Running on Ice
Growing up is not supposed to be easy, Yevgeny Zakithar mused with the wisdom of his eleven winters of experience. It was the reason people made such a big deal out of it. But why did it have to be so outrageously hard?
He observed the battlefield. Beneath him, the fight still raged. Children of roughly his age, give or take a couple of years, were playing ‘hunt-for-the-snowbird’, a rough-and-tumble game that included a lot of running, wrestling, grabbing, jumping, and generally resulted in a lot of bloody noses and bruises, as they tried to capture a bunch of rags called the snowbird.
Oh, Yevgeny had played alright, but it was always the same with everything, both brawn and brain; where other kids fiercely competed in all sorts of athletics, often held under harsh conditions, he did not share their passion or their physical strength.
It was not that he was exceptionally small or weak. Even at his eleven years he was very well aware that his headaches came from a heart that as of yet had not found a lot in life.
Yevgeny did not enjoy playing ‘snowbird’, or exhausting himself in other sports, or even learning the lore or carving crude little likenesses in wood or ivory in an attempt to learn the trade.
Rare as the Art was in Rashemi males, the Witches still had tested him for magical aptitude at a very young age, as was done to all Rashemi children. In his case it had been the age of six. Little Yevgeny was paralyzed even from the sight of them.
These Wychlaran, or the ‘learned sisters’, as the Witches called themselves, were awe-inspiring masked ladies dressed in robes streaming in the cold and harsh winds of Dyernil’s dale; he had been fascinated still when Elena had mildly slapped him on the back of his head for staring.
They had been friendly enough though. One of them had even made her enchanted whip dance in the air for him, a trick that resulted in the young witch herself to be lightly admonished by her sisterkin.
It didn’t keep her from sharing a comradely wink with the boy, as her dark eyes observed him from behind the grey veil, something that her companions pretended not to notice, although one of them had definitely hidden a smile behind her plumed mask.
Of course, the ritual hadn’t found any trace of talent for the Gift within him. The truth was, Yevgeny’s mind wandered too far and too often, and some people weren’t entirely sure if it was present at all.
It hadn’t changed over the years either. With a deep sigh, Yevgeny returned his eyes to the War of the Snowbird below him, watching it from the perch of rocks he had chosen as a lookout and a shelter to stay out of sight (and slam of course).
Right now it seemed the closest team were on the verge of winning, with one dislodged ear and a nosebleed to three scraped knees and a black eye.
His moment of peace was disrupted by a very cheerful and very dirty face that peered over the edge of his sanctuary.
“Come on, you dozy bum, get off that lazy ass of yours!” it said.
“Hello Liv.” Yevgeny brightened somewhat. Even when the adventures with his reckless friend landed them in trouble, they were nearly always worthy of a good laugh.
“You coming?” Liv asked while he casually clambered onto the rock with a skill Yevgeny could only dream of and sometimes envied his best friend for.
“To do what?”
Liv exhaled deeply, his breath forming a small and wavering cloud in the cold air. “Test the new ice on the lake before all the others get the hang of it!”
Yevgeny scratched his head. “It’s kind of thin. Wouldn’t we splash right through it?”
A wide guilty grin split Liv’s broad and lightly freckled face. “Well, yes, could be, but you have to be there before the word gets out, otherwise you won’t get the chance or the room. The trick is to do it before it’s thick enough!”
“You’re thick enough,” Yevgeny smirked as he lowered himself off his safe haven and tried to take a flying headstart to beat his friend to the Dyernil lake.
When it came to sprinting, he usually won; if the race continued over a further period of time Liv held out the longer by far.
Physically the two of them were not that different: they both had about the same build, with Liv being the taller and having the more muscular upper body. Yevgeny had the slightly longer legs and arms.
Both of them had round, still childlike faces; Liv’s was surrounded by an unkempt mass of stark, auburn hair and sported two mud-colored eyes and a wide mouth to which smiles came easily.
Yevgeny’s face was a little more thin and angular, with lively grey eyes, and a mop of sandy hair that was a mix of his mother and father’s colors with a tendency to slightly curl if grown long.
Liv landed on a patch of dry grass like a cat—a really big cat that made a loud thumping sound as it came down—and set off in pursuit.
Two kids, a thirteen year old boy and a stocky girl about two years younger were already at the lakeside.
Liv spread his arms as if to embrace the winter day. “The famous hero Liv Timolai of the Snow Cat beserker Lodge reaches the borders of Lake Ashane!” he bellowed into the frigid skies.
Yevgeny didn’t stay behind as they joined the other children on the thin-skinned film of ice that covered Dyernil’s central body of water; “Last one to the other side is a slow-witted rothé!”
The five of them set off, with the frozen lake under their feet creaking, and making uncanny, suspicious noises of breaking as if in torment.
When their run ended, Yevgeny declared victory with one foot on the other bank, and one on the virgin layer of ice.
Liv, who had slipped along the way, jumped on solid land and snorted at the others’ taunts. Suddenly he pointed towards the middle of the lake. “Look.”
It lay on Yevgeny’s lips to say he wasn’t going to fall for it, but then he saw a small, translucent nature spirit that had formed as a swirling cone of misty air. It looked at them with two little ice-blue shards that managed to glow even though they were perfectly cold.
