Thali, Ten Years Old
The Arctic Cavern
“Mama, why is it soooo cold here?” Thali wrapped her wool scarf around her face.
“Because a great giant once blew its last breath here.” Her mother replied.
Thali rolled her eyes. Even as a ten year old, she didn’t believe her mother’s ridiculous stories. Giants weren’t real. She’d never seen a giant and she’d been around most of the world.
“They say the giant’s mother wept a flood and it froze over this whole area.” Rommy had come up behind Thali and nudged her with his elbow.
“Aren’t you cold?!?” Thali turned to make a face at her brother, only to see his coat open, and he wasn’t wearing any scarves or hat or mittens.
“Not at all.” He said, looking ahead to watch the ship as it hit a chunk of ice. “We’ll have to be quick if the ice is already starting here.” Romulus looked to his mother for confirmation. She nodded.
Thali should have been paying closer attention. She should have seen it before Rommy.
In a couple hours, small boats had joined them. Men wrapped in furs plunged poles attached to heavy rocks into the ice, breaking its surface so their ship could make its way towards the city. They moved at a snail’s pace as men pulled the rods back up before plunging them down again. As they approached the frozen landscape, Thali didn’t understand how it could be called a city, more like a few huts of stone and ice. A dozen low triangles jutting out of snowbanks. It was the end of summer and the deep ice and snow had arrived earlier than usual.
As the ship pulled up along the frozen edge of an iced over dock, Thali followed her brother, mother and father off the ship as they left Crab and the crew to take care of the unloading of all the goods they’d brought. People came out of what Thali had thought to be snowbanks to help them move crates and Crab stood on the ship, keeping a sharp eye on them just in case someone made to leave with something extra tucked into their furs.
They were surrounded by hilly frozen land, it was tough to tell whether mound was a home or a snowbank. Thali always thought the homes must be small. For the lumps in the snow that people were coming out of looked no bigger than their family’s cabin on the ship. Thali’s father ushered them to a wooden door as Thali shuffled carefully on the frozen land. She didn’t want to slip and fall on her first time to this place. He raised his hand and knocked. The door opened and the family was quickly welcomed inside. Thali blinked her eyes to let them adjust to the dark space. She was surprised at how warm it was and surprised to see a stone tunnel stretch ahead of them. A line of fire ran along the wall showing a long, sloping descent. She rose to her tippy toes to take a closer look at the fire.
“How is there fire?” She whispered to Rommy. But in the echoing tunnels, her whisper sounded loud.
“Miss, we put lard from animals that we’ve hunted in the shallow wells on the ledge, the fire burns the lard slowly and gives us light.” The man bowed his head as he turned back to lead them down the tunnel.
“Thank you.” Thali murmured, embarrassed that her stupid question was so loud.
She was quiet the rest of the walk as they slowly descended further in the tunnel.
Thali had been to Iktak, but she’d never been allowed to join her mother and father as they did their business dealings until now. She’d always stayed with the ship, sitting on Crab’s shoulders as he did his job.
Their path flattened and light poured into the tunnel as they neared an opening. She had seen corridors that led off the path they walked and she wondered what they led to. She’d heard a baby cry, but the echoes had made it impossible to figure out where it came from. It gave Thali goosebumps and she wondered if she’d regret begging to join them on this trip.
They turned a corner and light flooded the pathway. Walking into the light, Thali braced herself for the chill of the outdoors, blinking again as her eyes adjusted. She was surprised to feel warm air brush across her face. Her mouth practically dropped open as she stared at the cavernous room. Dozens of lines of fire stacked along one of the walls reached higher than she could turn her head up to see. The flames flickering and burning warmed the room, Thali looked closer and noticed that every two rows, the ledge seemed extra wide and saw a small boy on one of the wider rows. She was just about to call out, when she watched him reach into a bucket with one hand and slather the row above him and the one ledge he was on with something goey. She watched as he finished the two rows and then turned to grab a torch, bringing the fire from the row below to the two new rows he’d just slathered. She watched, open mouthed as the flames licked their way across the rows of the cavernous room. Sweat dripped down the side of her face and she started to remove her wool coat and scarf, mittens and hat. She peeled her attention away from the wall of flames and saw a large, flat rocky surface that sloped very gently to a pool of water. Families were playing on the far end of the rocky surface, swimming in the water and paddling around in one end. Thali narrowed her eyes and realized that the rocky surface was actually black sand.
She readjusted her coat and wool accessories when someone pulling on them made her turn towards her family. Her mother raised her eyebrows as a young woman gently tugged on her coat and warm woolen things. She let go and noticed that her family had also given up their coats and Rommy had even stripped off his vest.
“Pretty spectacular isn’t it?” Rommy said as Thali caught up to him.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Thali said, still staring at the large cavern. It was the biggest cave she’d ever seen.
