Mistress of Ice
By Robert Hubby
Deep shadows loomed and glowered in the dark recesses of the cavern, and from its depths came the constant drip...drip...dripping of water from the massive stone behemoths that hung, pendulously, from the hidden ceiling far above. Little disturbed the ever-present gloom, which seemed even darker for the dim glow of phosphorescent lichen that flecked the walls.
Unlike many caves, this massive cavern housed no bats, for there was only one opening to the surface world for many miles, and no bat could open that.
Within this quiescent tomb, moving through the brooding darkness with the surety of creatures of the night, two dark figures approached that one egress. One was larger than the other in both height and girth, as his name testified. The shorter one bore a strange device made from metal and glass. These were the trolls named Squinter and King Massif the Large.
"Whatever this is, it had better be important!" snapped the king. He was rarely in a good mood, and going above the ground always made his skin itch, even if the sun wasn't due up for hours. Dawn he found unbearable.
"Oh, it is most assuredly important, great king!" exclaimed the spy, edging along the wall towards the place where the entrance was hidden. "I have always wondered why the upper halls near the forges were always so cold. As you know, we are too far south for permafrost..."
"Get to the point!" barked the king, "I know my own kingdom!"
"Of course, majesty!" Squinter said, pushing the hidden door open with his free hand, "I have found the answer!" Massif scowled as the door swung open, revealing the hidden rocky cleft that was the trolls' only exit to the surface world for many miles.
Chill air enveloped Cheris as she left the snug warmth of her sleeping furs. Her breath misted as she floated gracefully across the room, slipping on her robe as she parted the curtains and soared up into the sky.
The robe fluttered gently against her legs as she floated up past the top of the mountain's circular rim and flitted, like a feather borne on the wind, to the top of her ice castle.
The castle was not her home. She slept and ate in her cave dwelling, shaped from the living stone by her will as easily as the base of her ice castle had been shaped from the mountain-top so long ago. No, the castle was her love, her passion, her life. For more years than she could count, she had been constantly reshaping it and increasing its size and complexity. Everything she was, every dream and fancy, was recorded somewhere in its fluid rigidity. The face of every human lover she had taken to her bed was engraved somewhere on this massive sculpted glacier.
As long as she lived, the sculpture grew and changed, and she could never die, for she was Ch'Ran Erhiss, Woman of Ice, the good spirit of winter. She could not remember a time when she had been anything else, and she had lived on while countless generations of her human worshipers lived and died.
Cheris swooped to the pinnacle of her castle as she did every morning and removed her robe, baring her lithe body to the cool night air. She spread her arms and faced the east, eagerly awaiting the first kiss of dawn sunshine. It was a ritual she had repeated for mornings without number for as long as she could remember. This morning was clear and cold, so she knew she would truly see the sun this dawn.
The eastern sky brightened from pale gray to glowing red, then there was a burst of yellow fire as the sun peeked over the horizon.
Cheris drank in its warmth eagerly. She could take warmth in from her surroundings, storing it inside until she glowed with magical power, but simply feeling the sunshine and letting its warmth soak in without consciously absorbing it always felt good. She shivered with pleasure and floated up into the air, rotating slowly so that her whole body could be caressed by the light.
Cheris sighed and landed, taking up her robe again. There was already a sheen of moisture on the eastern face of the castle. Summer was a hard time for her. She had to spend half of her time keeping the upper tiers solidly frozen.
She closed her eyes and concentrated. A sphere of chilling mist formed around her as she began absorbing all the heat nearby.
Cheris flew down the eastern face of the castle. Wherever she passed, droplets of melting ice froze in place. Soon, she had re frozen the whole castle, and was ready to begin re sculpting the detail on the eastern face into the shape it was meant to have. If she let even as little water as had melted go, more would be gone tomorrow, and more the day after that, so now was the time to fix it.
As she reached out to touch the ice, anticipating its smooth feel and obedient flow at her touch, the drums began. A mild curse escaped her lips. What did they want at this time of the year?
Cheris swooped down to the entrance of her home and flew inside, closing the wall behind her.
Below Cheris' mountain, an unfriendly bloodshot eye watched her through a primitive telescope.
"A rockshaper!" Massif exclaimed, "What luck!"
Squinter cackled. "Probably untrainable, majesty. You know how those point-ears are if you don't catch `em young!" He grinned slyly "But there's always that plan you had. That's why we still have the other one, right?"
King Massif rubbed his hands together. "She's perfect! We'll capture her immediately! Keep an eye on her, and inform me of anything important. I'll send Slab-Foot with some sunshades. You will be well rewarded, Squinter."
Massif the Large retreated underground and closed the door behind him. Squinter grinned and returned to his telescope. "I had better be, for staying outside in the daytime, 'King Massive the Fat,' or there will be a new king on your throne, very soon!"
Cheris gathered her ceremonial furs. They would, naturally, be unbearably hot this time of year, but she could always chill the air around her if it was too much. She rockshaped her roof open, revealing the underside of her castle. The central shaft shimmered with deep blue light as the rays of the sun filtered through the pure ice, most of it many centuries old, that composed the bulk of the castle. Floating up into the midst of the intricate maze of magically shaped ice, Cheris concentrated with all the strength of her will. The air around her crackled with power as she drew in every iota of warmth from the ice and air. The air misted as the temperature dropped. Only the sheer power her body contained kept Cheris herself from freezing solid.
Satisfied that her precious sculpture would survive the heat of the day intact, Cheris flew back down through her apartments, rockshaped the entrance open again, and flew out into the air, using up her accumulated power in a burst of speed lest it overwhelm her.
Below in the village, the humans had seen the cloud of ice fog forming around the summit of the mountain, and their drumbeat had changed to the familiar Song of Greeting, which they played whenever she came down from her castle.
The day was already warm in the valley when Cheris landed delicately atop the stoneshaped well that served the village. She absorbed just enough heat from the air to make herself comfortable as Nolar, shaman of the tribe, spoke. "We, the Hoan Ch'Ran Erhiss, welcome our patron spirit!"
Cheris replied as ritual demanded; "As I have always promised, I have come."
Ritual satisfied, the shaman went down on his hands and knees. "Forgive us, Ch'Ran Erhiss, for calling you in the season of heat!"
Cheris nodded. "Your need must be great. Rise and speak, Nolar."
The shaman, pleased to be addressed by name, rose and approached the well. "Oh great and powerful winter spirit, we beg you..."
Nolar was interrupted by a sudden commotion at the rear of the gathered villagers. Cheris heard a voice angrily shout "Demon!" There was a flicker of motion in the air between her and the voice. Then, with a sudden pain in her head, all went dark.
Downward Cheris drifted, drowning in memories she had thought safely buried, returning to where it began, when she had a different name.
Her mother carried her as she and her lifemate walked through the forest. It was a warm spring day, and her parents laughed softly as Cheris heard a gentle, loving voice whisper a name. *Aliria.* Somehow, Cheris knew, that name was hers, but the memories went on, leaving her no time to ponder.
Suddenly, from the depths of the woods, there was an angry roar. A huge bear, maddened by pain, with several spears protruding from its body, crashed out of the woods and barreled into Cheris' parents. She was knocked from her mother's grasp, landing among some nearby bushes. Thin cries of terror and pain echoed through the forest as flesh was torn and bones were broken and crushed by blows from huge furry paws. Horror engulfed Cheris as her parents were torn apart.
Just as it seemed that Cheris herself would be killed, the human hunters who were tracking the wounded bear arrived to finish it off. The humans returned to their tribe with their prize; a captive demon-child, or so they believed.
Cheris became a living trophy, a testament to the tribal chief's mastery over all, human and demon alike. When she learned to walk, they forced her to wear a collar, but allowed her no other clothing and made her lie by the campfire like a pet dog. Shivering in the dark, she eventually learned that, somehow, she could warm herself just by thinking hard about it. The kicks and slaps of the humans taught her very quickly to do as she was told, though by the age of five she had learned how to make the pain go away when no one was looking.
As she grew up, the human chief took great pleasure in forcing her to carry heavy objects for him. By the age of ten, she had learned how to lighten her burdens by concentrating, but she also learned to pretend that it was still heavy, lest even more be added.
When she was old enough to be sexually attractive, the chief's son raped her, and began using her for pleasure at every whim. For months, every act was an eternity of agony, until she accidentally discovered that if she didn't heal herself, the pain would lessen each time, until there was only some initial discomfort, followed by physical pleasure, though she still loathed the boy.
As time went on, the other youths of the tribe also began to use her, though some were more gentle, and she almost enjoyed those. After five generations, she was an accepted part of the tribe's rite of passage.
She remained a slave and pet for many years, until one fateful night when her life was changed forever. It was during the fall festival. The chieftain's daughter was dancing around the fire with the village boys she most favored, flirting coyly with first one, then another, when she stumbled and fell into the fire.
Aliria, who was now simply "Slave-Demon" was moved to pity by the girl's screams as she was pulled from the fire and extinguished. She touched the badly burned human and stopped the pain, healing her burns so that she was nearly unmarked. The change in the humans was instant and total. No longer was she "Slave-Demon," but "Great Healing Spirit."
