick those guys up? They must have weighed two-fifty each, easy." Stony silence greeted this question.

Tessa sighed deeply and tried again. "If the mirror has been in
Cloudy
Bay
for the last thirty-five years, why did the Polys wait so long to come for it?"

"Because it slept in a dark place. But when you disturbed the fireplace a little light got in and shone on the mirror. That called to the Polys more effectively than any voice could. They came, and I followed them."

The darkness seemed suddenly too close. Though it had only half-burned, Jakob stubbed his cigarette into the cracked saucer that served as his ashtray. Tessa leaned over his body and did the same, and her breasts brushed lightly against his chest. He inhaled sharply and brought his arms up to keep her there.

"I think it's time," she whispered, with a grin.

Tessa found his mouth and kissed him, but he soon tore his lips away, bent on exploration. He traced her jaw, and ears and neck, then rolled her back over so that he could search lower. She dug her fingers into his hair and held on, as his lips and tongue caressed her breasts. Then his head disappeared under the covers as he sought the throbbing ache between her legs. Tessa gave a long moan of pleasure as his mouth covered her, flooding her with almost unbearable warmth.
Sweet Jesus. Is this what it is supposed to be like?

Her thoughts dissolved into ecstasy as a ferocious climax left her gasping his name.

Amusement crept back into his voice. "Was that all right?"

"Yes," said Tessa, when she found she could speak. "Yes, Jakob, that was amazing."

As soon as he had flopped back to his side of the bed, she straddled his chest, and kissed him again. "Let's try this way. I'll go as slow as you want, I promise."

She shifted her body as he spread his rough hands on her hips, guiding her back and down. He groaned as he slipped inside her. "Don't do anything. Give me a minute."

Tessa stayed very still, using the time to kiss his shaggy eyebrows, and run her tongue along the whiskered curve of his jaw and across the cleft in his chin.

Before long she could feel his frustration building, knew he was trying too hard to hold himself in check. "Speak to me in your language. I want to hear more of it."

One hand left her hips and moved to her face, tracing the outline tenderly with the edge of his thumb and palm.
"Si fenu, mi Tessa. Si fen at lors, at kifen, at gron. Manu si fenu, manu teluri."
The strange words caught fire within her, and reduced her promise to ashes. As she rocked back and forth, stroking him swiftly and hungrily, he cried,
"Ach, Tessa! Tessa, mi Tessa. Si fenu, si fenu..."

Afterwards, they slept like children, entwined in each other's arms.

In the morning, there was little talk, at first. They sipped coffee, ate breakfast, avoided each other's eyes.

Tessa finally broke the silence. "What are we going to do now?"

His blue eyes regarded her thoughtfully. "It depends." A minute or more passed as they both picked at their eggs. Jakob sighed. "First I have to understand about last night."

Tessa would have liked to pretend she didn't know what he meant. What was there to understand, anyway? "Maybe I just needed someone."

He raised an eyebrow. "Someone, as in anyone? Or someone, as in me?"

Ted's lugubrious face kept intruding on her thoughts, making her even grumpier. "What difference does it make?"

He studied his forkful of eggs intently. "Not much -- to me, I guess. But maybe more to your fiance."

She glared at him from across the table. "How do you know about that?"

"I heard you and Jane talking. She mentioned his name -- Ted, isn't it? You work with him at the University."

"Brilliant, Holmes. Yes, Ted Black is my fiance, and yes he is under-H.O.D. of Anthropology. Do you want to know how big his dick is too, or is that enough information?"

Jakob sat back, and rubbed the burn on his shoulder. His eyes took on the color of a two-day-old bruise.

She felt unexpectedly contrite. He had saved her life, after all. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that. I just don't know what to do now."

He shrugged with studied carelessness. "Maybe you should go and visit him for a few days. You'd be safer. I'll stay here and keep an eye on your house."

"Or I could just stay here with you. I could help."

Jakob's smile was arid. "Like you did last night, you mean?"

"Yes. I thought I did really well, for my first time. Didn't you?"

"If by really well you mean almost getting both of us killed, then yeah, you did fine," he spat back.

"What are you talking about? I saw the other one coming and stopped it from attacking you. You were on the ground."

"Trying to make it believe I was hurt. I wanted to lure it from hiding. All you did was get in my way."

Tessa got up and walked away from the table, so he wouldn't see the angry tears in her eyes. "Fine, Mr. Big Bad Viking Warrior. I won't lift a finger to save your sorry ass next time."

"Fine!"

She gathered up her nightgown, which lay in a sodden heap on the floor, and tried to keep her voice absolutely level. "I guess I should be going then. May I keep the robe a little longer? I will wash it and then give it back to you."