“I didn’t want to ruin the surprise.” He said. He took her elbow to guide her to catch up with their parents who were approaching some simple wooden benches set in the middle of the room.
“Wood is tough to come by up here, so anything wooden is precious.” Rommy murmured close to her ear.
Thali looked around the room again, realizing that everyone else sat on furs or on the stone or sand itself. Looking around the room as they made their way to the middle, she saw that the only wooden pieces were in the middle of the room. She turned her attention to the two women and man sitting on three simple wooden chairs.
“Thank you for honoring us,” Lord Ranulf bowed as Lady Jin curtsied. Rommy and Thali had been through this enough and dropped into their own bow and curtsy as soon as they had arrived near the wooden furniture.
“Oh, don’t be silly Ranulf, come, give us a hug.” The lady on the far left had long blonde hair, the color Thali imagined straw would look like if it were frozen in ice. Both women were tall but thickly built, reminding Thali very much of her own father large build.
“Sulpica.” Ranulf opened his arms and they hugged. The other woman was the opposite of the first woman. Her hair was black as the darkest dark, making the sand and stone around her look grey in comparison. And while the blonde woman looked friendly and inviting, the darker haired woman had a stiff smile as she stood to embrace Thali’s mother.
“Jin, it’s good to see you.” The woman said, quieter than the other woman. They switched partners in their embraces, and the man had risen to hug them as well.
“And who is this little one.” The man said, finally turning their attention to her and Rommy. While the two women were thickly built, the man was thin as the rails on their ship, with a hooked nose and dark hair.
“My daughter, Thali.” Her father motioned for her to approach and her brother followed next to her.
“Ohhhh.. what a man you’re growing into!” Sulpica ran up to Romulus and grabbed his face, planting a kiss on his cheek.
Rommy turned red as he was passed down the line in greeting.
Thali turned to the blonde woman who smiled brightly at her. “It’s very nice to meet you.” Thali smiled hesitantly as Sulpica moved to hug her. As soon as her arms encircled her, Sulpica jumped back as if poked by something sharp.
She tilted her head as she looked very carefully at Thali. “May I have your hand, child.” Thali looked at the palms of Sulpica’s open hands. She looked to her father whose brows had furrowed, but who nodded at his daughter’s question. Thali carefully put her hand in the blonde woman’s thick one and was prepared to cringe at some unknown pain but felt nothing.
Sulpica’s friendly face scrunched in concentration as she held her hand and she gently let go of Thali’s hand. She smiled brightly again and passed her down the line, looking around at the wide cavern before nodding at Thali’s father.
The man was very thin compared to the two women. He was tall and bent over nearly in half in order to embrace Thali in welcome. His hair was dark, but not as dark as the other woman. Thali noticed he smelled of salt. The dark haired woman was the last to greet her, and even though Thali tried not to cringe as woman’s scowl frightened her, the woman embraced her warmly.
“Please, have a seat. We have food enough for a feast tonight, but for now, some refreshments after your long journey.”
The two women sat and then the man sat, and then Thali’s father and mother sat, and finally, Rommy took Thali’s hand and sat on the wooden bench between their parents.
Three young boys with pale skin approached them, they had light brown hair and were only dressed in a short leather skirt. It looked like the skin of a couple rabbits had been sewn together and strings kept them tight around their hips. They had flat wide stone bowls of pieces of dried meats with a small wooden bowl of berries in their hands, which they offered to Thali’s father, and the two women seated on the dais.
Her father took a few pieces of meat and a couple berries, rolling the berries within the meat before passing the shallow bowl over to Rommy. He did the same as their father, so Thali followed suit. Once everyone had their rolled dried meats, they began to eat them and Thali was surprised at the salty flavor that flooded her mouth. The berries were a fresh break to the saltiness and Thali wished she had put more berries in her meat.
Her parents and the two women and man started talking about the season change and weather and Thali got bored. Her attention wandered and she snuck a peek around at the cavernous room, trying to count the rows of fire on the wall behind them. She then tried to look up as far as she could without tipping her head.
“Perhaps the children would like to go for a swim?” The darker haired woman suddenly said.
“That’s very kind. Thank you.” Thali’s mother said. She grabbed Thali’s hand as she stood up, grabbing a piece of leather from her pocket, gathering Thali’s long dark hair together and winding it up into a bun before tying it off. As she leaned forward to tie the leather piece, she whispered into her daughter’s ear, “No playing in the water, it’s a sacred pool.” Rommy took her hand and they walked down towards the dark sands. Rommy stripped off his shirt and pants, walking quickly into the pool. Thali wasn’t as confident, so she looked around and saw that most of the women were barely wearing anything. Very narrow undershorts and a strip of leather that bound their chests. She saw that the other children her age went without anything on their top halves, so she stripped down to her own undershorts and shirt and walked into the water after her brother.