Many years passed before she completely mastered her magical powers. After several more generations, the humans were asking her for advice. Her seeming agelessness and nearly faultless memory made her seem a bottomless wellspring of wisdom for the short-lived humans. Yet even now, she had begun to forget her centuries of slavery. She did not want to remember.
The winters began to grow longer and the summers shorter. Though Ch'Dar Alon (Woman of Kindness, as she was now known) could remain comfortable in any weather, she noticed that the humans began to wear warm furs all year. To the humans the change was slow and hardly noticed, but to Cheris it was unsettling.
She led them south to follow the sun, to lands where they could live comfortably. They settled on the shore of a shallow sea, and she was now known as Ch'Dah Omin, the woman who leads.
The sea began to dry up. After a thousand years, she diverted a river from the other side of a mountain range, making a new bed for it from the bare stone with her powers. She became Ch'Lan Ovala, woman who brings water.
Now, constantly advising the humans began to bore her. Their petty problems became tedious, even annoying. Even her human lovers were little comfort. She appointed a tribal chief to settle disputes, and a shaman to answer questions, then began to withdraw. To pass the time, she began an ice sculpture atop the mountain where she now made her home.
The humans now called her Ch'Ran Erhiss (woman of ice, her current name), and worshipped her as the spirit of winter, since she had to spend most of each summer keeping her growing ice sculpture from melting. The valley below remained fertile, even when the rains began to come only a few times a year, because of the river Cheris had brought. Beyond the small forest that the river fed, the water soaked slowly into the sandy soil of the vast wasteland that had once been a sea and now stretched as far as the eye could see towards the setting sun.
Cheris stirred in her dream. The memories were unpleasant, if memories they truly were. Was she not a spiritual being? Had the humans not always worshipped her? Doubt remained, and pain. Her head throbbed with it. Cheris woke her slumbering healing power, and the pain faded. She woke.
It was dark, and she could smell smoke. It was also very hot, and she felt unbearably thirsty and sweaty. She could feel that she was lying on something soft and furry, and there was the sound of many drums. It was the humans' song of mercy, which they always played when someone needed Cheris' healing.
Cheris tried to rise, but she was too weak. Nearby, there was a sound. She turned her head and could just see Nolar's worried face in the dim flicker of a small fire in the center of the darkened hut she now saw she was in.
"Water..." she croaked through her parched throat. Nolar, relieved that she was all right, raised a wooden cup to her lips and held her head up while she drank.
"Blessed spirit, I rejoice in your healing." he whispered.
"What happened?" Cheris asked.
Nolar frowned. "A wanderer that we accepted into our tribe threw a stone at you. We could not stop him. He..."
A human woman burst into the room, interrupting Nolar's account. She fell to her knees next to Cheris, wringing her hands in anguish.
"Good Spirit...Beautiful Spirit...Sweet and merciful one, please...please"
Nolar was outraged. "Woman, how dare you burst into the presence of the blessed one?" he shouted. Cheris held up a hand, silencing him. "Nolar, let her speak." Cheris took the woman's hand in hers. "You are not known to me. The stranger...?"
"He is my son, great spirit. Please don't let them kill my child!"
Cheris' eyes went wide in surprise. "Kill?" She glared at the shaman. "Nolar, what is the meaning of this?"
Nolar dropped his eyes in shame. "Ch'Ran Erhiss, there can be no greater crime than to strike you."
"You know my law, Nolar. No crime may be punished by death!"
"The boy is not dead. We have held him."
Cheris turned to the woman. "What is your name?"
"I am called Thaya, great spirit."
"Help me to rise, Thaya, and take me to your son."
Iro writhed in pain, the sweat on his limbs glistening in the bright glare of the bonfire. His hands were bound behind him around a stout wooden pole, and his flesh was covered with burns, cuts and bruises, inflicted on him by the other tribesfolk, who seemed horrified at what he had done. The heavy sound of the drums pounded in his ears. These fools worshipped a demon, and they were going to kill him for doing what had to be done! 'Demons must be destroyed,' he thought, 'even at the cost of my own life!' The will of Gotara, his parents' patron spirit, demanded it!
Suddenly the drums stopped. Iro wearily lifted his head, and saw the demon standing only an arm's length away. His mother stood, subdued, behind the demoness in the firelight.
"Demon!" Iro spat, straining at his bonds. The ropes creaked, but held fast.
"Why do you call me that?" the demon said, her musical voice soft and sweet. No doubt she was trying to lull him with some evil spell.
"I know a demon when I see one!" Iro declared, "My father cursed the wolf demons of the desert with his dying breath! The sadistic evil ones threatened us with their shadow-beasts, tortured my mother by pretending they were going to kill me, then they let us go, knowing we would suffer in the burning waste! My father died in the desert within sight of this forest, and my mother and I barely made it to the river alive ourselves! For years we hid in the forest while I hunted for my mother, fearful every hour that the demons would come to claim us and take us away from the forest and back into the desert."
"My people took you in, did they not?"
"They are all blind! They don't see what you really are!"
"Are you sure that you aren't the one who is seeing what isn't there?" She reached out towards him. Iro tried desperately to squirm away from her.
"Don't touch me, Demon!" he screamed.
Nolar shouted at him. "Silence, fool! You are not even worthy to behold Ch'Ran Erhiss! Her touch is an honor!"
The demon's slender hands gently brushed Iro's cheek, and the pain from the bruises there instantly vanished. Iro was so startled that he hardly noticed when her hands slid down to caress his chest, banishing the pain there as well. When she leaned forward and kissed him passionately on the mouth, he nearly fainted. "You're a very handsome young man, Iro." she whispered as she slid her arms around him. Suddenly, he was free. He found himself embracing her, desire welling up inside him with the force of a desert sandstorm. What was happening to him?
"Did a demon ever feel like this?" she said, smiling seductively and sliding her hands down to clasp his buttocks. Iro felt completely paralyzed. She pressed her body against his until he knew that she could feel his readiness through his loincloth. She giggled and gently backed away, turning to Nolar.
"Why have you called me here, Nolar?"
"Ch'Ran Erhiss, for three summers there has been no rain. The river has shrunk to a tiny stream, and the animals we hunt have suffered as we have. Without rain, we will soon starve. The well you created long ago eases our thirst, but it cannot produce food. You must bring rain, great spirit, we beg you!"
"Please call me 'Cheris', Nolar. It's less cumbersome." The gorgeous apparition called Cheris frowned. "I have never made rain. I don't know how." Nolar's face fell. Something Cheris couldn't do? Impossible! "Don't worry, Nolar. Rain may be beyond my powers, but food is not. Our people will not starve."
Nolar fell to his knees. "Praise all the spirits! These three days I had feared that you were lost to us forever! You are our heart and soul, Cheris!"
Cheris winced. Three days? Her sculpture would be badly damaged by melting. Nolar rose. "What of the traitor, Iro? What will his punishment be for striking you?"
Cheris smiled. "He shall join me at my home, and help me in gathering the food. I shall return him when the task is done." The woman, Thaya, rushed forward and grabbed Cheris' hand, kissing it. "Oh, thank you, kind spirit!" She was weeping with joy.
Cheris laughed. "Your son has a good looking, strong body. I wouldn't want to waste it, would I?" She took Iro's hand, and both of them floated up into the air, slowly gaining altitude as Cheris drained heat from the fire to lift them both into the sky. Iro gasped and clamped his eyes tightly shut.
The darkness around him was impenetrable. The only sound was the steady dripping of water. From experience, Alrin knew that it was collecting in a shallow depression in the floor, and that when he was thirsty enough to drink, it would be warm and moldy-tasting.
He stood and stretched, then paced his cell carefully. Eight steps, turn, five steps, turn, follow a curved wall to the bars, turn, follow the bars across to his starting point. Such a tiny space to hold one who had once led the Chosen Eight, and had been called, simply, "The Ninth." How long had he been a prisoner here? Time seemed meaningless in the eternal blackness, but he was sure that many years had passed. His captors were incredibly disappointed to learn that he was not a rockshaper when they captured him. As if they could have held him prisoner if he had been a rockshaper! Of course, if he had been, he probably wouldn't have led the eight, or left blue mountain.
Alrin closed his eyes, which was really unnecessary in the total blackness that surrounded him, and let his mind drift back, as he had countless times to keep himself from sliding into madness, back to the day Winnowill had come to the aerie...
He was dosing fitfully on a ledge overlooking the valley. The sunshine felt good on his face as he listened to the wind and the call of the great birds as they soared overhead. Suddenly, a shadow fell upon him, and a soft voice brought him fully awake. "Good morning, Alrin. How is 'The Ninth' today?"
Alrin sat up, surprised. "Winnowill!" He turned to face the raven-haired beauty. "Where have you been hiding these past two-eights of years?"
The eggshell-pale face smiled. "I had to stay away for a time. How is Voll? Is he still brooding over how few children are born now?"
"Even more so. Aro-ree was the only child born since you left, and she is nearly twelve years old now. She is already training to bring our hunters to a full eight and one." Alrin turned sadly to Winnowill. "Couldn't you do something, somehow, to help our people to have children?"
