Writing Excerpt: The Ice Diver.

I’ve been playing around with this story. I like it. I like it so much I made a little cover for it, just so it looked fancier on my page. What do y’all think? Basic premise: Aunat of High House lives out a bleak exile on Falen Island, where folk of the Warm World banished her ancestors over a hundred years ago on counts of treason and sedition. When a mysterious young man is shipwrecked on the island, Aunat begins to question her place, not only on the island, but in the Warm World denied her people. If she makes the decision to leave, however, she’ll find that there’s much more keeping her on the island than bad weather and tradition.

I’ve always been fascinated with traditional hero’s journey type stories, and have never understood why the traditional hero’s journey couldn’t be made to apply to a woman. The ‘heroine’s journey’ you see offered as a consolation sop is mostly a sad and boring story of self-sacrifice and self-discovery: well, fuck that, I want ladies with swords earning respect and place in society. I don’t understand why that’s apparently weird.

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Photo by Rajmund Barnas, at freeimages.com. Ruined by myself.

1
AUNAT OF HIGH HOUSE

There was a house on the side of the mountain, beside the rocky hills known as the Jaggers. It was not a remarkable house, being roofed in turf and built of stone just like every other house on the island, though it was a little bigger than some of them. The only thing that made it interesting, in fact, was that it was over an hour’s walk from the village, and therefore the house of an outcast.

The folk of the village stuck close together. It was, after all, a matter of them against the icy wind and frozen tundra of Falen island. There were perhaps a hundred people in the village, and there wasn’t a one of them who didn’t have some dealings with the other ninety-nine. The village loomed below the caverns, humped turf-roofed houses and the mead hall and the flat postage stamps of farmland, icy white in the winter and green only for a short time in Scythemonth. The villagers were a hard people, low-slung and hearty and always working. They had a smithy, for the land of Falen Island had proven rich in iron ore, and when it was especially cold the whole village would cluster around it, cheeks pinking in the white-hot fire of the forge.

The owner of the house by the Jaggers had not been born in the village. She had been born in this house, High House, as had her father, and his father before him. The people in the village did not remember why this was so, but so had it always been–there was always a Lord in High House, or, at least, there had been until Karmike Redshouldered had the bad grace to die after issuing only a girl. Now they treated her with a sort of benign neglect, visiting only to trade: no one was sure, really, what to do about Aunat of the High House.

They did not quite trust her: she was not, strictly speaking, of the village. But it was a small village, and there was no one else, so they were obliged to have some dealings with her. She was an ice-diver, the best in the settlement, and when a village family had ikli on the table it was like as not because of her diving.

So they said this about her: you cannot trust Aunat of the High House, but her ikli are fresh, and she does her part.

It wasn’t a compliment, but it was as close as they were going to come.

*****

It was strange, Aunat thought, how human memory worked. From what she had observed in the village, folk had two types of consciousness–extremely long term, and extremely short.

The extremely long term consciousness remembered the sagas of the Elders, the pain and agony of the Naysayers cast from their home in the Warm World. It remembered the ancient smithing songs, the chant of harvest, the slow and seeping ancestral guilt of a castoff people.

The short term remembered, more or less, what the person possessed of said consciousness had been doing five minutes ago. It remembered such a thing for just long enough to complete the task. It remembered precisely what was in the storehouse, but not how it had gotten there, or what trades had been made to get it.

What was missing in the village, Aunat thought, was the middle ground. For instance–when Sevil the Icebreaker owed her trade for threestone of ikli from last winter, Sevil the Icebreaker was likely to forget until some divine agency, such as herself, reminded him.

Right now, he was looking around her living area, at the tall black hearth and the skins on the floor and the battered shield over the hearth, the only ornament Aunat had allowed herself to keep. He was thinking, doubtless, this is a rich house, richer by far than mine. He would be bitter, deep down, over the high portion of wood this single woman claimed when it came time for the lumber expeditions to the spruce islands in spring. He would not remember why, by Naysayer law, she was allowed to claim such a portion.

“I have to get by too, you know,” Aunat said at last. “It gets cold up here. No more until you pay me, Sevil. I am sorry, but you know the law.”

Sevil sighed. “Each has his own,” he recited. “And no one else’s. Yes, Aunat Icediver. I know. But I have no memory of such a debt. If, perhaps, there was a record–”

Aunat smiled at him. She smiled mostly because, if she didn’t smile, she would be rushing for the big sealskin book in her trunk, and she would shove the written record of his debt under his nose until all he could smell was cloudberry ink.

But that would do no good, and she knew it. Sevil was illiterate, like most of the village: as a rule, only those in the High House and the priests of the Watcherblad knew their letters.

So she smiled. And smiled. And smiled. And she reached for the whale vertebra she used as a stool, and pointed to where the three carven lines of Sevil’s debt had been engraved on it with a knife and sealed, in the style of the Naysayers, with three drops of his blood.

“See,” she said. “Three lines, put there last Frostmonth. One for each stone.”

“Ah,” Sevil said, as though that proved everything. “Yes. I remember. I apologize for forgetting–the frost-sickness touched me earlier this winter, and I’ve yet to quite recover. I’ve some seal fat frozen at home–would twostone of that and a pebble of salt be equal payment?”

“It would,” said Aunat, knowing she could expect no better. Besides, she was low on salt.

It was a delicate dance, with the villagers. They didn’t trust her any more than she trusted them, and they were always testing her–forgetting their debts, packing light stones, performing payment tasks poorly or not at all. She had learned to account for herself, up here. She had to, to keep her life comfortable.

“Then the debt is washed away?” Sevil asked, a note of hopefulness tinging his voice.

“It will be washed away,” Aunat said, emphasizing the important parts, “when the fat and salt are delivered to my door.” It was a poor trade, but the villagers had not done as well this last Scythemonth as they often did, and Aunat did not wish to be unfair. Every steading needed nourishment and warmth. Otherwise, all suffered.

“It’s a long walk up here,” Sevil said, wheedling. “Cold and rocky.”

“It would be the same for me, coming down to the village. It’s your debt, not mine.”

Sevil sighed. “As you wish. Look for me tomorrow, during the suntime.”

They shook hands, in the manner of the Naysayers of old: palms stiff, fingers extended, only thumbs locking over each other. A fair deal, the handshake was supposed to embody. Nothing hidden.

Nothing, Aunat reflected wryly, except years of animosity and necessity.

“Would you care to stay for a cup of tea?” Aunat asked, as the ritual required. “I have golden root, left over from last Scythemonth.”

“I shouldn’t wish to deprive you,” Sevil said. The politeness ritual required, and no more.

He left quickly, and Aunat watched him began the downhill journey from her stone porch. He moved rather quickly, she thought, for a man whose excuse for an unpaid debt was frost-sickness in the limbs.

It was pleasant, standing outside. The sea breeze pinched at the small strip of her face left exposed, and each breath was like ice crystals in the lungs. Not very many people, perhaps, would have thought it pleasant, but Aunat knew the secrets of such a day: blue porcelain sky, clear and hard as an upturned bowl. Snowcapped rocks of the island thrusting up to meet it. The sealine below her was quiet, a deep and brooding blue. The village beside it, turf-humped houses clustered fearfully together, didn’t bother her one bit.

It was a good day for ice-diving. If she went in before the sun set, there would be many ikli. They liked this sort of cold, dry weather, where there would be little sediment stirred up on the ocean floor.

If the ikli liked the weather, Aunat liked it, too. Such were the lessons of life in the High House: men were fickle, prone to schemes and betrayals. Only animals spoke the truth, with their movements and habits, and the truth of animals always led to food.

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