The sand felt warm to her bare feet, and she was surprised to feel the same softness of white sand squishing around her toes. She sniffed the air, in a habit to smell the saltiness of the ocean but was met instead with nothing. She walked up to the edge of the dark waters and dipped her toe into it. She could see her toe as it sank into the sand, but the waters were dark and as she took her next step, her foot disappeared. It was unnerving to see her feet disappear through the clear, warm water into the black sand, like being swallowed into shadow. She took a few slow steps into the water, fascinated by her own disappearing feet, then ankles.
“It’s strange isn’t it?” Rommy had swum up closer to where his sister was just about knee height into the water. He lay on his back in the shallow water. Thali was tempted to splash him with her legs, but her mother’s words rang in her ears, so she just continued into the water until she was up to her shoulders. She looked back to where her parents sat and was happy to see they were completely engrossed in their conversation. She would hate for them to be checking on her. She’d known how to swim before she could walk.
Thali submerged her head into the water, letting some loose strands of hair float around her. She opened her eyes and thought it was strange that her own hands were easily visible, but the water swallowed the space around her.
A ping touched the back of her head and Thali whipped around to see what had touched her. She surfaced and spun around, expecting to see Rommy grinning behind her, but he was across the pond, gently swimming along the walls of the pool of water, exploring the nooks and crannies.
Thinking it was her imagination, she brushed the escaped strands of hair back and submerged herself into the water again. She swam around under the water, enjoying the water as her body sluiced through the clear liquid, her hands out in front of her just in case she hit a wall she couldn’t see.
Another ping sounded off in her head, but this time, she saw fire licking the sides of a cavern of the same kind of rock, a cavern much larger than this one, but made of the same dark colored stone. She felt the heat of fire, but it was warm and comforting, not uncomfortably hot. Another image of fire licking the walls around her made her feel warmth and pride. Confused, Thali popped back up to the surface of the water to look around. The surface of the water was quiet. Her parents were still in conversation in the middle of the cave and as she looked around, everything was as calm as before.
“You alright?” Rommy came up behind her quietly and she jumped.
“I thought I saw something.” Thali said.
“Oh?” Rommy asked. Waiting patiently.
“I saw fire, in a cave like this, but bigger. Made of the same rock, and I could feel it warming me up, but not being too hot. And…it was strange.”
“Strange how?” Rommy asked gently.
“Strange, because I felt proud of the fire.” Thali said.
Rommy’s fourteen year old brows knit together as he thought. “Tell ma and pa tonight, okay?”
Thali nodded. She shivered. Not sure if it was from the water, or from the strange thing that had just happened.
“You ready to head back to the sand?” Rommy said. Thali just nodded again. Swimming a little faster than necessary, Thali swam out of the dark water and found a young boy standing nearby. He wrapped a fluffy fur around her and her brother and they sat on the black sand.
Lord Ranulf had just tucked Thali into bed and left Rommy reading in his own bed. They were grateful to be staying in the warm cavern city and Sulpica was kind enough to give them a guest home while they were there. He and Jin waited until Thali and Rommy were fast asleep before leaving their rooms. Crab had finished unloading the ship around supper time and had dined with the rest of their crew. But he’d come in to the cavern’s innermost rooms and now sat in the room set up like a kitchen and dining area. Ranulf would never get used to the man’s contrary hobbies. Crab was as fierce a warrior as his wife, a big man that probably had to crawl on all fours in order to get through some of the tunnels in this city and yet, he sat at the table with a ball of yarn and a crochet hook and candle, quietly working the crochet hook back and forth pausing every once in a while to check his work.
“We’ll be back as soon as we can.” Lady Jin said.
“Can I borrow your hand for a moment?” Crab said. As Lady Jin raised her hand, he put the small dome of yarn over her fingers. Pulling it off, he nodded and waved them off, the crochet hook regaining the back and forth rhythm.
“Do you think he’s making mittens or socks?” Jin said as they entered the hallway. The door was made of a heavy set of furs to muffle sound and they walked back towards the main cavern together.
“Mittens? Probably for Thali.” Lord Ranulf said. She nodded and he took his wife’s hand, walking into the cavern. Lord Ranulf could see his wife was nervous as she squeezed his hand in rhythm to a song she must have in her mind.
As they entered the main cavern, a young boy bowed and led them through an opening next to the wall of fire. They followed the single line of flowing fire along the tunnel wall and the boy suddenly took a left turn where there was a break in the glowing line. They turned right immediately and entered a room bigger than their own, but decorated instead with a line of glowing fire near the edge of the floor and a second line of fire where the wall turned into a ceiling.