Alrin was surprised by the violence of her reaction. "No!" she calmed, and continued. "It would be...too dangerous." She turned away, her voice thoughtful. "However, if we cannot make our own children, you could take your hawk, Greatwing, and search the world outside for other elves. A few may have survived out there, and it would cheer Voll so much if you were to return with others. Voll trusts your judgment even more than mine, and eight are sufficient to hunt for us all until you return."
Winnowill turned and smiled at him. "In fact, there's no telling how many you may find. I will command the preservers to begin trapping food in the valley below the great waterfall." She pointed to the east. "Then, at least, the eight will not be overburdened when you return."
Alrin and Winnowill brought their plan to lord Voll. The idea of searching for more elves for Blue Mountain intrigued him and cheered him up, as Winnowill had predicted. He wholeheartedly approved of the plan. When it was time for Alrin to leave, he found Winnowill in Greatwing's aerie. The giant hawk seemed ill at ease, eyeing the pale healer almost fearfully. Alrin laughed. "What's the matter, Greatwing? Winnowill can't hurt you!"
Winnowill smiled again. "I'm afraid that I startled him. I was going to make certain he is in good health, and I touched him while he was asleep. I'm afraid all I did was make him nervous. I must go now. Good luck, Alrin."
Winnowill turned and departed. Greatwing calmed down as soon as she was out of sight, and Alrin's flight began. He had no clear plan, but his choices seemed limited.
To the west was the Vastdeep Water, and he was unlikely to find elves there. To the North and Northeast were ice-covered mountains he had seen only a few times and rarely approached, for game there was scarce. Elves would, no doubt, prefer warmer climates. South, along the coast, were the main hunting grounds. Any elves living there would have been found long ago. To the southeast, the land dried out, becoming a barren wasteland that supported even less life than the frozen mountains.
The best choice seemed to be travel up the river to the east. That was the one direction which was truly unknown to him. A plan began to take shape. Alrin would fly east over the river, and he would send at regular intervals. That would give him a decent chance of finding any elves who were living near the river. The telepathic call would allow him to find elves he couldn't see as well as those he could. Later, on his way back to Blue Mountain, he could check the rest of the territory more carefully.
Three days of leisurely flight later, the river had split and shrunk to a tiny stream in a vast plain. Alrin decided to continue eastward to see how far the plains extended. Two days later, he was flying over a forest. In the middle was a large lake. "This may take longer than I expected." He muttered to himself. He tried sending a few times, but the forest was so huge that it was unlikely that any elves were in range.
When he arrived at the lake, he found a river flowing out of it. The river flowed south, but soon began to turn east. This was a bit strange, because there were mountains to the East, and Alrin would have thought that the land would be tilted away from them.
Alrin repeated what he had done earlier, following this new river downstream. The riverbed was tending more to the south now, but it suddenly made a sharp turn to the east, heading straight for the mountains. This new riverbed was arrow-straight, and the old riverbed could be seen to the south, leading to a lake that was obviously shrinking because the river had been diverted.
Turning Greatwing to follow the river, Alrin had the giant hawk descend until the water was less than a wingspan below. The riverbanks here were cut stone, nearly smooth. Ahead, he could see that the river entered a dark tunnel in the side of a mountain. As unnatural as this was, he could see that it wasn't elfin work. The sides of the river lacked the look of rockshaped stone.
Alrin signaled for Greatwing to ascend, and prepared to fly over the mountains. He had time aplenty for his search, and he was curious to see whether the river came out again on the far side of the mountain range.
As the air thinned, Alrin steered the great hawk eastward into the mountains. The bird's breathing began to seem labored, more so than it should be at this height. Concerned, Alrin reached down and felt the pulse at Greatwing's neck. The bird's heart was beating far too quickly. Something was dreadfully wrong.
He turned his mount to circle and look for a safe landing place. Suddenly, the giant bird shuddered beneath him and began to tumble, out of control, towards the rocks below. Cursing, Alrin abandoned Greatwing to his fall and floated, watching in horror as his giant winged friend and faithful companion was shattered against the mountainside.
The next several days were blurred in Alrin's memory. He wandered, lost in the mountains and grieving for Greatwing, until the trolls ambushed him. They pounced on him as he slept, pinning his arms and legs. Even so, he nearly escaped by levitating the leader and throwing him at the others. If one of them hadn't knocked him out by throwing a club at him as he flew away, they never would have caught him.
A sound broke Alrin out of his reverie. It was a sound that he had heard so many times that he knew each part of it by heart. First, there was a sharp metallic click, followed by a slight scraping sound. After that came a stony thump, then the scraping sound again, and finally a second sharp click.
Alrin took a step to his left, walked directly across the cell, knelt, and picked up a bowl that hadn't been there a moment ago. This was one of the few times they fed him something besides mushrooms and cave slugs. There was actually a fried fish and a small tuber.
When Alrin was finished eating, he left the bowl by the hidden trapdoor in the wall, drank deeply from the drinking pool, and fell asleep.
When he awoke, it took some time for Alrin to realize that he could see. It had been so long since he had been exposed to light that even the pale glow of the green trollish lantern that hung over him seemed blindingly bright, and the sudden change in his condition left him momentarily confused.
He was no longer in his cell, he realized, for this space was much larger. He was strapped down to a tilted metal table. His head was buzzing, as if a nest of angry hornets had decided to take up residence between his ears.
Alrin tried to reach out with his powers to unfasten the straps that held him down, but the noise in his head prevented him from concentrating. He looked around and saw, about five feet to his left, a rack mounted on the wall that held an assortment of dozens of small knives, pincers, tongs and other, nastier looking tools. If he couldn't untie the straps, maybe he could still lift one of the small knives and cut them!
Concentrating on one of the smallest, sharpest looking knives, Alrin tried to make it come to him. Sweating with effort, he managed to "feel" the knife with his power, and it shivered as his magic grasped it.
The blade dipped and wobbled drunkenly as it lifted from its brackets on the wall and began to approach. Drunk! That was it! He'd been drugged! With that sudden realization, Alrin's concentration slipped and the knife clattered to the floor. There was a startled grunt from somewhere behind him and a troll, a particularly ugly one at that, walked around the table to his right.
"Awake are ye?" The troll spotted the knife and walked around the table to pick it up. "Naughty, Naughty. I see I should've given ye a stronger dose."
Alrin spoke haltingly, hard pressed to remember how after so long. "Release...me...now...troll."
The ugly apparition laughed. "Ye'r in no position to be orderin' anybody about, point-ears!" Another troll entered. His face was etched in Alrin's memory, though his beard was white now. He grinned at Alrin.
"I've finally found a use for you, elf! I'm going to capture a female rockshaper. I'll breed the two of you, and raise your brats to be loyal to me! I will reign supreme over all trolls!"
"No." Alrin said, "Won't do it."
The old troll laughed and poked Alrin painfully in the throat. The glider gagged as Massif turned to the other troll. "Oh, but you WILL. Grubwart, here, is a master of his profession." He spoke to Grubwart. "It's time for his first lesson. Teach him what it means to defy me!"
Grubwart went to the rack of tools and reached down below Alrin's field of vision. He drew forth a pointed metal rod, the end of which was glowing hot. He nodded, replaced the rod, and took a strange object from the rack that looked like half of a large metal ring. He came over to Alrin, grabbed his head firmly, and forced his gaze to the ceiling. The strange object he placed over the elf's forehead and fastened, somehow, to the table. Alrin's head was thus firmly held in place. Try as he might, he couldn't budge it.
Now the troll returned to the rack and selected a very sharp small knife, the very one that Alrin had tried to use, and also a small pair of tongs with cruel, inward-pointing spikes. He put the knife in a small leather scabbard on his belt as he turned back to the table. He grinned.
"Any last words?" the troll sneered.
"Jump...off...cliff...troll." Alrin spat. Grubwart seized Alrin's chin and forced his mouth open. Reaching inside with the tongs, he clamped them firmly on Alrin's tongue.
Alrin tasted blood as the troll pulled, drawing his tongue out as far as it would go. Grubwart released his jaw and drew the knife. Alrin, realizing too late what was about to happen, couldn't even scream. After a short, sharp pain, he could no longer taste blood, but he could feel the warm, sticky fluid dribbling down his chin. He gurgled out a cry of agony and nearly choked. The searing touch of red-hot iron in his mouth brought high-ones blessed oblivion as he fainted.
Cheris drew every iota of heat from her partly melted ice castle. All the fine detail on the outer surface was ruined, and the lower chambers were flooded and would now be frozen solid. She would begin repairs tomorrow, but right now, she needed to get rid of all this excess magic-energy before it overwhelmed her, and she knew just how she was going to do it.
She tunneled down through the ice, down to the roof of her home, then opened the ceiling of her entrance hall, where Iro stood, shivering in the heavy furs she had dressed him in, and followed the curve of her main passageway to her bathing chamber.
In the center of the room was a broad depression in the floor, and ranged about the room were tremendous blocks of ice, each just large enough to fill the tub. Cheris released the stored magic as heat, directing it at one of the huge blocks. It vanished into a cloud of steam so hot that it rushed straight up to the ceiling. There it touched a cold pillar of stone that hung directly over the tub and, aided by Cheris' magic, condensed back into water, filling the tub in a magically created miniature cloudburst. Too bad she couldn't do this for the forest outside, but she needed water first, and even her whole ice sculpture wasn't enough to water the whole valley even once.