“What could it want?” Yevgeny pondered. “It doesn’t look angry at us... yet...”
Carefully, he stepped back on the thin layer of ice that was still creaking ominously. The spirit didn’t move, but it lifted one of its ghostly limbs to point at him.
Slowly but steadily, Yevgeny felt his clothes beginning to freeze. Since clothes weren’t made to do that, they also began to rend and split in the most annoying places, and tiny crystals were pressing against his bare skin.
“Hey!” he yelled at the small apparition. “Stop that!”
The only answer he got was a high, silvery screech that could either have been a wail or a giggle. The freezing, however, ceased.
Yevgeny looked up to give the spirit an angry glare, only to find it gone. “Hey!” he cried for a second time, then he left his relatively safe place by the lake's side to see where the critter went.
The silvery sound echoed again. This time he would swear it was a tittering laughter. "Show yourself, you cowardly piece of water scum!" he called, half-hoping it wasn't loud enough for the creature to hear.
Still, tough talk wasn't worth anything when it wasn't backed up by action. The water spirit couldn't just have vaporized. Well, maybe it could. In any case it couldn't make fun of him and then vaporize. Strengthened by the idea that the mysterious teaser had probably anyway dissolved in the air or in the lake itself, Yevgeny stormed off in frustration to the spot the pesky spirit last showed itself.
Finally and not without a warning, the ice lost patience and gave way beneath his stomping feet. Liv and the other two children joined in Yevgeny's screaming as he plunged into a quickly widening gap that now seemed like a miniature lake in its own, with sharp, thin plates of ice jutting from the sides.
The first couple of moments he could not do anything, as biting water cut off his breath. The last thing he saw before he was forced to close his eyes to protect them was a familiar shape, no longer misty but pale blue in color; the face was now completed by a thin mouth, pulled into a mocking grin. Yevgeny violently ploughed upwards to get back to the hole in the ice.
It wasn’t there.
There was just ice, ice that filtered white light and numbed his hands whenever he thumped at it. In panic, the boy looked around for the water spirit, but it was once again nowhere to be seen.
If he’d had enough breath in his lungs to swear he would have surely done so, but as it was now his panicked mind only cried out for air.
Desperately, he let himself sink deeper until his feet touched the muddy bottom of the lake. In an attempt to launch himself he tried to find firm ground, but the only thing he felt was swampy soil that if anything pulled him further downward.
When he finally tore himself loose, his right boot came out with a slurp, but the left stayed behind in the muck. Then a sharp sting of pain rushed from the nerves in his foot all the way to his fright-filled brain.
Something had sunk its teeth into his toes. He frantically kicked about, but the fish—for that was what it was, a modestly sized but very angry Dyernil pike—didn’t have any plans to let him go.
Suddenly two strong hands grabbed his arms and shoulders, forcefully yanking him back up. As he lay gasping on his back, coughing and spluttering, he saw Liv and the other two children holding each others’ feet, and cautiously crawling back on their bellies. He realized that they had formed a living chain to pull him out.
After Yevgeny’s most severe coughing fits and Liv's vilest curses subsided, Liv looked his friend up and down. “By Bane’s balls, man, Yevgeny looked at his bootless left foot. Three of his toes had deep bite marks slashed over them, as if he now had eight digits on one foot. “The pike!” he muttered. “Where’s the stupid fish?”
It took only a short while to find it. Liv’s bloodied knife in hand, Yevgeny looked down at his first kill.
Then reality kicked in.
“Oh gods,” he breathed, studying himself from wet clothes to missing boot. “My folks are going to be really, really mad.”
He reached his home miserably sopping in his one remaining boot, and shivering all over his body. Standing in the doorway he braced his wet self for parental retribution.
Elena was the first to react. “Great dark daughter of Bhalla,” she said, shaking her head in disbelief and horror at the sight of her son dripping chilly water and with a fish slung over his shoulder.
Her husband carried a similar expression, but besides his hard hands, at times like these Faurgil Zakithar also had a ready smile. Slowly, inevitably the corners of his mouth began to twitch. Then he gave up and collapsed into a roaring laughter. “I didn’t think I’d live to see the day,” he managed in between. “My son catches his first prey... with his toes!”
Elena put her fists on her hips. “Is this your idea of responsibility?” she snapped. “I should whack you both!”
While his mother scolded him, Yevgeny awkwardly stripped off his wet clothing. “Were you actually going to whack dad?” he asked his mother in between chatters of his teeth.
Elena rubbed her son’s hair dry a little more forcefully than was necessary. “No,” she sighed. “Hitting your father would be like kicking a very big and badly-dressed puppy.”
She left him by the fire, with his skin still warm and glowing from heat. After a while, his father came in to hand him a small cup.
“No Sossalian vodka yet—more of a Dyernil derivative... but still the best around. Taste it.”
Yevgeny took a sip, coughed, blinked the tears from his eyes and gingerly took another one. Faurgil snickered. “After all said and done, you did a fine job with that pike.”
Then his face took on a more serious expression, the lines of worry around his eyes sharpened. “But if you pull something like this again,” he said softly, “I swear you’re going to get it, dead or alive.”
Yevgeny nodded wordlessly. Staring into the flickering tongues of fire in the hearth, he finished his drink. Not for the first time, he felt a brief stroke of sympathy for the parents that had him as their only son.