“Welcome, Ranulf, Jin. Please, make yourselves comfortable.” Sulpica ushered them to some stone benches in the room covered in luscious furs. Ranulf noticed that Sulpica’s wife entered the room from another doorway, in the more casual clothes of a straight leather dress. She offered them only a tight smile and nod before sitting on the adjacent fur covered sitting area. Ranulf noted the tension in Melinna’s jaw and squeezed his wife’s hand.
“You’ll have to forgive Mel’s silence. She doesn’t agree with what I’m about to do.” And turning away from her pacing, she sat down next to Melinna and across from Ranulf and Jin.
“My family has had a long line of magic wielders. My grandmother and my mother were future tellers and saw the fabric of possible futures as they were forming or as choices were made. I do not have the same power, but I do have a small gift of magic. I can see the magic gifts of others when I make physical contact with them.” Her hands were together, her fingers interwoven as she looked between Ranulf and Jinhua. Ranulf and Jinhua stared at her blankly.
“You don’t know,” She said as a statement.
“Know what?” Ranulf and Jin said together.
“Your daughter, have you ever noticed anything different about her?” Melinna said.
They looked at each other, thinking of the same thing. Ranulf was the first to speak, “Animals seem to be particularly drawn to her.”
“Routhalia has a gift. I could be wrong, but I glimpsed magic in her when I held her hand.”
“That’s why you jumped back.” Jinhua said.
Sulpica nodded, “It shocked me – I wasn’t prepared for it. When I touched her hand, I saw the flare of magic in her.”
“Do you know what it is? What kind of magic?”
“If you say she has an affinity for animals, I would think it has to do with that.” Melinna went to hold Sulpica’s hand.
“What should we do about it?” Jin said.
“That is up to your own family. Teachers in magic are rare, even harder to find. I wouldn’t have even said anything if we were not such good friends. But Routhalia will have more and more signs of magic show as she gets older. When she hits womanhood, her magic will also mature. It was a month after my first bleed that my magic made itself known.”
Jinhua nodded, her brow creased in concern and thought.
“She will feel alone, and magic responds to her emotions, if she were to get upset, there will be a spike in the magic.” Melinna said, eyeing Sulpica from the side as Sulpica rolled her eyes.
“She says that from personal experience.” Sulpica rolled her eyes at Melinna, “Magic is rare here, I only learned what I know because of my mother and grandmother. I’m sorry.”
“We thank you for your warning.” Ranulf said. His brow also creased.
“What will you do?” Sulpica said.
“We will endeavor to find a teacher for her.” Jin said.
“We will help in any way we can.” Melinna said as Sulpica smiled with pride at her wife.
“Was your grandmother born here?” Jinhua asked.
Sulpica smiled, “No. My hair gives me away. My grandmother grew up in a colony north east of this place. She was found as a child wandering around after a snowstorm. Everyone else in her village died in the storm. She always thought it was magic and the fates that saved her as a two year old.”
“My great grandfather was a hunter at the time and recognized the waddle of a toddler.” Melinna said. She took Sulpica’s hand in her own, giving it a squeeze.
“Do you know any other magic wielders?” Ranulf asked.
Sulpica’s lips drew together in a tight line. Ranulf hurried on, “I don’t mean to ask you to betray confidences, but I want to find my daughter a teacher.”
The room was silent for a few seconds. Melinna’s eyes started to narrow, ready to jump into defense mode for her wife. Sulpica exhaled, “I have only ever met three magic wielders in my life. And of those, only one that would be skilled enough to teach. However, other circumstances make him unsuitable. I’m sorry.”
“If you were us, where would you go? Who would you ask? Magic is the stuff of stories.” Jinhua said. Her hands were twisted together.
Melinna jumped in, “We would help if we could. But we do not know anyone. We are too isolated to matter much to anyone else. Even if magic were open.”
“There was a story my grandmother used to tell us.” Sulpica looked tired as she fought to think of the past, “That magic decided to separate itself from our world. They made their own world. They called it Sky. In order to get all the magical creatures through, three gates had been created and guards were set up to protect the world from Sky and its inhabitants. That’s all I remember.”
“Thank you.” Ranulf said. His voice was quiet. So much so that Jinhua looked over to see her husband slumped in his chair. She untangled her fingers and reached for his hand. He unfurled at her touch, but it broke her heart to see him sad.
“We’ve worked so hard to be able to provide a good life for our children. I was happy that both our children would have it easy, but it seems even the fates couldn’t overlook us.” Ranulf whispered.
“Perhaps I am wrong and she only has a touch of magic.” Sulpica said. Her eyebrows rose and crinkled together in hope.
“We thank you for your time, and your hospitality. We will be leaving tomorrow morning because of the ice.” Jinhua said.
“We will see you off in the morning. Please, join us for first meal in the main hall.” Melinna said. Jin pulled her husband up and they walked quietly back to their rooms.