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             Tyree had never been to Verdanta, had never seen grass and trees that were green, was never made dizzy by the colors of the many flowers, fruits and vegetables. Long before they’d reached the green oasis, before they’d passed the outer defenses and the heavily armed sentries, Tyree had smelled these new scents upon the wind. They were scents he did not recognize nor could in any way classify within his experience. A village of a thousand huts was scattered about the breath-taking greenery. Shuyah smiled at his awe.

            “It is overwhelming for one unaccustomed,” Shuyah said to Tyree as they placed the wounded in the able care of the villagers who rotated each migration into this paradise surrounded by snow. “I’ve been here twice before,” Shuyah added, “during my scheduled rotation. Our people look forward to their time here. Though it is only once in six migrations, it is our reward for time spent upon the snow.”

            While Verdanta was a large expanse, beyond one view in all directions, its limited fresh water supply could sustain only four thousand Tranca at a time. Thus, twice a year, most of Verdanta’s population were replaced by others eager to live in its splendor. A thousand were always warriors, as defending Verdanta was paramount to the Tranca clan.

            Tyree and the new arrivals soon discarded their fur cloaks. Even armor was removed, for it became unbearable not to let the warmth touch their skin directly. While the others washed up in steaming water brought to them in wooden buckets and basins, Shuyah surreptitiously took Tyree by the hand and led him to a hot springs near one edge of the greenery. Here, they were alone, hidden among lush flower filled bushes and great white puffs of steam.

            “Most of the springs are too hot to enter, but a few are more than endurable. They are bliss,” Shuyah said as she stripped to her gossamer undergarments and waded gingerly into the steaming spring to wash the blood of battle and the sweat of travel from herself. She beckoned. “Come on. What are you afraid of? Cleanliness?”

            Tyree stripped to his essentials and went in. Never had he known such ecstasy. Bathing in near freezing streams and lakes had once seemed a pleasure, but doing so would never again fill him with indulgence. Here was what the Kodiak called Shooshinka—heaven.

            After bathing, they lay upon the shore of smooth volcanic rock warmed by the same underground magma flow that heated the springs. Their hair and undergarments dried quickly. Shuyah sat up, and pulled her thatch of rich red hair over one shoulder to untangle it as it dried. Tyree could see the scar left by the wound Drinda’s arrow had made behind Shuyah’s right shoulder. He reached out and touched the scar with a tenderness he seldom disclosed. She turned to look over her shoulder at him.

            “It’s healed well,” she said. “I’ve never thanked you for mending it. Then again, it was you who inflicted it.”

            “It was you in ambush that was the cause,” he corrected, with no hint of sarcasm.

            “Yes, well, our clans were enemies then,” she said.

            “A wound I had hoped would heal as well as has yours,” Tyree said, sitting up at her side.

            She sensed in his tone deep regret. Tyree took a breath and told her of the council’s decision, the annulment of the alliance, and his banishment from his clan.

            “This is a tragedy,” she said, looking off across the steaming greenery. “Will you become one of us, now?”

            “Is there an opening in washer women?” he joked.

            She laughed, but it was fleeting, for there was too much melancholy in the demise of the alliance both had hoped would bind their clans together.

            “You are welcome to be of the Tranca,” she said. “Be our guide, our able scout. A warrior as you’ve always been.”

            “This is for your father to decide,” he replied. “I owe it to him to put myself under his rule.”

            “There is talk of my father being too old to rule. Of my brother, Rolak, becoming lord and leader. Rolak, who has now been proved correct in resisting the alliance.”

            Putting a hand on her shoulder, and turning her toward him, Tyree said, “Some things cannot be resisted.”

            Tyree moved his lips closer to hers. His eyes looked into hers. He gave her a long moment—a chance to turn away, to laugh at his foolish presumption. Instead, she let him kiss her. She responded with the same reserve as he. They kissed without passion, but with affection tempered by the knowledge that anything further was impossible.

            “Are you as hungry as I?” she asked after the awkwardness.

            “Perhaps even more so,” he allowed himself to say.

            They got dressed and Shuyah took Tyree to a large central hut where her warriors were resting, lying on bearskin rugs, cleaned up and refreshed. The citizens had brought them wooden trays of apples, oranges, peaches, grapes, pears, tomatoes, peas, all consumed raw and with great relish. The Tranca, of course, didn’t use these names to describe Verdanta’s abundance, but had invented Tranca words for them. The tastes made Tyree’s head swim with new encounters. They were tastes so pleasing, he felt sad for the Kodiak who would never know them.

