The Chasm of Ice
The light-bird clattered over their heads like a storm. Owlheart reared up and pawed at the air. There was a stink of burning tar, a wash of downrushing wind from those whirling wings that drove the hair back from Silverhair’s face. She could see Lost — two, three of them — cupped in the bird’s strange crystal belly, staring down at her.
Silverhair and Owlheart hurried back to the shore where Foxeye and her calves waited, cowering.
A faint scent of burning came to them on the salty breeze. The calves, huddling close to their mother, picked it up immediately; they raised their little trunks and trumpeted in alarm.
Silverhair looked along the beach to the west, the way the bird had come. She could see movement, a strange dark rippling speckled with light. And there was a cawing, like gulls.
It was the Lost: a line of them, spread along the beach. And the light was the yellow fire of torches they carried in their paws.
Owlheart rumbled and trumpeted; Silverhair had never seen her so angry. "They pursue us even here? I’ll destroy them all. I’ll drag that monster from the sky and smash it to shards—"
Silverhair wrapped her trunk around the Matriarch’s, and dragged her face forward. "Matriarch. Listen to me. I’ve seen that light-bird before at the camp of the Lost. It makes a lot of noise but it won’t harm us. There—" She looked down the beach, at the approaching line of Lost. "That is what we must fear."
"I will trample them like mangy wolves!"
"No. They will kill you before your tusks can so much as scratch them. Think, Matriarch."
She could see the effort it took for Owlheart to rein in her Bull-like instincts to drive off these puny predators. "Tell me what to do, Silverhair," she said.
"We must run," said Silverhair. "We can outrun the Lost."
"And then?" asked Owlheart bleakly.
"That is for tomorrow. First we must survive today," said Silverhair bluntly.
"Very well. But, whatever happens today—" Owlheart tugged at Silverhair’s trunk, urgently, affectionately. "Remember me," she said, and she turned away.
Stunned, Silverhair watched the Matriarch’s broad back recede.
The coastline was mountainous. Black volcanic rock towered above the fleeing mammoths.
They came to another huge glacier spilling from the Mountains, a cliff of ice that loomed over them. The beach was strewn with shattered ice blocks, and the glacier itself, a sculpture in green and blue, was cracked by giant ravines. The air that spilled down from within the ravines was damp and chill — cold as death, Silverhair thought.
They ran on, the three Cows panting hard, their breath steaming around their faces, the calves mewling and crying as their mother goaded them forward.
The cries of the Lost seemed to grow louder, as if they were gaining on the mammoths. And still the light-bird clattered over their heads, its noise and tarry stink and distorted wind washing over them, driving them all close to panic.
Silverhair wished Lop-ear were here. He would know what to do.
Owlheart shuddered to a halt, staring along the beach. Foxeye and the calves, squealing, slowed behind her.
Silverhair came up to Owlheart. "What is it?…"
The wind swirled, and the stink reached Silverhair. A stink of flesh.
Strung across the beach was a series of heaps of stone and sand and ice. From each pile, oily black smoke rose up to the sky. The fire came from a thick, dark substance plastered over the stones.
What burned there was mammoth.
Silverhair could smell it: bone and meat, and even some hair and skin, bound together by fat and dung. One of the stone heaps was even crowned with a mammoth skull, devoid of flesh and skin and hair.
She recognized it immediately, and recoiled in horror and disgust. It was Eggtusk’s skull.
Foxeye was standing still, shuddering. The two calves were staring wide-eyed at the fires, crying.
"We can’t go through that," growled Owlheart.
Silverhair was battling her own compulsion to flee this grisly horror. "But we must. It’s just stones and fire. We can knock these piles down, and—"
"No." Owlheart trotted back a few paces and stared into the mouth of a great ravine in the glacier. "We’ll go this way. Maybe we’ll find a way through. At least the light-bird won’t be able to chase us there." She prodded Foxeye. "Come on. Bring the calves."
In desperation Silverhair plucked at Owlheart’s tail. "No. Don’t you see? That’s what they want us to do."