"Of course," he said, with icy politeness.

He stood silently beside the door. She tried hard not to brush against him as she passed, but he grabbed her upper arm and held on, his touch ungentle. Tessa stared at his hand pointedly, and finally he dropped it to his side.

"Go straight home and pack your bag. Put Suvi's mirror somewhere I can find it. And leave the key under the mat. Then get over to your boyfriend's place and stay there until you hear from me."

Tessa spoke with brittle precision. "Don't tell me what to do."

He drew a ragged sigh and raised his hand, then dragged it through his untidy hair. "Tessa, please. Be careful."

There seemed nothing else to say. But after she crossed the threshold to the landing, Tessa paused. "Jakob, what does
si fenu
mean?"

No trace of emotion passed his face. "Nothing. Just something I made up."

She walked away from him, knowing he spoke the truth. Whatever
si fenu
had meant in the fragile tenderness of the night, it meant nothing now.

Chapter Six

Suvi

Dog -- Dogs are the most closed-minded of all the Soli. The dog child will likely refuse any contact with non-Dog children and may aggressively thwart any efforts at friendship. Progress has been made in teaching Dogs in community-based Soli schools, with intensive education in lower sciences.

Know Your Students -- a Junior Educator's Handbook to the Soli
, Severnessan Ministry of Stations

* * * *

Suvi put Chelah, well wrapped in a scarf, in the basket of the motapede, next to an unlabeled glass bottle filled with a clear liquid. "Be careful of that flask. It is a present for our friend Ludde."

Chelah squeaked in an inquiring way. "I hope so," Suvi answered with a smile. "It would be good to have some fish for the dinner Friday night. Food has been a little scarce for the last few weeks."

She peered anxiously at the sky. "Come on. We had better get going. Those clouds look like snow." The broken windows of the office reflected the dirty grey light. Suvi sighed as she pushed the pede off its kickstand. "Why didn't he come, Chelah? He could have at least sent a message. Marja is out of her mind worrying about Riku, and I..."

Chelah growled sympathetically.

"Well, yes. I wanted to see him too. He is very handsome, don't you think?"

They took the road north, towards the coast. Suvi pushed the motapede hard, trying to beat the threatening weather.

A recent thaw had left thick muddy ruts everywhere. Dirt spattered her clothing and boots by the time she reached the path to Ludde's tumbledown shack. Suvi parked the pede before the dunes, well hidden in a clump of tishin. Its thorny evergreen foliage would discourage all but the most determined thieves. She collected Chelah and the flask, and hiked the last half-mile, with her eyes still anxiously on the sky.

Bits of rusty fishing tackle littered the yard of Ludde's house, set hard against the shore and a rotting jetty. "Good, Chelah. He is not fishing. See, there is his dory, tied up. And the
Sweet Poppy
is there too." She pointed to the deeper water, where a very decrepit single-masted yawl lay at anchor.

Suvi crossed the sandy yard and carefully negotiated the steep steps to the front door. Fisher folk had built Ludde's house long ago, using six-foot piers to keep it above the high winter tides. Some of the steps were cracked, some were missing, but Ludde never bothered to fix them. The door needed paint too. The salt spray had eaten into the wood, leaving it slick and swollen with damp. Suvi knocked firmly and then wiped her knuckles on her coat.

Not a sound came from inside the house.

Suvi tried again, a little harder. "Ludde, are you in there?" she called, though she knew he was and that he had heard her knock.

"Go 'way!" a gruff voice ordered.

Suvi sighed. "Ludde, it is me, Suvi. Please open the door."

"No! I don't want company today. Take some dried fish from the shed, if that is what you came for. Plenty of pikken there for you."

Even this did not discourage her. She always had her last resort, though she hated to use it, not like that. "Oh well. I guess I will have to drink this flask of poteen all by..."

The door flew open, revealing a tall, unkempt man with an almost impossibly bushy red beard. "Suvi! Come in. Bring your beast -- and the drink, of course," he added with a sly half smile.

She followed him inside, stepping carefully over the piles of paper, wood, clothes, dishes and fishing nets that took almost all the floor space. A fire roared away in the hearth, making the room almost uncomfortably hot, but Ludde still wore his thick cable-knit sweater. Suvi sometimes wondered if he
slept
in it. Certainly, it smelled as though he had not washed it in an age.

He ratted around amongst the dishes on the bench and found two moderately clean shot glasses. "How are you, girl? Keeping well?"