Iro peeked into the room cautiously as Cheris slipped out of her clothes. She turned and smiled at him when he gasped in astonishment. "Yes, just what I need. A hot bath and a suitable companion. Join me, Iro."
Iro froze. He simply stood, sweating in the steamy heat of the room, with a look of total bewilderment on his face. Sensing his difficulty, Cheris waved her arms and Iro was suddenly naked. His clothing had removed itself from his body and lay strewn about him on the floor. There was no hiding his desire for her now. Iro, embarrassed, turned to flee and floated up into the air. Fearful that she would carry him up into the sky again, he closed his eyes. He heard the sound of her entering the water, then felt a hot flash as he was gently lowered into the hot liquid. A mouth pressed against his, her tongue slipping inside. Gentle hands caressed him, and he surrendered himself, body and soul, to Ch'Ran Erhiss.
Iro woke slowly. He had never felt so good in his entire life. He was first aware of the feel of soft breath on his cheek. A warm body was half entwined with his, and his arm was asleep. He opened his eyes, and it was still very dark. He could just make out the smooth bulge of a breast only inches below his chin.
Memory began to return. He had kissed that breast, and more, the night before. In fact, there was no part of that incredibly agile body that he had not eagerly explored mere hours ago in response to relentless encouragement. Ch'Ran Erhiss, or Cheris as she insisted that he call her, seemed completely insatiable, and was as irresistible as a force of nature which was what, Iro supposed, she was.
His arm was getting very uncomfortable. It was wedged beneath Cheris, and was going completely numb. He tried to move it without waking her, and was only partly successful. Cheris woke, sighing passionately, and snuggled closer to him, sliding her arm sensuously across his chest and sending shuddering thrills up and down his spine. At least his arm was waking up now, with a painful tingling sensation like an army of ants crawling all over it.
If he had ever doubted that Cheris was a kind and good spirit, those doubts were now completely and utterly gone. Her emerald eyes opened, and she smiled at him. Iro basked in the glow of that simple expression. "I love you." he found his lips whispering, surprising himself. She laughed pleasantly. "And to think that only yesterday, you hated me!" She kissed him on the cheek. "I am lucky. I have almost never truly hated anyone. Humans can change so quickly from hot to cold...even faster than my powers!"
"Do you love me?" Iro asked, dreading the answer.
"I love ALL of my people. Let us share pleasure again, and we shall see about getting food for the village." Iro joyously agreed, surrendering once again to her sweet embrace.
When they were finished, they re-entered the bathing pool and washed each other. "How shall we feed everyone?" he asked, curious. Cheris made a comb out of part of the wall and began combing her hair.
"For more years than any human could count, my people have given me gifts of food. Far more food than I could ever eat each year. Each year I ate what I needed, and froze the rest. Frozen food never goes bad, so now I have enough to feed the entire village for years. My larder fills most of the mountain below our feet. The entrance is over here." She walked to the back wall of the bathing cavern while Iro began putting on his heavy furs. "From behind this wall, we will bring the food to save our village." She touched the wall and the stone seemed to melt beneath her fingers, opening in front of her like a flower in the first light of dawn.
Suddenly, there was a strong gust of wind through the bathing chamber. Iro was knocked off his feet, and slid towards the hole, coming to rest a few feet from the opening as the wind began to decrease. As the wind blasted past Cheris, it hurled her through the opening with a startled cry which receded immediately as she dropped from sight, and ended in a sickening thud.
Alrin regained consciousness. Pain pounded in his mouth as he forced his eyes open and looked around. He was inside a metal cage. It was hanging from a stout looking metal chain that went over a pulley in the ceiling above and down to a large winch bolted to the wall. Several feet from the cage, the troll-king, Massif, leered at him, showing his rotten teeth.
"Awake at last, point-ears?" the troll jeered, "How did you like your first lesson?" Alrin reached out and tried to float the fat little king. He didn't budge. He was heavier than he looked.
"Don't you think I would have thought of that?" the king laughed, obviously feeling superior, "You can't hurt me, but I can hurt you. If you don't do exactly what I say, there are other things we can remove that won't stop you from breeding. This time, we took your voice. Next time it will be your sight. Think about that while you are waiting for your mate to arrive." Massif turned and left, his footsteps clanking and drawing Alrin's attention to the huge metal boots he was wearing. No wonder he was so heavy.
At least there was light here. There was no lantern, but the walls themselves seemed to give off a faint bluish-green glow. Alrin took this opportunity to examine his prison.
The door to the cage was held shut by a metal bolt that came out of a small metal box that was built into the door. His old cell had been secured by a separate lock. This one was part of the cage itself. Alrin assumed that this lock worked in much the same way. A strangely shaped piece of metal would be fitted into the hole that he could feel with his fingers on the outside surface of the lock. They would, no doubt, keep the piece of metal, which they called a "Key," attached to a guard-troll's wrist with a small chain, as they always had since he had managed to take one away with his powers long ago.
The top of the cage wasn't high enough for him to stand upright, and it wasn't long enough for him to lie down comfortably. His mouth still burned with pain. He picked up the bowl of water the trolls had left him, and poured some in his mouth. It cooled the pain a bit, but he nearly choked when he tried to swallow. He was going to have to learn to eat all over again. It was a long time before sleep finally came to him and dulled the pain.
He was awakened suddenly by a gust of wind, accompanied by an earsplitting howl. He looked around the room, puzzled. He hadn't felt wind for so long that it took him a moment to remember what it was. It swirled around him, and it seemed that a strong wind was rushing past in the hallway outside. Even as this occurred to him, the wind died. What could cause such a wind so deep underground? He puzzled over that as he drifted back to sleep.
This time, he was awakened by the clanking of heavy footsteps of approaching trolls wearing the metal boots he had seen on Massif. Two of them entered the chamber, carrying an injured female elf between them. Her head was crudely bandaged, and blood was trickling down the left side of her face.
One of the trolls took charge of her, while the other drew a short sword and poked it through the bars of the cage, forcing Alrin away from the door. He then unlocked the door. Alrin watched for an opportunity, but there was none. The troll with the sword was watching him closely while the other lowered the cage to the floor and placed the injured elf-woman inside. The door was quickly closed and locked again. The trolls then retreated to the winch and raised the cage from the floor. When it was well out of arm's reach from both floor and ceiling, they left the room. Alrin was left to stare at the first other elf he had seen in centuries.
She was incredibly beautiful, so much so that Alrin couldn't remember a single more gorgeous elf in Blue Mountain. Even healer Winnowill was merely "pretty" by comparison. Only the head wound and the crude bandage thereon made her less than perfect. She was unconscious, and the gentle rise and fall of her breasts as she breathed was mesmerizing.
Iro crawled carefully to the edge of the hole Cheris had made in the wall. The wind slowly died down until it was merely a strong breeze. Carefully, he poked his head across the threshold and gazed in horror at the scene below.
Cheris lay where she had fallen, sprawled naked on the bare rock below at the bottom of a sloping ramp. Two demons (They HAD to be demons) were standing over her. One of them chattered at the other, obviously angry, and the other replied in a surly tone.
They were as tall as young children, but much heavier. They looked very strong for their size. On their feet were shiny boots that made loud, sharp ringing sounds when they walked. Their skin was grayish, and they were incredibly ugly, covered with warts and moles. Their smell made Iro feel nauseous. The space behind the wall was very cold, and the demons were shaking with it. Their breath smoked and steamed as they argued.
The demons picked Cheris up and carried her away. Iro finished dressing and, trembling with fear, followed.
He was careful to move only when the demons did, masking his own footsteps in the echoes from their loud shiny boots. Down they went, through frozen caverns where ancient food lay frozen under a sheen of steaming ice. Cold mist fell from the icy ledges, moving downward in a steady stream of fog that reminded Iro of a magical waterfall of air. The demons carried lanterns on their belts that shed a ghostly green radiance on the crystalline cascades as they carried their unconscious burden downward.
Down, down through the heart of the mountain they went, passing thicker and thicker ice as the air grew colder and colder. Iro shivered and wrapped his furs more tightly around him. The demons seemed to dislike the cold as well, complaining bitterly to each other in their strange, almost musical language. Iro could see that Cheris was shivering, even while unconscious. Could a spirit of winter freeze to death? The demons seemed worried too. They hurried their pace, and Iro had to abandon all attempts at stealth just to keep up.
Now they came to the bottom of Cheris' larder. Here the mist roiled and swirled like a whirlpool towards the center of the lowest, circular chamber. The demons were almost running now as they plunged into the swirling fog. As Iro followed, the cold of the fog seemed to strike him like a blow. His bare legs tingled fiercely, and his ears hurt as if they were on fire...a cold fire that made him want to cry out! He gritted his teeth and plunged on, following the pale green glow that was fading into the mist ahead. His feet, even protected by his furry moccasins, were already going numb.