Owlheart swiped at her with her tusks, barely missing Silverhair’s scarred cheek. "This is a time to follow me, Silverhair, not to question."
And she turned her back, deliberately, and led her Family into the canyon of ice.
Silverhair looked along the beach. One of the Lost was standing on a boulder before the others, waving his spindly forelegs in a manner of command. Silverhair could see the ice light glint from his bare scalp. It was Skin-of-Ice: the monster of the south, come to pursue her, even here beyond the End of the World. She felt a black despair settle on her soul.
She followed her Matriarch into the ravine.
Immediately the air felt colder, piercing even the mammoths’ thick coats. Immersed in ice, Silverhair felt the sting of frost in her long nostrils, and her breath crackled as it froze in the hair around her mouth.
Impatient to make haste, anxious to keep their footing, the mammoths filed through the chasm, furry boulder-shapes out of place in this realm of sculpted ice. The going was difficult; the ground was littered with slabs and blocks of cracked-off ice, dirty and eroded. With each step, ice blocks clattered or cracked, and the sharp noises echoed in the huge silence.
Walls of ice loomed above Silverhair, sculpted by melt and rainfall into curtains and pinnacles. The daylight was reduced to a strip of blue-gray far above. But it wasn’t dark here, for sunlight filtered through the ice, illuminating the blue-green depths.
It was almost beautiful, she thought.
Silverhair heard a clattering. She looked back to the mouth of the chasm. The light-bird hovered there, black and sinister. As Owl-heart had predicted, the light-bird couldn’t follow them here. Perhaps its whirling wings were too wide to fit within the narrow walls.
But on the ground she could see the skinny limbs of the Lost, the smoky light of their torches, as they clambered over ice blocks.
Owlheart had gone ahead of the others, deeper into the chasm. Now she returned, trumpeting her rage. "There’s no way out. A fall of ice has completely blocked the chasm." She growled. "Our luck is running out, Silverhair."
"Luck has nothing to do with it," said Silverhair. She felt awe: she was sure the Lost — in fact, Skin-of-Ice himself — were behind every element of this trap — the burning fat and the skull, the driving of the mammoths into this chasm, and now the barrier at its rear. How was it possible for a mind to be so twisted as to concoct such complex schemes?
Owlheart rumbled, paced back and forth, struck the ground with her tusks. "We aren’t done yet. Listen to me. In some places, at the back of the chasm, the ice lies thin over the rock. And the rock is rotten with frost there, Silverhair. Go up there and dig. See if you can find a way out. If there’s a way, take Foxeye and the calves. Get away from here and join up with one of the other Families."
"Find them, Silverhair. It’s up to you now."
"What about you?"
Owlheart turned to face the encroaching Lost, and their fire glittered in her deep-sunken eyes. "The Lost will have to clamber over my bloated corpse before they reach our calves."
"It will make a good story in the Cycle, won’t it?" The Matriarch tugged at Silverhair’s trunk one last time, and touched her mouth and eyes. "Go to work, Silverhair, and hurry; you might yet save us all."
Then the Matriarch turned and faced the advancing Lost.
Silverhair turned to Foxeye, who stood over her terrified calves. "They’re trying to suckle," Foxeye said, her voice all but inaudible. "But I have no milk to give them. I’m too frightened, Silverhair. I can’t even give them milk…"
"It’s all right," Silverhair said. "We’ll get out of here yet." But the words sounded hollow to her own ears.
"They’ve come to destroy us, haven’t they? Maybe Snagtooth was right. Maybe all we can do is throw ourselves on the mercy of the Lost."
"The Lost have no mercy."
Foxeye said bleakly, "Then let them kill Owlheart, and spare me and my calves."
Silverhair was shocked. "You don’t mean that. Listen to me. I’m going to save you. You and the calves. It isn’t over yet, Foxeye; not while I have breath in my body."
Foxeye hesitated. "You promise?"
"Yes." Silverhair shook her sister’s head with her trunk. "Yes, I promise. Wait here."
She turned and ran, deeper into the chasm.