"Fine, Ludde. And how are you?" Suvi studied what little she could see of his ruddy, weather-beaten face, noting it looked a little thinner than the last time she had visited. She put Chelah on the bed, and cleared a space for herself to sit.

Ludde coughed convincingly. "Had the grippe bad." He reached for the flask of poteen and poured them both a shot of the clear spirit. He raised his glass. "Dagsanat!" After this toast, he tossed his drink straight back.

So did Suvi. The cheap liquor burned her throat, but it left a pleasant residue of warmth in her belly afterwards. A second round followed immediately, and then Suvi turned over her glass on the mantelpiece.

Ludde regarded her hopefully. "No more?" His blue eyes had already begun to look a little bleary.

"That is enough for me. But you may keep on if you like. I will have a smoke." Suvi knew the flask of poteen would be empty before the end of the afternoon, but she had long ago stopped arguing with Ludde about his drinking.

"Suit yourself, girl." He refilled the glass, and drank it with a satisfied sigh. "Been to see your friend Max, have you?" He raised his craggy eyebrow at her and she nodded.

Suvi packed her pipe with tabac, and then offered him her pouch. He withdrew a dark brown briar from his pocket and polished the wooden bowl carefully on his filthy galligaskins. Ludde lit his pipe with a flaming taper from the fire, cupping the chip in his big, rough hands. "Don't trust him," he growled, after they had smoked in companionable silence for a few minutes.

Suvi had grown accustomed to such conversational non-sequiturs from Ludde. "Who, Max? Don't worry. I can deal with him."

"Can you?" He shook his head and his rusty blond hair waved wildly, almost as if it had its own message to relay by semaphore. "You don't know him."

"And you do?"

He frowned darkly. "His kind, yes. I know them. They'll cut your heart out and eat it raw for the right price. Nice girl like you shouldn't mix with the likes of him. Or me, for that matter." Suvi paid little attention to this. Ludde's opinion of humanity began low and fell sharply the more he drank.

"Chelah and I like coming to visit, don't we, girl?" She stroked the degum, and it snorted sleepily.

Ludde's expression was sour. "Don't know why. Not worth the trip."

Suvi finished her pipe and knocked the ashes on the hearth bricks before she spoke again. "I think you are a good man, no matter how contrary you pretend to be. You have given Carina at least half your catch of pikken this year, and asked nothing in return."

"Pah! There is no one to eat it but me. Why let good fish rot?"

"Don't you have any family?"

"No! Not anymore."

"What happened to them?" Suvi wondered if he would answer.

He didn't. Ludde stared off into the distance for a full five minutes, but whatever thoughts filled his mind, he kept them to himself. Perhaps he even forgot Suvi's presence altogether, because then he took a generous swallow straight from the flask of poteen.

She frowned. "I wish you wouldn't do that."

A belligerent haze filled his eyes. "Go home if you don't like it, girl."

Suvi did not move. "I would rather stay here and talk with you. May I ask you another question?"

He shrugged. "You can ask, but I probably won't answer."

"Why are you so unhappy?"

He took another long pull at the poteen, draining the last drop. His expression dared her to object, but Suvi only sat quietly, stroking Chelah's ears. After a moment, Ludde hurled the empty flask into the fireplace, and it shattered against the bricks. The fire hissed like angry snakes. He looked over at Suvi, his eyes wild with rage and despair. "Because I deserve to be!"

She kept her voice very soft. "That isn't an answer, Ludde Armstrong. Tell me the truth."

He struggled to his feet and stood swaying before her, with his fists clenched. "You want the truth, little girl? Here it is. I killed my brother's wife. Now do you see?" Ludde put a trembling hand to his face, and turned away from her. "Go home, Suvi. Go back to people you can help."

She stood without speaking, and he heard her footsteps cross the floor. He kept his face hidden, waiting for her to go out the door and leave him, knowing she wouldn't be back. But instead, her arms reached high and wrapped around his bent shoulders, pulling him into an embrace. Something broke inside him -- a wall built high with hard words and empty pride. Ludde buried his head in her shoulder and cried like a lost child.

After a time, she put him to bed, and gently kissed his forehead. "I need to be going soon, Ludde. I will take the fish from the shed, as you so kindly suggested. We will be able to make many kaapjies, potato and fish pancakes, and the children love them. Sleep well."

He blinked blearily at her and touched her arm. "You will take care on your way, won't you?"

She smiled and said lightly, "Of course. Don't worry about me."

He tried to make her understand. "I have seen lanterns at night. Boats putting in to shore. Grond, they are. No one but me lives here, and they don't know about Ludde. Stay away from the coast road after dark..." His voice trailed away and then he curled on his side and began to snore.