            “Here, try this,” Shuyah said, handing Tyree a large metal cup into which she poured a purplish red liquid from a goatskin cask. It glowed a color Tyree had never before beheld. “It’s made from crushing these,” she added, holding up a handful of the sweet and delicious purple grapes Tyree had been sampling. “We found that by letting the liquid stand for some time in the warmth it becomes something different. We then strain it through woven cloth and store it in wooden barrels. We call it gruda.”

            Tyree drank deeply. Now, his insides seemed warm enough to rival the warmth outside. His head soon swam in giddiness and he and Shuyah laughed at things neither would remember beyond the sunset.

            It would be four days before the main body of the Tranca clan arrived at the outskirts of Verdanta. In those four days many of the wounded healed and Tyree enjoyed the warmth of both Verdanta and of Shuyah. They bathed daily in her private hot spring. Tyree came to learn it was reserved for the Tranca princess, so no others disturbed their privacy. Still, there were murmurs of discontent among the Tranca warriors, many of them having had an eye for the beautiful Shuyah themselves. Shuyah had always remained aloof from the others of her clan, as a princess must. Then came Tyree. Handsome as he was brave, cordial as he was lethal. A warrior worthy of a Tranca princess, yet—he wasn’t Tranca. Tyree seemed somehow safe for Shuyah’s attention. She was, after all, about to turn eighteen and womanhood beckoned. Yet both knew any future together was impossible for warriors from clans who were enemies. Tyree and Shuyah bonded more in friendship. A friendship forged of necessity. It could be nothing more.

            Though Shuyah spent much of her time with Tyree, she would never invite him, alone, into her hut. This was symbolic of betrothal among the Tranca, and Shuyah knew better than to get the clan in an uproar over such an incident. She confined her time alone with Tyree to the hot spring and took meals with him only in the huge hut where many of the warriors ate together. This satisfied the discontent, and thus the others, more or less, accepted Tyree as a comrade.

            Tyree had been given his own hut to use during his stay in Verdanta. It was the first time he had ever slept without the weight of fur blankets. The warmth in Verdanta, even at night, was a wonder to him. He kept his snow pony just outside as his sentry. He slept alone in an enemy camp with his sword and his snow star close at hand. Each night his dreams were of Shuyah, her undergarments wetted by the hot spring to reveal the perfection of her form, her lips pressed against his so briefly, so hopelessly, and but once. He awoke each morning with ever deepening feelings for the Tranca girl—feelings impractical, yet strong.

            A Tranca warrior from the outer defenses rode into Verdanta to announce that the main body of the clan had arrived. Here they came every migration to rotate in a new four thousand Tranca and to add the bounty of Verdanta to their stores for the clan’s stay in the frozen north. Tyree was expected to scout their way to join Rolak’s legion in the north. Once that was accomplished, Tyree had decided he would venture back to the south to oversee from afar his own clan’s migration. Clans were relatively safe once in the north. Attacks in the endless darkness were rare, for the stars whirled madly and could no longer guide moving armies, armies that could easily lose their way in the darkness. Also, the sunless north was extremely cold, propinquity to a fire a constant necessity.

            The day the main body of the Tranca clan arrived, Tyree’s pony snorted and awakened him at dawn. He came out of his hut and searched for Shuyah’s welcome aspect. Instead he found a young Tranca girl approaching with a message. Tyree was requested to join Shuyah at her hut. Hope filled him with prospect. Against all impossibility, he could not resist a shred of hope. It would prove immutable.

            With romantic notion, Tyree looked over the paradise that was Verdanta. To the west rows of crops, neatly planted in rich black volcanic soil, to the north, orchards of fruit laden trees, to the east, a forest of poplars. Beyond the forest, five strange angular structures rose a thousand feet into the sky. These were five colossal devices made of wood and tanned skins. These were the rain catchers. They caught the rain and provided fresh water for the people living in a land of alkali, sulfur and steam. In front of the poplar forest, a meadow of thaw grass caught the warm breeze in waves. Tranca gatherers were scything the grass for their horses and caribou and sheep. Others moved among the plenty, harvesting vegetables, nuts and fruits. Most of the plenty would be packed aboard sleds and pack horses, and taken on the migration. At the center of Verdanta, rich green grass grew and flowers bloomed around caribou skin huts untouched by snow.