The ravine became so narrow that it would barely have admitted two or three mammoths abreast, and the wind, pouring down from the glacier above, was sharp with frost crystals. But Silverhair lowered her head and kept on until she found the way jammed by the jumble of fallen ice Owlheart had described.
The blocks here were sharp-edged and chaotically cracked, as if they had been broken off the ice walls above by the scraping of some gigantic tusk. Silverhair stared at the impassable barrier, wondering how even the Lost could have caused so much damage so quickly.
She turned and worked her way back down the chasm. At last she found a patch of blue-black rock protruding through the ice walls. Perhaps the strength of the wind had kept this outcrop free of frost and snow. But the outcrop was some distance above her head.
Below it, on the ground, was a mound of scree — frost-shattered stone — mixed with loose snow and ice.
She stepped forward. The scree crunched and slithered under her feet. It was very tiring, like climbing up a snowbank. Small rocks began to litter the ice floor, broken off the rock face by frost, increasing with size, until she found herself climbing past giant boulders.
A thunder-stick cracked.
Its sharp noise rattled from the sheer walls of the chasm. And now the screams of terrified mammoths rattled from the walls.
Every fiber in her being impelled Silverhair to lunge back down the slope and return to her Family. But she knew she must stick to her task.
She turned and resumed her climb.
When she could reach the rock face, Silverhair dug into the rock wall with her tusks. The rock was loosely bound and easily scraped aside. As Owlheart had predicted, the exposed rock was rotten. Water would seep into the slightest crack and then, on freezing, expand, so widening the crack. Lichen, orange and green, dug into the friable rock face, accelerating its disintegration. Gradually the rock was split open, in splinters, shards, or great sheets, and over the years fragments had fallen away to form the slope of scree below her.
With growing urgency Silverhair ground her way deeper into the rotten rock. Soon she was working in a hail of frost-shattered debris, and she ignored the sharp flakes that dug into the soft skin of her trunk.
But the chasm was full of the screams of the calves, and she muttered and wept as she worked.
Then — suddenly — the wall fell away, and there was a deep, dark space ahead of her.
Hope surged in her breast. With increased vigor she pounded at the rock face before her, using tusks, trunk, forehead to widen the hole. The rock collapsed to a heap of frost-smashed rubble before her.
She reached forward with her trunk. There was no wall ahead of her. But she could feel the walls to either side, scratched and scarred. Scarred — by mammoth tusks? How could that be, so deep under the ground?
She felt a breath of air blowing the hairs on her face. Air that stank of brine. Owlheart had been right; there must be a passage here, open to the air. And that was all that was important right now; mysteries of tusk-scraped walls could wait.
But would the passage prove too narrow to get through? She had to find out before she committed them all to a trap.
Scrambling over the broken rocks, she plunged into the exposed cavern. It extended deep into the rock face. There was no light here, but she could feel the cool waft of brine, hear the soft echo of her footfalls from the walls. She pushed deeper, looking for light.
So it was that Silverhair did not see what became of Owlheart, as she confronted the troop of Lost.
The Lost advanced toward Owlheart, and their cries echoed from the walls.
The Matriarch reared up, raising her trunk and tusks, and trumpeted. Her voice, magnified by the narrow canyon walls, pealed down over the Lost, sounding like a herd of a thousand mammoths. And when she dropped back to the ground, her forefeet slammed down so hard they shook the very Earth.
But the Lost continued to advance.
After that first explosion of noise, the Lost had lowered their thunder-sticks and piled them on the ground. Now they raised up other weapons.
Here was a stick with a shard of rib or tusk embedded in its end. Here was a piece of shoulder blade, its edge sharpened cruelly, so huge it all but dwarfed the Lost who clutched it. And here were simple splinters of bone, held in paws, ready to slash and wound.
A chill settled around her heart. For they were weapons made of mammoth bone.
She put aside her primitive fear and assembled a cold determination. Whatever these Lost intended with this game of bones and sticks, this battle would surely take longer — win or lose — than if they used the thunder-sticks. If Silverhair stayed where she was and carried out her orders, they would have a chance.