When he woke again, Suvi had gone. But the little room was as tidy as she could make it, and a note lay on top of the freshly washed dishes on the bench. He stared at it for a long time.

Come to the dinner at Carina, Friday night. Many people there would like to make your acquaintance. And remember, whatever you did before, you are a good man now. One who is worthy of forgiveness, if you seek it.

He balled up the paper and threw it in the fireplace. It landed amongst the broken glass and ashes, and woke the smoldering fire into brilliant flame.

* * * *

Suvi started the pede, and revved the engine. She shouted into the wind as they hurried along the coast road, "Sorry, girl. I know I shouldn't have stayed so long, but I wanted to tidy up for Ludde. Goodness knows, the place needs it."

As if in reprisal for this good deed, snow began to fall, only lightly at first, but with the promise of a heavy accumulation to come. Chelah cowered in the basket, trying to stay out of the chilly air as the pede roared along the road.

The sun hung low in the sky. Suvi wanted to make it back to Wharfan Svaate before it got fully dark, but she knew the trip would take her an hour with the pede this loaded. Two cloth sacks, each containing twenty pounds of dried pikken, hung off either side of the carrier in the back, and made the handling sluggish.

As she skidded round another sharp turn, Suvi heard the one sound she had been dreading -- the low hum of aircraft engines. She scanned the sky with wide, anxious eyes. Three bombers dropped from above the cloud ceiling, accompanied by a far more deadly menace, at least for her -- Grond escort fighters.

She spoke now to Chelah, whose head had peeped from the basket. "Hold on, girl. Those fighters will chase and mow down defenseless people, just for sport. We need cover quickly. That hedge over there is the closest place."

Suvi gunned the engine and set off across the muddy field, home to a solitary galeet. The shaggy beast of burden whistled in alarm when it saw the pede coming towards it. It lowered its head and feinted with its single horn, then took off for the other side of the field, bucking wildly.

The aircraft droned on, high overhead, probably on their way to drop their deadly cargo on Ayedeen. Suvi prayed they might not notice the antics of the galeet or be too hurried to care. But, almost immediately, she heard the rhythm change as one of the fighters peeled off.

They had been spotted.

"Come on!" she begged the pede as it bogged and skidded in the sticky mud. The noise from the fighter grew deafening as it roared overhead. It didn't fire, not this time, but she could see it banking sharply in front of her, coming round for another pass.

Somehow, she made the hedge and set off parallel to it, back towards the coast. Her dark clothing and pede would make her a harder target to pick out against the deep green leaves of the tishin. Just ahead, a narrow band of trees separated her from the shoreline. The roar of the aircraft, now directly behind her, filled her ears. Rhythmic thumping tore the ground just to the side of her, geysers of muddy water spouted forth. Chelah howled in terror.

The aircraft turned again, and hunted the galeet instead, cutting it down quite handily. Suvi wished she could close her ears to the screams of the dying animal.

The trees closed in overhead, but Suvi, knowing she might still be visible from the air, did not slow her frantic pace. She raced through the scattered trunks and shrubby undergrowth, heading for the deepest part of the forest. Bullets whipped and whined through the branches above her as the pilot took out his frustration on the canopy that had stolen his prey. But after a heart-stopping moment, Suvi heard the sound of the engine fading, as the disappointed fighter rejoined the bombing sortie.

She stopped the pede and dismounted, every muscle trembling with fatigue and delayed terror. Chelah still howled, huddled deep in the basket.

Suvi picked her up. "It is all right, Chelah. We are safe now. That galeet was not so lucky though. Poor thing. I hope that pilot rots in--"

The crack of a falling branch, broken by the strafing, suddenly sent the degum into a panic. She clawed her mistress savagely and threw herself over Suvi's shoulder, before climbing halfway up a high tree.

Suvi groaned. "Chelah, please. Come down. We need to get home."

The degum remained out of reach, mewling pitifully.

Suvi called and cajoled, offered pikken and threats, but nothing dislodged Chelah. Now, as night settled around them like a blanket, Suvi had to consider what she would do.

"I can't stay here all night, girl," she called up the tree trunk. Look how fast the snow is falling. Don't you care if I freeze?" The degum barked a sharp warning and Suvi fell silent.

Did she hear the murmur of voices amongst the hiss of the waves?

She crept to the edge of the copse, high above the narrow strip of shingle. Ghostly lights bobbed just beyond the waterline. She saw a big dory put in to the shore, and ten uniformed members of the Grond embark. Behind her, Chelah gave a mournful howl, and several of the men looked up sharply, and went for their holstered weapons.

BOOK: Wintermoon Ice (2010)
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