            Tyree wondered if Verdanta was the green land predicted by Koleefus in her prophecy—wondered if Shuyah was in his future. It was a fitting place for romance to bloom, but Tyree had to hold back such impulses with resolve. The encircling hot springs sent up a wall of billowing white steam. This wall was an illusion that protected Verdanta from the snow and cold, but could not hold back the conflict between clans. Tyree fed his pony and ate some of the fruit and vegetables that were left for him daily. It was a brief, sublime existence that had come to an end. He packed his belongings onto his snow ponies and rode through the village to Shuyah’s hut. Tyree found several Tranca battle steeds tied outside and readied himself for conference.

            Inside, Tyree found Shuyah, four commanders and Shuyah’s father, Zorgon, who had arrived with the main body and exhibited a deep illness. He was lying on a pallet of furs, coughing raggedly and sipping hot soup. Zorgon’s two youngest sons, in their teens, were also present, as was the Tranca witch woman, Koleefus. Shuyah looked worried, but managed a weak smile upon Tyree’s arrival.

            “My father cannot make the journey north,” she said. “It will be to me to lead the migration.”

            “I would speak with the Kodiak alone,” Zorgon ordered.

            The others looked at each other with concern, and silently obeyed. Koleefus remained as though invisible.

            “Shuyah has told me of your council’s decision to nullify the alliance you offered,” Zorgon said.

            “It is true,” Tyree admitted. “I can only ask your forgiveness for the shortsightedness of my people.”

            “The folly of majority rule rather than kingship. Yet you kept the only part of our bargain you could,” Zorgon rasped. “Rescued our scout legion from the Logalla trap where I might have lost both a daughter and a son.”

            “I gave you my word,” Tyree shrugged. “It was providence borne by the wind that brought me to a position that proved beneficial to Rolak and his legion.”

            Zorgon smiled. “You give yourself less credit than is deserved,” he said, “a quality I wish my eldest son possessed a greater quantity of.”

            “Rolak cares for his people. A good quality easily misplaced,” Tyree granted.

            “You are not one of us,” Zorgon sighed, “but fate has sent you to guide our way. With Rolak in the north and me staying in Verdanta,” Zorgon looked Tyree in the eyes, “as my daughter said, it is up to her to lead the clan’s migration. Will you use your Kodiak senses to help them?”

            “As I would my own people.”

            “Koleefus will go with you. To advise my daughter,” Zorgon added, drawing a look of surprise from the normally impassive witch woman. But she concealed it quickly and averted her eyes in submission. “It will be Koleefus who will confer with my daughter. Discuss with her your suggestions. She will confer with Shuyah, who will make the final decisions. Have you a plan to hide my clan’s passage so the Logalla cannot follow?” Zorgon said.

            “Leave on my command, and a blizzard will hide our trail.”

            “I have heard the Kodiak can predict the snow.”

            “It will begin as I step from your hut.”

            “What you cannot predict is the resistance my people would have to a Kodiak outwardly acting as their leader.”

            “I will be as invisible as a Ghost Warrior,” Tyree promised.

            “Resistance also toward any thought you might entertain of a union,” Zorgon pointedly added.

            Tyree blinked wide-eyed at the mention, but before he could speak, Zorgon continued.

            “I have seen the way you look at one another. Heard how and in what terms she speaks of you. It is not possible. Especially for a Tranca princess.”

            “I have proposed no such union,” Tyree awkwardly replied. “She and I—”

            “She and you have a meeting of minds, and of hearts,” Zorgon sighed. The sigh started him coughing again. “It is obvious to one such as I who has seen it many, many times before, over many, many thaws.”

            Koleefus shot a brief glance at old Zorgon. How wise the Tranca king sometimes was. It bothered her when he exhibited perceptions she’d as soon she’d put in their place. It bothered her because she had decided not to reveal the attractions she saw glowing between Shuyah and the Kodiak—decided conveniently not to mention the vision she’d had into the futures of these two young snomads.

            Tyree rose to go. “We have duties more important,” he said, deftly putting the topic to rest for now.

            Though he would never bow to anyone, Tyree gave a courteous nod to the Tranca king and said, “I hope the wind smiles upon you and blows away your illness.” Tyree then looked to Koleefus, who gave him leave with her eyes.

            Indeed, as Tyree stepped from the hut, it began to rain. Not snow, as Tyree had predicted, for here the warmth of the hot springs turned the snow to rain. It was rare for a Kodiak, or for any upon the snow, to turn their faces up into rain drops. But it was common in Verdanta. The citizens captured it as their only supply of drinking water. Just as importantly, the rain nurtured the vegetation and crops within the ring of fertile ground called Verdanta, while outside the circle of hot springs, it snowed heavily.