The slight downward breeze Iro had felt since after the first rush of wind had ceased grew stronger as he and the demons approached the eye of the swirling mist. He could no longer see the light from the demons' lanterns because the fog was so thick, but the clang, clang, clanging of their boots kept him on their trail.
Suddenly there was a pause, and a sound as of one of the demons jumping down a small drop-off, quickly followed by another. The wind was much stronger now, and Iro could hear the sound of the demon-boots running again, but they sounded much more hollow now. He ran towards the sound, and suddenly the floor disappeared. He fell and landed on something that felt like a pile of broken rock.
Cut and bruised, Iro staggered to his feet and stumbled after the fading footsteps of Cheris' abductors. He immediately bumped his head painfully on the ceiling, which was low and rough-hewn, unlike Cheris' flawlessly smooth stonework. He was falling behind. He could barely hear the demons' footsteps anymore.
"Dung, it's cold!" Wormsucker cursed as he and Ironfoot clanked down the passage with the still form of the elf between them. "The point-ears'll be froze stiff by the time we get to the cage! What a waste of time!"
"Shut up, scum!" Ironfoot growled, "The forges are on the way. We can thaw her out there!" They clanged on towards their goal. The icy mist followed them, growing slowly thinner as warm air from the side passages diluted it. Several minutes later, they reached the main forging chamber. The forges were blazing hot, despite the fact that none of the trolls present were pumping the bellows. The breeze from the ice chambers seemed to be moving the air quite enough to stoke the furnaces. The trolls carried their burden to the main furnace and held her in front of the roaring flames, turning her carefully to avoid burning her. Ironfoot tore some cloth from his vest and bandaged her injured head. "It's a good thing she's still breathing. Massif would toss us in the dung-pits if she died. Come on!"
Iro watched as the demons warmed themselves at the fire. There was enough noise here that the human youth was able to stamp his feet to warm himself. The mist was not so cold here as it had been above, though it still swirled past his legs, uncomfortably cold. The ceiling here was higher, and he could almost stand upright. Soon the demons turned back towards the entrance. Iro ducked back into the shadows as they emerged, and followed them as they continued down into the underground.
They were going more slowly now, and Iro could keep up more easily. Soon they entered a large chamber. Within, inside a cage, was another spirit! The demons forced him to the back of the cage, lowered it, and put Cheris inside. Then they raised the cage and left the room as Iro retreated and hid. They stopped outside the room, removing their metal boots, and this gave Iro time to duck into a side corridor. The demons separated, one walking past Iro's hiding place and the other walking away down the passage away from him.
Quietly, Iro crept back to the entrance of the cage room. The walls of the room glowed softly, lighting the two captive spirits. Cheris had not moved, and the strange male was staring at her as if he were fascinated by her very presence. Cautiously, Iro walked into the chamber, looking around to make certain no demons were hiding inside.
The male spirit's head snapped up in surprise. "Wwuuuhmmmm..." he said.
If Alrin could have cursed, he would have. Even if the human understood the language, Alrin was mute! He opened his mouth wide and pointed inside so the human could see. The boy blanched, and was obviously trying hard to not be sick. He asked Alrin something that was complete gibberish to the glider, but was obviously a question. Alrin shrugged to show that he didn't understand.
Iro frowned. Not only couldn't the new spirit speak, but he seemed unable to understand his questions. How to ask it in a way he COULD understand?
The human pointed to his own tongue, then at Alrin, and shrugged. 'He must be asking how I lost my tongue!' Alrin thought.
The spirit pointed to the doorway, then hunched his shoulders and tilted his body back and forth. Iro laughed and clapped his hands. The spirit was quite obviously making fun of the demons. Iro pointed to Cheris, made the spirit's "Demon" sign, mimed carrying something, and pointed to the cage. He then shrugged and spread his arms wide as if in confusion.
The spirit's replying gestures were mercilessly explicit. He pointed to Cheris, pointed to himself, mimed an embrace, and made a motion with both hands over his abdomen like a bulging, pregnant stomach. He then repeated the Demon-sign, and mimed snatching something away greedily.
The demons were after spirit-children! For what unspeakable purpose, Iro could only guess. How could he rescue Cheris from that fate?
Iro came forward and examined the cage. It was made of the same strange bright material as the demons' boots. What kind of magic spells had the demons placed on this cage so that it could hold spirits captive? The shiny material seemed vaguely familiar. He had seen something like this before, but where? Thinking back as far as he could, it suddenly came to him. The demons in the desert...their leader had carried a knife that looked just like this. It must be a magical material. It was harder than anything he could remember. He could feel its hardness as he ran his fingers over its smooth, reflective surface. He couldn't think of any way to open or break the cage.
The spirit pointed at Cheris, then at the floor. He shook the cage door, then lowered both his hands, palms down. He wanted Iro to lower the cage? Iro touched the cage, pointed to the floor, and shrugged. The spirit pointed behind him to a strange thing on the wall. From this thing, a glittering rope-like thing stretched up to the ceiling, over a small wheel, across the ceiling, over another small wheel, then down to the cage.
Iro went to the device and examined it. The strange "Rope" was wrapped tightly around a shaft made from the same material as the cage. He grabbed the "rope" and pulled as hard as he could, trying to unreel more from the shaft to lower the cage, but it wouldn't come. Try as he might, Iro couldn't figure how the thing worked. This was strange demon-magic, and it baffled him completely.
Alrin shook his head. There was probably some special trick to using the winch, otherwise he could have used his powers to operate it and lowered the cage. Now that he thought about it, he had heard a click, like the turning of a key, just after they had cranked the cage up. Even if the human had known how, the winch was no good. Just then, Alrin's keen ears picked up a hint of sound from the passageway. He rapped sharply on the bars of the cage to warn the human, pointing anxiously at the entrance.
The warning came none too soon. Iro flattened himself against the wall next to the entrance just as the sound of heavy, clanking footsteps announced the arrival of a pair of demons. Fortunately for Iro, they didn't look to the side as they entered, but marched straight up to the cage. One of them was so fat that Iro wondered how he managed to fit through some of the passages outside.
Once the two demons were fully within the room, Iro carefully and quietly crept out. If he couldn't rescue Cheris alone, he would go for help!
King Massif was not happy. "Those fools have endangered my entire plan!" he shouted.
His Captain-of-the-guard, Ironjaw, frowned. "It's not their fault. No one could have known that such a violent wind would spring up. The point-ears popped through the hole like the cork from a bottle. It was lucky for us she was even in one piece, let alone breathing. Ironfoot was able to get her here alive."
"That may be true" Massif growled, "But if my plans are foiled, someone's head will roll!" He glared to make certain the captain knew to whom he was referring. "I want these point-eared beasts breeding before the year is out!"
Alrin wished that trolls could receive sendings. Then he could let them feel the true depth of the contempt he felt for them. Their scheme was so shallow and petty that it raised a fury within him beyond anything he had felt in his long years of captivity. The Troll-king snickered at his glare.
"Look, the tongueless filth is unhappy!" he jeered, "Something's wrong with your bed, eh? Don't worry, you'll be sleeping on her soon enough!" The trolls laughed cruelly and left, leaving Alrin and Cheris alone.
Alrin examined the elf-woman's injuries. She had taken a nasty blow to the head, and her fingers and toes had been frostbitten and inexpertly thawed. He hoped he could wake her. Escape would be more possible with her help, especially if she was, as the trolls claimed, a rockshaper. Gently, he lifted her head onto his lap and slapped her wrist. **Wake up!** he sent. He was glad now that he had kept trying to send for help through his years of captivity. He might have forgotten how, otherwise. Her brow knitted as if in pain. **Wake up!** he repeated.
The sudden wind seized Cheris and hurled her through the entrance to her larder. Tumbling wildly through space, she cried out in alarm and tried to arrest her fall with her powers. Just as it seemed she might be able to stop, the floor rushed up and hit her, throwing her deep into a dark pit of unconsciousness. For a seeming eternity, Cheris drifted in darkness. Suddenly, before her, there was a tiny glimmer of light. "*******" it said. Curiously, she drifted closer. Again it voiced its strange cry. "*******" She reached out to touch it.
The elf-woman awoke with a scream of agony. She curled up into a ball, her hands quivering and twisting in obvious torment. A soft glow encompassed her hands and feet, and Alrin watched in fascination as her cries stopped and her limbs were made whole again. She was a HEALER as well as a rockshaper? Incredible! The healing-glow haloed her head for an instant, and her eyes flickered fully open.
Alrin froze as their eyes met. A cool breeze seemed to envelop his spirit. A word he had long forgotten hovered within his mind; Recognition. He could imagine no greater disaster at a time like this!
Iro fled back the way he had come. If only he could reach the village, he could bring the Hoan Ch'Ran Erhiss here and rescue Cheris! All he needed to do was remember how to get back to the cage-cavern from the ice caves. The walls down here seemed to glow by themselves now that he was used to the darkness, but this meant that the demons would probably be able to spot him easily enough, so he had to be very careful. As for finding the ice caverns, all he needed to do was follow the coolest path as he ascended. Even now, as he passed the cavern of the hot fires, he could see the cold mist clinging to the floor.
But the glow of the walls was fading. Soon, he had to follow the tunnel by feel. Finally it was completely gone, and he had to go down to his hands and knees, choosing the coldest path by touch alone.