Now one of the Lost came toward her. He was holding up a stick, tipped with a bone shard.
She lowered her head, eyeing him. "So," she told him, "you are the first to die."
She waited for him to close with her. That thin wooden stick would be no match for her huge curved ivory tusks. She would sweep it aside, and then -
The Lost hurled his stick as hard as he could.
Utterly unexpected, it flew at her like an angry bird. The bone tip speared her chest, unimpeded by the hair and skin and new summer fat there. She could feel it grind against a rib, and pierce her lung.
Staggering, she tried to take a breath. But it was impossible, and there was a sucking feeling at her chest.
Oddly, there was little pain: just a cold, clean sensation.
But her shock was huge. The Lost hadn’t even closed with her yet — but she knew she had taken her last breath. As suddenly as this, with the first strike, it was over.
The Lost who had injured her knew what he had done. He jumped up and down, waving his paws in the air in triumph.
Well, she thought, if this breath in my lungs is to be my last, I must make it count.
She plunged forward and twisted her head. The sharp tip of her right tusk cut clean through the skin and muscle of the throat of the celebrating Lost.
He looked down in disbelief as his blood spilled out over his chest and fell to the ice, steaming. Then he fell, slipping in his own blood.
Owlheart charged again, and she was in amongst the Lost.
She reached out with her trunk and grabbed one of them around the waist. He screamed, flailing his arms, as she lifted him high into the air. While she held him up, another bone-tipped stick was hurled at her chest. It pierced her skin but hit a rib, doing little damage. Impatiently she crashed her chest against the ice wall. There was an instant of agonizing pain as the embedded sticks twisted in her wounds, opening them further, but then they broke away.
She tightened the grip of her mighty trunk until she felt the Lost’s thin bones crack; he shuddered in her grip, then turned limp. She dropped him to the ice.
She longed to take a breath, but knew she must not try.
Two dead. She knew she would not survive this encounter, but perhaps it wasn’t yet over; if she could destroy one or two more of the Lost, Silverhair and the others might still have a chance.
She looked for her next opponent. They were strung out before her, wary now, shouting, raising their sticks and shoulder blades.
She selected one of them. She raised her trunk and charged. He dropped his stick, screamed, and ran. She prepared to trample him…
But now another came forward. It was the hairless one, the one Silverhair called Skin-of-Ice.
He hurled a stick.
It buried itself in her mouth with such venomous power that her head was knocked sideways.
She fell. The stick caught on the ground, driving itself farther into the roof of her mouth. The agony was huge.
She tried to get her legs underneath her. She knew she must rise again. But the ground was slippery, coated with some slick substance. She looked down, and saw that it was her own blood; it soaked, crimson and thick, into the broken ice beneath her.
Now the hairless Lost stood before her. He held up a shard of bone, as if to show it to her.
She gathered her strength for one last lunge with her tusk. He evaded her easily.
He stepped forward and plunged the bone into her belly, ripping at skin and muscle. Coiled viscera, black with blood, snaked onto the ice from her slashed belly. She tried to rise, but her legs were tangled in something.
Tangled in her own spilled, gray guts.
She fell forward. She raised her trunk. Perhaps she could raise a final warning. But her breath was gone.
Within her layers of fat and thick wool, Owlheart had spent her life fighting the cold. But now, at last, all her layers of protection were breached. And the cold swept over her exposed heart.
In a cloud of rock dust, Silverhair burst out of her cavern, back into the chasm.
She was overwhelmed by the noise: the screams and trumpets of terrified mammoths, the calls and yelps of the Lost, the relentless clatter of the light-bird, all of it rattling from the sheer ice walls.
Owlheart had fallen.
Silverhair could see two of the Lost climbing over her flank. They were hauling bone-tipped sticks out of her side, and then plunging them deep into her again, as if determined to ensure she was truly dead.
But Owlheart had not given her life cheaply. Silverhair could see the unmoving forms of two of the Lost, broken and gouged.