            With the bounty of Verdanta already loaded, the healthy troops of Shuyah’s legion ventured forth to join up with the main body camped in the cold outside Verdanta. They left behind the wounded, most of the elderly, Zorgon and his two young sons. A thousand warriors were permitted to stay in Verdanta throughout the thaw. Though they didn’t understand the geology, they knew Verdanta was never consumed by the thaw. It sat atop a volcanic mountain hidden beneath the snow, but firm against the collapse of the ice shelf. The encroaching sea had never come within ten views of Verdanta.

            So every migration, four thousand Verdanta residents rejoined the clan; four thousand new citizens remained behind in luxury. The Tranca clan, over fifty thousand strong and with three times the number of livestock, trudged off through the raging snowfall. No one complained, for they knew the storm was a blessing, one that hid their passing from enemy eyes.

            The blizzard ended by nightfall and they made camp. Tyree read the wind and predicted the arrival of the thunder beasts at sunrise. He led the throng to a particular spot to make camp. As dawn broke, the wooly mammoths appeared. They rumbled methodically past the Tranca encampment on their way north.

            A flutter of movement in the sky caught Shuyah’s eye. She shielded her eyes against the dull wilderness sun. High in the sky a flock of geese traveled in the familiar V formation. Unlike the snomads, the elephants, and every creature that walked upon the snow, the birds never flew north. They flew—east.

            “I have noticed this, as well,” Tyree said when Shuyah brought the contradiction to his attention.

            “Where do they go?” she wondered. “Do they cross the great sea? Is there, as legend says, a land east of the thaw? A warm land where the birds need not face the night and cold of the north to which we travel?”

            “I’ve had these same notions,” Tyree smiled, her quizzicality refreshing and attractive. “A paradise across a vast and deadly sea our small fishing boats cannot cross.”

            “What if one built a larger boat?” she said.

            “How many such boats would it take for your clan and livestock to cross? And where would you get the wood? I believe paradise awaits, but one must cross the sea at the height of winter, when the sea is frozen. There, beyond the sea, one will find Jallalla.”

            “We call it by the same name!” she beamed, pleased at more evidence of the Tranca and the Kodiak having been, before time began, one clan. Neither noticed Koleefus look up from her corner. The old witch woman had a certain fire in her mystical eyes at the mention of Jallalla.

            “That is most interesting,” Tyree smiled, looking only at Shuyah, both their eyes twinkling. “Let us talk later about it. Now may I suggest, my lady, that you have your sizeable number of subjects fall into the path the thunder beasts took and stay within its boundaries.”

            Shuyah looked to Koleefus, and Koleefus nodded her consent as she had thousands of times for Shuyah’s father.

            All the clans were skilled in killing mammoths for meat, and for the ivory used in making daggers and arrowheads. But the Tranca had no interest in killing the beasts. A hunt would spook the herd and scatter them. This would make using the mammoths’ passage to disguise their migration untenable. The woolly mammoths cut a wide path of trampled snow across the plains. Tyree hoped following the elephants’ would hide the Tranca’s passage to some degree. Still, he knew a scout of any quality could deduce the presence of the Tranca’s trail inadequately hidden there amid that of the elephants’ passing. As soon as it began again to snow, they veered off the path the mammoths were taking and Tyree’s guidance neatly led them to Rolak’s point legion camped at the edge of the eternal darkness. They joined up and together they made for the Tranca’s traditional shelter against the cold. It was a broad rocky expanse shielded between two mountains. The heights were unattainable for any army, and each end of the pass was easily defensible for the Tranca.

            “Your northern encampment is well placed,” Tyree said to Shuyah and Koleefus, the three of them mounted on tired horses and looking over the valley between the mountains.

            “We Tranca are not the military geniuses the Kodiak are,” Shuyah teased, “but now and again, we do something right.”

            Tyree and Shuyah smiled at each other with a look of affection that did not escape the eyes of Koleefus. Koleefus knew this pairing was one of destiny’s choice—one that could forever change the lives of those upon the snow. If only they were not killed in their journey of destiny.

            The Tranca made camp in the dark, where they would stay until the thaw ended. They would not again see daylight for four freezing months.
 
 
CLICK HERE FOR CHAPTER 8: "THAW"

 

   

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