Ahead, faintly, Iro began to hear sounds. Someone was moving rocks. Cautiously, the human boy crept forward. A glimmer of light showed around a corner, and he slithered up like a lizard and peeked. Demons! They were piling up rocks to seal the tunnel! He would be trapped inside the demons' caves, alone!
Cheris gazed into the large slanted eyes that hung in the air before her. That is, they SEEMED to float, unsupported, in the air. The eyes seized her attention so thoroughly that she barely noticed that a face surrounded them. Deep within the dilated pupils was something that fascinated and aroused her. Her whole body tingled as the eyes suddenly released her, allowing her to see her surroundings. He was the most beautiful man Cheris had ever beheld, though she knew, now that he was not exactly a man. She had seen human men who were handsome, or even attractive, but this male was beyond either. No human she knew had ever had beauty to rival her own.
He was dirty, and as naked as Cheris was. His black hair was snarled and matted from long neglect but, despite these flaws, he was gorgeous. His hands and feet were like Cheris' own, and his ears showed the same points, so she knew he had to be a fellow spirit. His expression betrayed fear...stark terror, in fact. Was he afraid of her? Cheris smiled reassuringly. "Don't be afraid." she said, "I am a kind and good spirit, just like you must be. My people call me Ch'Ran Erhiss." His expression changed to one of shocked surprise.
'Not again!' Alrin thought. **Can you understand me?** he sent.
"**********" buzzed a voice inside Cheris' head. Well, not a voice, exactly. It was more like an undefinable, invisible presence within her mind, a completely silent sound, if that made any sense. She felt that he was the source, but why didn't he simply talk to her? "I don't understand." she said, shaking her head. She pointed to herself. "I am Cheris. Who are you?"
An elf who couldn't send or speak her own language! Why was he having such bad luck? It was time to start over with the sign-speaking. It had worked with the young human, why not an elf?
Hours later, Alrin gave up. Cheris had healed his burned mouth, but seemed uninterested in "Talking" now. She was far more interested, obviously, in fulfilling the demands of recognition, and was baffled by Alrin's reluctance to participate. With great effort, Alrin turned away from her and sat facing the corner of the cage. Cheris sat behind him, singing softly. The melody was haunting, and her voice was beautiful, but the words meant nothing to him.
Iro watched the demons as they worked to seal off the tunnel. The wall was growing with alarming speed. There were three demons working on it. Two were lifting stones from a pile nearby in the tunnel while the third spread light-colored mud on the top of the stones that had already been set. Two of their strange lanterns were on the floor. One lit the workers so they could see, and the other had been dimmed somehow, and lay on the floor nearby. If only he could get it, he might be able to find another way out of the caverns. Without it, he would be lost in the darkness at the demons' mercy.
Carefully he crept forward, crawling towards the lantern. The demons, intent on their work, failed to notice him as he gingerly picked up the lantern and began to back away. Just as he was about to retreat around a bend in the tunnel, the demon spreading the mud stood and stretched, grumbling something to the other two.
"Ahr! Can't we take a rest? This tunnel isn't going anywhere!"
"Quiet, Wormsucker!" Ironfoot said, lifting another rock into place, "Massif wants this tunnel sealed off now! Get back to work!"
Iro ducked around the corner and examined his new lantern. After a few moments, he found that if he twisted a round projection on the side, part of the lantern began to glow. The farther he twisted it, the brighter it glowed. He brightened the lantern until he could see his way clearly, and left the sound of the working demons behind.
Nolar edged carefully along the ledge. For three days, Ch'Ran Erhiss had not answered the drums, no matter how urgently the drummers played, so Nolar had come to climb to the home of the spirit. There was no path, and he had been climbing now for hours.
Clinging to the mountainside, he looked up to the melting ice castle. It was nearly half gone, but the surface of the mountain was dry. Where was all the water going? It wasn't flowing down the mountainside, and it wasn't coming out of the open entrance to the cave towards which Nolar was now climbing, so where else could it go? What had happened to Ch'Ran Erhiss? Had the boy, Iro, attacked her as Nolar had feared? His mad belief that the good spirit was an evil demon may have been incurable.
Cheris seemed extremely fragile for a spirit. No doubt good spirits HAD to be fragile because of their gentle nature. If Ch'Ran Erhiss was hurt, Iro would pay. Nolar swore the mad boy would pay most painfully.
Alrin's breath shuddered painfully in his chest. His entire body felt as if it was burning up. He had already been in poor shape, and the strain of resisting recognition was already leaving its mark on him.
Cheris gently touched the strange spirit's shoulder, probing carefully with her healing powers for the cause of his illness. As he had every time she touched him, he flinched away from her, but this time, Cheris insisted. He was suffering, and she could bear it no longer. Her desire for him had grown ever more urgent as time passed. Three times, the ugly ones had brought food and water, and three times he had refused to eat. He had only drunk when he had passed out from thirst and Cheris had forced the water down his throat, making him swallow with her magic.
She took a firm hold on his arm and probed him. As she had suspected, the source of his fever was more than mere hunger for food. Another type of hunger altogether was driving him. Comparing it to her own condition, she suddenly understood what was happening. Some powerful buried instinct was forcing them to mate, and it was his stubborn resistance that was making him ill. She only felt it less intensely because she was in better health.
She knew that the ugly ones were holding the two of them captive for some reason, and captivity was no place to raise children. The awful memories reawakened by Iro's attack continued to haunt her, but their best hope was to escape, and this spirit would be of no help in his current state. Her powers told her that there was only one cure for the illness that wracked his body, and the cure's name was Cheris.
But how could she do it? She didn't want to rape him. If he had been human, she could easily have driven him mad with desire, but he was different. His body's responses would be different enough to make her erotic skills less effective. She would have to try, anyway.
He was incredibly tense, so she would start there. Tenderly, she touched his shoulders, massaging his stiff muscles. He squirmed, trying to discourage her, but she was firm. "I know you can't understand me" she said softly, "But we have to do this. You're getting sicker, and I refuse to be left alone here." She felt him begin to relax.
Cheris wished for her bathing pool. That was one of her best icebreakers. She raised the temperature of the chamber until they were both sweating. Pulled him closer, she gently cradled his head in her lap. He sighed and began to relax at last. His resistance was weakening.
Cheris hummed softly as she moved her massage forward until she was caressing his sweaty chest. She noticed that he was far less hairy than even the youngest human male she had ever lain with. Now he was as relaxed as he was going to get without falling asleep, and she didn't dare allow that. His resistance was worn down by fatigue. If she let him sleep, he would awake refreshed and ready to resist her. Carefully, she lowered him to the floor of the cage and, continuing her massage, moved in for the kill.
Alrin felt dizzy. How had it gotten so hot in here? The elfin woman, "Cheris," was kneading his flesh in a most peculiar way that seemed to melt his pain away. She wasn't using her healing powers, but her closeness and touch made the ache subside. Behind the fading pain, desire began to surge forward, threatening to drown him in its intensity. He was sure he could resist it.
That was until Cheris, her silky skin slippery with sweat, slid onto his stomach and bent down to press her lips tenderly against his cheek. Her breasts quivered wetly against his chest, and she spread her body over his like a blanket, pressing eagerly against him.
A feeble, tired part of his mind tried to protest, but it was too little and too late. Recognition and Cheris were too much to resist. Alrin's arms closed around her, and the rest was sweet rapture.
Iro woke from a deep sleep within a massive cavern. Here he had found a pool of water that let him slake his thirst. The demons did not seem to use this part of the caves, for he had not seen any for quite a while. They were obviously unaware of his presence in their domain, for he was certain they would have found him long ago otherwise.
He brightened his stolen lantern until he could see the nearby rock formations. If only he could...
There was a scraping sound from across the huge cavern, and Iro immediately doused the lantern. A pale sliver of light appeared and widened. It looked like moonlight, not the greenish light of the demon-lanterns or the strange wall-glow that filled the caverns the demons used regularly. The scraping sound stopped and a small, squat shape appeared in the light. It was the hulking form of a demon.
Iro hid behind a pillar of stone and watched as the demon brightened a lantern and pushed on the wall. A whole section moved, closing off the opening with the same scraping sound. The demon trudged off into the darkness. When he was certain it was gone, Iro crept forward eagerly to the part of the wall that hid the opening. This must be a secret entrance to the demons' caves, and he knew he must use it to escape and bring help. The wall appeared solid, but the demon had opened it somehow!
Nolar, somewhat bruised, returned to the village. Everyone gathered around the young shaman. Soon it would be dawn. Everyone had patiently waited through the night for his return.
"People of the woman of ice, hear my words!" he shouted, "The mountain home of our beloved Ch'Ran Erhiss is deserted! There is no sign of the gentle spirit or the boy, Iro. The great ice castle is melting and the water flows through her chambers into a great ice-cave within the mountain. The water is freezing again within, forming a great icy waterfall that I dared not investigate for fear that I would fall and be trapped below, unable to bring these tidings back."
Iro's mother, Thaya, came forward. "Iro could not have done this, shaman. Could the good spirit and my son have been attacked?"
