The wicked heroine, p.17
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       The Wicked Heroine, p.17

           Jasmine Giacomo
 

  ~~~

  “Herm, you be careful!” Gingi warned, tugging his fur-enshrouded arm. “We don’t know this ice.”

  “Peace, wife,” Herm returned, gazing at her placidly through the fur rimming his hood, though her tug had changed the angle of his cut. “It’ll hold.”

  He continued cutting until an ice block the size of an elk had been freed from the lake’s surface, and together they and Herm’s three brothers and their wives moved it, using pine rollers, over to where they were constructing their ice home.

  Herm began sawing again, next to the hole he had just cut. A few moments later, his ice saw hit something. He frowned, tugging the blade free, and examined its rough teeth. He squinted at what he saw, then turned his thoughtful gaze down to the ice under his feet.

  “Herm?” Gingi asked, stumping over through the snow to see why he had stopped. He showed her the blade. After a quick family meeting, Herm returned to cutting, but not in the shape of an ice block.

  He cut free small pieces, and his brothers moved them out of the way. Eventually they could all see a part of what lay in the ice.

  It was an arm, outstretched, wearing an archer’s brace of brown leather, its edge trimmed with green. The fingers were curled, clinging. They too were brown, desiccated by the ice.

  The family lifted more ice off the mysterious figure, until finally they had found the extent of its person.

  “It’s a woman,” Herm’s second brother murmured, tugging his bearded chin in surprise.

  “Maybe she’s a queen!” Gingi said, widening her eyes with new interest. “Maybe she has golden rings we can take. We could be rich!”

  The other wives rolled their eyes in annoyance at Herm’s wife. Why couldn’t he have picked his mate based on her skill with cooking, rather than her ample hips?

  Carefully the brothers cut around the frozen woman, freeing her from the lake’s icy grip. They all carried her, wrapped in woolen blankets, to the face of the cliff, where they had a lean-to shelter constructed of rough pine boughs. The women set about building up the fire to melt the ice, and the men took a break for a meal.

  The fire warmed the cliff face and radiated heat back at them, and they ate and warmed up, discussing the ice woman’s mysterious origins, deciding to burn her body as befitted their culture, after the ice house was complete. When their meal was consumed, they went back to work.

  Hours passed. Occasionally one of them took a break and added wood to the fire. The ice was steadily melting off the frozen woman.

  Just before supper, as the late winter sun set into the frozen sea, Gingi gave a shriek from the lean-to. Everyone ran to see what had happened.

  She pointed excitedly to the woman. “Look! I told you she was a queen!”

  A bronze torc lay around the ice woman’s neck, decorated with exotic animals, the likes of which none of them had ever seen. Herm’s eyes widened.

  “Let’s take it off,” Gingi suggested, kneeling by the body.

  “No, wife. Not before we hold a ceremony. Surely she was a great woman. She deserves a proper end.”

  Gingi pouted. “But I can have it, can’t I?”

  “The body is my find. I will decide what to do with anything we keep,” Herm said, keeping his voice even with difficulty.

  His blonde wife scowled. “Very well, husband. But let’s put her outside for the night. I don’t want her rotting in here while we all sleep.”

  “Fair and done.”

  The night passed, cold and windy. In the wee hours before dawn, Gingi slipped out of her sleeping furs and pulled on her heavy boots and her thick fur coat. She stepped through the squeaking snow to where Herm had set the body and pulled the blanket off its face, griping inside her head at how he’d offered a blanket to the dead, when it might have kept the living warmer through the night.

  The woman still lay with her eyes closed, but…something seemed different about her. A superstitious chill shot up Gingi’s spine. Taking a firming breath, she reached for the woman’s torc. “The dead do not need such ornaments,” she murmured to herself, as she started to twist it free.

  The ice woman’s hands grasped her own in a frighteningly cold grip. Her eyes snapped open and stared up at Gingi.

  “It is a good thing I am not dead, then,” the ice woman said, in a voice hoarse and dry. Her accent was unfamiliar to the Ianiu woman, who was too terrified to cry out at first. “Do you usually rob others of their possessions, or am I a special interest of yours?” she added, squeezing Gingi’s hands painfully.

  Gingi hyperventilated for several moments, before uttering a petrified scream that brought the rest of her family tumbling from the elk-hide door of the lean-to.

  “Gingi! What are you–Hori’s breath…” Herm’s curse trailed off, seeing the ice woman’s grip on his wife’s hands. She pushed Gingi away and stood up, wrapping herself in the blanket, and looked at the eight people before her.

  “You dug me out?”

  “Yes,” Herm said.

  “Then you have my thanks.”

  “Are you a mortal, or a winter goddess?” one of the wives asked. “May we know your name?”

  The woman snorted, ignoring the first question. “Last I walked the earth, I was called Inska.” She cast a glance at the dark sky, where streaming clouds wended their way below ice-bright stars. “What time of year is it now?”

  “It is spring, or nearly so.”

  Inska eyed their clothing and spears. “Of what year?” she asked, after a pause.

  The brothers exchanged a glance. Herm said, “It is the fourteenth year of Helmrik Ikalhur’s rule.”

  The ice woman’s mouth opened in dismay. “Who is Helmrik Ikalhur?”

  “He is the grandson of the Great Chieftain, Gelgan Virnlir, may his bones rest easy.”

  “That little rugrat’s in charge?” Inska snorted again. “Surprised he survived puberty.”

  “He is nearly sixty,” Gingi protested. “You should show him respect.”

  “Stars and darkness,” Inska said, putting a hand to her forehead. “I’ve missed more than fifty years!”

  “It’s been very cold, for a very long time,” Herm said. “No one has come this far north in decades.”

  “Did Gerand Enjural die, at least?” she asked, hands on her hips.

  “Who?” Herm said.

  “Wait,” one of his brothers said. “Wasn’t that some rebel warlord who threatened Gelgan’s borders for a season or so? Father mentioned the name, in stories.”

  “Maybe so. The name doesn’t ring a bell with me,” Herm replied.

  “Well, that’s good,” Inska said, smiling. “How far to the next settlement nowadays?”

  “It’s about two horizons south along the ridge.”

  She looked down and stamped her feet. “Any chance I could trade you folks for a good pair of boots? These are a bit tight.”

  “Gingi has an extra pair,” Herm offered.

  “But those are my boots,” she protested.

  Inska patted herself about the waist. “I don’t have my money pouch anymore,” she commented. “I guess it must be further down in the ice.”

  The blonde’s eyes lit up. “I’ll get those boots for you.”

  A few days later, Inska crossed the border southward, still wearing Gingi’s boots.

 
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