Silverhair mourned her fallen Matriarch, and her courage. But it had not been enough. For the rest of the Lost were advancing toward Foxeye and the calves.
And Skin-of-Ice himself, bearing a giant stick tipped with sharpened bone, was leading them.
Foxeye seemed frozen by her fear. Sunfire, the infant, was all but invisible beneath the belly hairs of her mother. And Croptail, the young Bull, stepped forward; he raised his small trunk and brayed his challenge at the Lost.
Skin-of-Ice made a cawing noise and looked to his companions. Silverhair, anger and disgust mixing with her fear, knew that the malevolent Lost, already stained with the blood of the Matriarch, was mocking the impossible bravery of this poor, trapped Bull.
Silverhair raised her trunk and trumpeted. She started down the scree slope. "Croptail! Get your mother. We can escape. Come on—"
The Lost looked up, startled. Some of them looked afraid, she thought with satisfaction, to see another adult mammoth apparently materialize from the solid rock wall.
Perhaps that pause would give her a chance to save her Family.
The young Bull ran to his mother. He tugged at her trunk until she raised her head to face him.
But the Lost were closing, raising their sticks and claws of bone. Silverhair saw one of them break and run to the thunder-sticks at the mouth of the cave. But Skin-of-Ice barked at him, and he returned. Silverhair felt cold. This was a game to Skin-of-Ice, a deadly game he meant to finish with his shards of bone and wood.
Silverhair tried to work out what chance they had. The ground was difficult for the Lost; Silverhair saw how they stumbled on the slippery, ice-coated rock, and were forced to clamber over boulders and ice chunks that the mammoths, with their greater bulk, could brush aside. And once the Family were safely in the tunnel, Silverhair would emulate Owlheart. She would make a stand and disembowel any Lost who tried to follow…
But the shadows flickered, and an unearthly clatter rattled from the ice and exposed rock. She looked up and flinched. The light-bird was hovering over the chasm.
Two of the Lost were leaning precariously out of the bird’s gleaming belly. They were holding something, like a giant sheet of skin. They dropped it into the cavern. It fell, spreading out as it did so. Silverhair saw that it was like a spiderweb — but a web that was huge and strong, woven from some black rope.
And, as the Lost had surely intended, the web fell neatly over Foxeye and her calves.
Foxeye’s humped head pushed upward at the web, and Silverhair could see the small, agitated form of Croptail. But the more the mammoths struggled, the more entangled they became. Sunfire’s terrified squealing, magnified by the ice, was pitiful.
Silverhair started forward, trying to think. Perhaps she could rip the web open with her tusks -
But now there was a storm of thunder-stick shouts, a hail of the invisible stinging things they produced. Instinctively she scrambled up the scree slope to the mouth of her cave.
The fire came from the Lost leaning out of the belly of the light-bird. They were pointing thunder-sticks at her. Bits of rock exploded from the ground and walls.
Down in the chasm, the Lost walked over the fallen webbing, holding it down with their weight where it appeared the mammoths might be breaking free. Skin-of-Ice himself clambered on top of Croptail’s trapped, kneeling bulk. Almost casually, he probed through the net with his bone-tipped stick. Silverhair saw blood fount, and heard Croptail’s agonized scream.
Her heart turned to ice.
…But the thunder-stick hail still slammed into the frost-cracked rock around her. Great shards and flakes flew into the air. She had no choice but to stumble back into her cave.
She trumpeted her defiance at the light-bird. As soon as the lethal hail diminished she would charge.
But she heard a deeper rumbling, from above her head.
A great sheet of rock fell away from the chasm wall above the cave opening. Dust swirled over her. Then a huge chunk of the cave’s roof separated and fell. She was caught in a vicious rain of rocks that pounded at her back and head, and the air became so thick with dust, she could barely breathe.
Still she tried to press forward. But the falling rock drove her back, pace by pace, and the light of the chasm was hidden.
The last thing she heard was Foxeye’s desperate, terrified wail. "You promised me, Silverhair! You promised me!…"
Then, at last, Silverhair was sealed up in darkness and silence.