"I know not." Nolar said, "There was no sign of a battle within, and no clue at all to tell what happened."
Tongra, the chief, rose from his accustomed place by the well. Moonlight shone from his mane of snowy-white hair and beard. Nolar turned to face him respectfully, looking down at his feet.
The chief nodded, acknowledging Nolar's display of obedience. "I am old, my people. Fully nine eights and four years have turned since I was born. In all that time, and indeed for all the memory of out people, no man save Iro has ever raised a hand against Cheris. He did so, I believe, only because of his ignorance and because he was not yet a man. If I know Cheris, she would waste no time solving either problem, so the boy could not have harmed her." He looked up at the mountain. "Both of them must have been taken by the same thing, or one of them would have remained to tell us what happened. Our warriors will rest, and we will bring ropes to search the ice caves."
Tongra and the warriors returned to their huts to rest. Nolar comforted the women and children by telling them one of the many stories of Ch'Ran Erhiss.
Alrin sighed and stretched as he woke. Cheris stirred next to him, cuddling closer in her sleep. He gently brushed her cheek with a fingertip. More had happened than merely the fulfillment of recognition. He was no longer alone. She had sensed his need, and had exhausted herself to fulfill it. His loneliness had seemed a bottomless void, but she had filled him to overflowing. If only they both lived long enough, Alrin knew they would love each other forever. Already, she was more important to him by far than the threats of the trolls. He swore to himself that together they would find some way to escape.
Iro set his lantern on the floor and examined the wall. Carefully, he searched, pushing and pulling on each outcropping. After a long time, he finally pushed sideways on a large formation and nearly fell flat on his face when it moved. Bright daylight stabbed into the darkness, causing him to sneeze violently. He was free!
Iro dimmed the lantern and hid it behind one of the stone pillars near the entrance. Leaving the cavern, he gathered some stones and made a crude arrow shape on the ground pointing towards the entrance so that he could find it again. He pushed the door-stone back into place and turned to leave the ravine.
The sun was beginning to set when Iro returned to the village. Loni, daughter of Tovar the firemaker, was the first to see him. Soon, the entire tribe surrounded him. Nolar confronted him. "Iro, what has happened to Ch'Ran Erhiss?"
Iro clenched his fists and stood his ground against the shaman's accusing stare. "A race of demons who dwell below the ground have kidnapped her!" he proclaimed. A gasp of horror rose from the gathered women and children, and shouts of anger resounded from the men. "They hold her captive in a cage of bright magical stuff deep within their realm. I found a way out and came for help."
Nolar waved the crowd to silence. "What sort of foul fiends are they?" he asked Iro.
"They are short, squat, and very ugly." Iro began. As best he could, he told them everything he had seen and experienced in the caverns and tunnels of the demons. When he was finished, Tongra raised his hands, drawing everyone's attention to the aged chief.
"You were right to return here for help." He said to Iro, "To fight so many demons alone could have been foolish. You never would have survived to bring us this news." He turned to the men of the village. "Take up your weapons, warriors, and follow me! Iro will lead us into this nest of demons and we will rescue Ch'Ran Erhiss from her foul captors!" The men shouted agreement and ran to fetch their spears and bows.
Cheris awoke to find her silent companion carefully examining the bars of their cage. She leaned closer and looked at them also. They were made from a blending of several different metals. Cheris had little experience with metal, other than the ores she had encountered while hollowing out her mountain. This strange alloy was too hard to shape without drawing a lot of heat from the room, and their naked bodies wouldn't be able to take that kind of cold for long. Too bad they didn't have something hard to hit the bars with. She thought she might be able to make them brittle, but having to heal broken fists if it failed didn't appeal to her.
Cheris shook her head, and her companion nodded. He couldn't see any easy way out, either. Maybe...
She took hold of the cage and tried to float it. The whole cage began to glow, and wobbled a bit on the end of its chain. Her companion, startled, quickly imitated her and the wobble steadied. The cage seemed about to rise, but it was just too heavy. Even working together, all the two of them could do was lighten it.
As they gave up trying to lift the cage, the leader of the demon-creatures clanked into the room and gloated up at them, speaking in his strange, lilting tongue.
Alrin glared down at the grinning troll. "I wondered how long it would take you to try that!" Massif chortled, "The floor of the cage has enough lead hanging underneath to crush a large boulder, and the bars are the finest troll-made brightmetal! Escape is impossible!"
Massif leered at Cheris. "Too bad your lover here can't understand me. I would SO enjoy crushing her hopes!"
Alrin growled deep in his throat and lashed out with his power. Massif staggered as the full force of the glider's power struck him in the chest. Massif laughed.
"Is that the best you can do? I remember when you could knock me down!" The king patted his stomach smugly. "Then again, I was much less...prosperous then, when I and my followers had just fled the western mines and come to these mountains. I leave you to your slut now. Keep up the good work!"
The snickering troll turned to leave, and tripped as Cheris pulled his legs out from under him and rolled him out of the room like an overripe melon. The king struck the wall of the corridor outside with a satisfying "THUMP!" and both elves began to shiver uncomfortably as the temperature dropped.
Alrin smiled and clapped his hands. Massif's curses were music to his ears. His new lifemate was stronger, by far, than he. Why was it suddenly so cold in here? He took her in his arms, reveled in her touch, and forgot the chill. Cheris caressed him gently, and soon they were both quite warm.
Massif limped to the throne and plopped down, cursing his new bruises. Squinter shook his head. "I DID try to warn you, your majesty. I TOLD you she was strong enough to fly with a human."
The king glared down at his spy. "A `young' human, you said." He stroked his beard with the dirty fingernails of one hand. "She caught me by surprise. Rest assured that when she has borne a rockshaper for me to raise, her death will be long and painful indeed!"
Iro cautiously led fifteen warriors into the demon caves. Tongra ordered five to stand guard at the entrance, lest the demons seal it shut somehow, trapping them all underground. Two of the warriors following Iro carried sacks of pebbles, and at each tunnel mouth they passed, a stone was left to tell the way they had come and show them which way the exit was. Iro scouted quietly ahead with the lantern, and several times he narrowly avoided being seen and was able to warn the war party to hide in a side passage while a demon passed by. Soon, Iro began to recognize places he had been before. If only they could find Cheris before their luck ran out.
Cheris touched her abdomen, glowing with pride. For millennia, she had believed she was barren and now, she knew, she carried a child. Only other spirits, it seemed, could do this for her. She laughed and hugged her husband with joy. "*******" said a voice in her head, and she could feel, somehow, that he was happy for her. She also felt the relief of a terrible loneliness.
He had been alone for so long that a hear-madness had hovered over him. Fortunately, this...a concept floated through her mind and she tried to put words to it...the `knowing at a glance'? Whatever it was, it had cured his loneliness completely. They belonged with each other so completely that merely being together would keep him from going mad. Now if only she knew his name!
Suddenly, she knew how she could find it. "Cheris" she said, pointing to herself. Then she pointed to him. "D-" she said. Then "N- R- K- S- Ch-..." in this way, she quickly eliminated sounds until she knew his name started with "A-", when he stopped her and nodded eagerly. The rest was a little easier, since he now knew what she was doing. His name was "Alrin." He wept with joy when she said it for the first time.
Iro was sure they were getting close, when the demons spotted the war party. As he approached a familiar-looking intersection, a demon came around the corner and stopped short with a startled cry.
Quickly Iro readied his spear, but the demon turned and fled around the corner before he could throw it. "Hurry!" he hissed to Tongra, "The demons CAN'T stop us now! We're so close!" Iro ran to the intersection. He was right! This was just down the tunnel from the cave of the hot fires. Cheris was only minutes away! He turned away from where the demon had run. "This way!" he cried, leading them towards their goal.
"King Massif!" The young troll shouted, slipping on the fur rug and falling unceremoniously at the foot of the throne. The king's favorite concubine squealed in fright and hid behind her king. Staring angrily at the embarrassed intruder, Massif rumbled "What do you want, eh?"
The troll shuddered under the king's withering gaze. "Out with it!" Massif howled.
"H-h-humans, your majesty!" he squeaked, "There are humans in the tunnels!"
"GUARDS!" bellowed the king.
Alrin was dozing in Cheris' arms when suddenly the room was full of humans. The boy who had come before went straight to the cage as the elves woke. Cheris was delighted. "Iro, you brought help! How did you...?" The boy grinned.
"I followed the demons when they took you." he said, "Then I went back to the village and brought Tongra!"
The old chief was already trying to break the winch with the help of several other humans, but it seemed unbreakable. Cheris called to him. "Come here, Tongra!" When the leader was at the cage, she pointed to one of the bars. "When I give you the word, I want you to strike here with your club, as hard as you can."
She closed her eyes and concentrated, bathing the bar in heat-magic. She spent her own power, leaving the room unchilled, until the bar was glowing dull red. She knew now that she could never have melted it, but she hadn't expected to. Now, Cheris reversed the flow, absorbing all the heat she had put into the metal and then drawing out even more. She drew out the heat, even as she had drawn the heat from her ice castle every day. In an instant, with a crackling sound, a thin layer of frost formed, broke away and fell to the floor. White mist began to form and streamed slowly downward. "Colder! Colder!" she whispered.
The mist began to drop more rapidly from the bar, and the flow of heat energy began to slow. There was almost none left now at all. Cheris sweated with contained magic. She would have to rid herself of it, and soon. "Now!" she whispered. As Tongra swung his club, she reached out with the stored magic. The club struck the bar, shattering it like an icicle. The shards of broken metal flew towards Cheris and Alrin...
And stopped. Cheris had seized every deadly fragment with her power and held it. Now she carefully released the extra magic, warming the cage until it was safe to touch. Carefully, she stepped through the gap where the bar had been, and Iro helped her down to the floor. "Thank you, little hero." she said, ruffling his hair playfully. "You have rescued me and my new husband, Alrin, from this cruel imprisonment."
Iro's face fell. "You are married, good spirit?"
Cheris smiled. "You have no idea how long I have waited to find a man who could give me a child. Don't worry, little hero. After rescuing me, you can marry any woman you ask." She touched his cheek fondly. "In fact, the women of the village will be fighting to see who can try for you first."
Iro looked woefully at Alrin, then back to Cheris. "But I love YOU!"
Cheris giggled. "If only you knew how many men have loved me!" She spread her arms wide and whirled gracefully, looking around the room at the human warriors. "I'm surrounded!" She took Iro's chin in both her hands, framing his face with her outstretched fingers, and whispered to him.
"You are a beautiful and sweet boy, Iro. But I swore long ago to never marry a human again." Iro's eyes widened in surprise. "Oh, yes," she said, "I have married many times before. More than all your fingers and toes put together! And not once, no matter how hard I tried, was there a child. The pain in my husbands' faces as we failed over and over again became too great to bear, especially when they looked at their friends' and brothers' children."
"Finally, I gave up and contented myself with the occasional lover. But all...ALL have had to hear this truth. You must marry a woman who can have children with you. Love is an empty thing, if there can be no children. With Alrin, I can now have mine. You must have yours. Love will come to you again, one day. It always does."
She released Iro. The other men had retreated while Cheris had spoken to him, allowing him a moment alone with her. Alrin, out of the cage now, rushed to Cheris' side and took her hand. The two elves and their human escorts fled the chamber and followed Iro as he led them towards the exit, and escape.
Massif and ten troll warriors marched rapidly towards Squinter's secret exit. Once the humans were trapped within the tunnels, they could be hunted down at Massif's leisure. As they drew near the cavern, they could see the faint glow of sunlight reflected around the corner from the cavern walls. As they peered into the cavern, they saw five humans standing guard at the entrance.
Ironjaw didn't even bother to order an attack. He reached out to the wall and pulled an innocuous-looking stone out of a hole. Sand began to pour out of the wall, and a loud rumbling began in the rock overhead. The trolls laughed at the ceiling above the humans began to splinter and give way, dropping massive stones down on them from above and sealing the entrance with an avalanche.
Then, behind them, the trolls heard shouts of anger from human throats in a language they couldn't understand.
Iro turned the corner just in time to see the laughing demons pointing through a cloud of dust into the cavern, which was rapidly filling with jumbled rock. Angry, he raised his spear and began to charge, screaming insults at the foul monsters!
But Tongra was right behind him, and held him back. "Watch them, Iro. Protect Ch'Ran Erhiss until she can work her magic and get us out of here!"
The trolls turned to face the humans. Massif quickly spotted Cheris and Alrin among them. "They have my elves!" he screamed, "Capture them alive, or I'll roast you all alive over a slow fire!" Ironjaw and the warriors grimly unlimbered their weapons and attacked the humans. Iro and Tongra jabbed with their spears, wounding one of the trolls. The other blocked the blow with his shield, and was only pushed back a few feet. Quickly the trolls moved to surround the humans, standing back and hacking at the spears that were thrust at them.
Iro readied his spear and threw it at the fat demon leader. Unfortunately, he was no expert at spear throwing, and the weapon turned in flight, striking the foul creature sideways. The demon yelped in fear and quickly retreated, shouting at his followers. Three of the demons stabbed at Iro together, and the human boy cried out in agony as two of them stuck him with their long shiny magic knives. He fell, bleeding, to the floor as one of them raised his knife to finish him off.
Suddenly, Cheris was with him. The other warriors forced the demons to retreat for a moment while the good spirit pulled him to safety.
"That was foolish, child." she said sternly, touching his wounds and making the pain fade away like a dream. "Though it was bravely done." A sphere of golden light bathed him, and his wounds began to close. The demons pressed the warriors, forcing them to back up until they were almost standing on top of Iro and Cheris. Several of the humans were wounded now, and the blood slicked floor became treacherous.
Alrin raised a hand, and Iro's spear flew into the air and thrust itself into the back of one of the trolls. Unfortunately, Massif had retreated out of sight, so the obese troll king was beyond attack. Even with human help, the fight was going against them. Two more of the humans had now fallen, and would never be getting up again.
The glider tapped Cheris on the shoulder to bring her out of her healing trance. He pointed at the trolls, then at the floor, and made a grabbing gesture with both hands.
Nodding, Cheris touched the floor, and a stone wall rose between the humans and the demons. It curled away from her like a wave breaking on the seashore, and all but one of the demons was trapped under it. The ridge thus formed quickly shrank as she molded the stone, and there was a muffled popping sound like the breaking of twigs beneath it. The last demon turned and fled the way their leader had gone as the sound of demon bones being pulverized faded and died, along with the bones' owners.
Alrin paled. He had hoped Cheris could trap the trolls long enough for escape, but this merciless slaughter surprised him. True, he had no love for the trolls, but he had thought that Cheris would have shown some mercy for their former captors. At least the deaths had been quick. They had been crushed in the time it took to draw a single breath. Cheris calmly healed all the injured humans who were still breathing, and led them to the entrance to the rock-filled exit cavern.
Massif sat on his throne and brooded. How had his plans gone so wrong? These humans had rescued the elves right out from under his very nose! He had lost not only his rockshaper-breeding female, but his original captive as well. Eight of his best warriors were dead, crushed beneath a blanket of solid stone, and the entrance cavern had to be undermined to permanently seal it off, now that the humans knew where it was.
He grumbled and growled. There had to be some way to salvage this! Surely, the two point-eared pink vermin would waste no time breeding more. Perhaps he could find a way to capture one while it was young? Yes, that was how he would do it! Then, he would find a way to kill the two of them, as revenge for this defeat!
Yes...that was the way it would be!
The drums pounded as the mourning ceremony went on. The dead warriors were praised, as the fire roared its defiance at the sky. Cheris and her husband, Alrin, were up at Cheris' cave, fetching food for the tribe. She was reshaping the ice to free the frozen meat, nuts, berries, and vegetables, while he flew them down to the village.
Iro stared into the flames and cried. Cheris was wedded, and he would be alone forever. She had shown him love such as no mortal could ever hope to attain, and now another had taken her away. He wished he had died at the hands of the demons, but she had saved him, leaving him to mourn and lament his fate.
His mother, Thaya, came over to sit beside him, and took his hand in hers. Softly, she whispered in his ear. "It cannot be that bad, my son. You live, and the good spirit is rescued."
He turned to her, tears streaming down his face. "Mother, what am I to do? My love for her burns me like a fire in my heart, but she has married another!"
She smiled. "You are still very young, my son. Your first love has blinded you to all else. Don't you know there are others? Didn't Ch'Ran Erhiss tell you that your true love must be human, whatever you may feel for her?"
"Since you were the one who rescued the spirit, no woman in the village could refuse you."
"I don't want that. I just want someone who loves me. Like Cheris."
"Do you know, since you left with Cheris, I've noticed that Illin has been very sad. I even caught her staring up at the mountain."
"Illin? you mean she..."
"That's up to you, I think. She's almost too young to know, herself." His mother got up, wiped his tears away gently, smiled, and walked away.
Iro looked cautiously around. His mother was right. Almost every woman in the tribe who wasn't married was watching him curiously, as if wondering what he was going to do. He finally spotted Illin, who was timidly hiding at the back of the gathering. When she saw him turn to her, she quickly looked away, embarrassed.
He rose and wandered over towards her. She nervously backed away from the light and him, trying to keep her distance. He followed, and noticed that the women he passed watched him go, jealously.
Illin started to panic, and walked quickly behind a hut. Iro grinned and went around the other side, coming face to face with her as she was trying to peek around the opposite side of the little house.
"Ooh!" she exclaimed, startled. She started to back away again, but Iro reached out and took hold of her arm. He looked at her. She was, as his mother had reminded her, very young. Her breasts were not quite fully grown, but already were large enough that she could never be mistaken for a boy. Like most of the humans of this tribe, her skin was slightly darker than Iro's own. Her brown eyes widened as she looked up at him from this close for the first time. Her trembling lips parted as she whispered his name. She was beautiful, he realized. Not like Cheris, of course, but she had an innocence and a newness that the lovely spirit lacked. He bent down and kissed her deeply.
She was startled for only a second, then her arms quickly locked around him, and she embraced him hungrily. She really WAS in love with him! When their lips parted, he whispered "Illin" and led her towards his hut.
Cheris had been right.