The Clara Lux Mountains, in the west, are perpetually covered in snow only at the summits of the highest peaks, one of which, the highest, is nineteen thousand feet above sea level and can be seen not only from the coast, as the entire range can, but from miles out into the ocean as well. An old legend says that it can be seen from a thousand feet below the ocean, that an opening exists in the water, a narrow passage no bigger than a periscope which the sea gods of the underworld use to spy on the gods who live on Mount Wilhelmina. It is said, further, in these legends, that certain creatures were fashioned by God and put on the high peaks to keep His home on Mount Wilhelmina secure from the sea gods and their emissaries who lived on an island in the middle of the ocean covered in mist. These creatures created by God have been called, by the inhabitants of either side of the Clara Lux, Icemen, fearsome creatures with pronged beaks, scythe like claws, rapier sharp teeth set in three rows of thirty each, creatures attaining ultimately to a height of nineteen feet, one foot of height for each hundred feet of Mount Wilhelmina. God is believed by these people, both those of the rich lush coastal plains and the dry sterile desert valley at the mountains' western side, to have been named William, a name God is said to have given mankind to be bestowed on every male child born, whether he be ruler and warrior or slave and victim. It is in legend a sacred name. Sometimes the snows of Mount Wilhelmina and her sister peaks - for they are all said to be God's women, these peaks, heavy with His snows, which sometimes descend upon the mountain passes below, the trails which permit the coastal dwellers access to the other side so that, as God is said in the coastal legends to have instructed, they might plunder the desert villages, taking young girls to be used for the initiation of their young men into sexual manhood, slaughtering the young boys in order to keep the warriors' skills keen and ready in case of attack from foreign invasion, which at all times, according to legend, threatened. Rarely did the women of God grow heavy with His snows till winter; once in a great while, however, they were forced to expel snow in autumn when, it was said, God was especially active and His women were satiated. Such times were said to be augured by great whirling spots across the face of the sun, God's sign to man that His women would be great with His snows, a warning to stay out of the mountain passes. At such times the pillages came early and were more fierce than usual, to allow for the hiatus, more girls being taken, and more boys being slaughtered, for the extra practice the warriors would need. God watched after His own.
Such a year was this. Enormous spots were detected across the sun's face. It was calculated how great their size was by the length of time it took to blind the babies born of the young girls taken in captivity the previous season to be mated to the young men as the first phase of their initiation into manhood. Before the babies, if they were male, were fed to the President's dogs, which waited impatiently and barked day and night when they sensed it was the right season, their eyelids were plucked off and they were laid in the sun. In a normal year they went blind in just over a day. In this particular year they were blinded in barely half a day, indicating the immensity of the spots. It was God's way of warning, thus protecting, His people from venturing into the mountain passes in autumn. Prayers were said to God in every home in thanksgiving for His goodness.
The young man, William, as all young men were named, with dark eyes and dark curly hair, as all young men of the coast had, the desert boys being the ones with blue eyes and stringy blonde hair, cursed his mate for delaying so long in giving birth. She had been almost a week longer in labor than the others. His child, should it prove to be a boy, would be born too late to serve as God's medium, along with the other newborn males, for the detection of sunspots. William cursed her for this, vowing, for the grave insult against him, to pull out her long blonde hair with his own hands and make the baby eat it, then to pluck out the baby's eyes and make her eat them. Not that this erased the insult, because an insult, once made, could not be erased; but at least it stood as an example to other captive girls not to disobey the rules of society. As all young men were given girls to mate with in February of their sixteenth year, all babies had to be born by the end of November, just as the autumn began, on the last day of November, the day of the equinox, so that the newborn males could be set out to detect sunspots. Here it was the seventh of December and the child had not yet been born. This was an insult against him, it was an infraction of the rules, and worse still it was an affront to God Himself, who had set the order of things in motion. She had one more day to give birth, this girl taken in captivity from across the mountains, then she would be cut open and thrown, together with her baby, to the sharks which were kept at the mouth of the great river, the Luxor, which rose high in the Clara Lux, after which it was named, being believed to have been the offspring of God and His women, the mountain peaks, and which flowed down to the ocean, its many tributaries providing tranquil places for the people to gather and relax.
One day finally passed, and young William came to pass judgment on his mate and her child, either to take the surgeon's knife and cut open her belly or, if the baby had been born during the night, to pull out her hair and her baby's eyes. Yet when he entered, he found neither her nor her baby. The room was empty, she had gone, the baby too, if it had been born. Quickly he called the proper authorities to inform them of the disappearance, then he slit the throat of the old mid-wife who had neglected her duties, from right to left, as was prescribed for women, the left to right slit, the more significant of the two, reserved for men. He swore before an authorized representative of his government to find the girl and her child and destroy them both, as was his responsibility since she was his property once he mated with her, as was also any issue of the mating. He set out that very evening. He could hear in the distance the President's dogs baying, for even though they had already had their fill of the newborn babies they sensed there was yet another to be eaten and they supplicated before the moon, which they took to be God, for the baby's return.
At ten fifty-eight the night before, on the seventh day after her baby was due, the young girl had given birth, to a baby boy. Her mid-wife informed her not to bother nursing him, since they would both be killed. She knew already the boy would be killed, since male babies were fed to the President's dogs; and she knew she would be put to death, since she would not be needed to nurse the baby, as it was not a girl. A girl would have been allowed to live so that the young men would have someone to mate with as part of their initiation into manhood. As it was, all was lost. She and her baby would die. She thought for a moment how pleasant it would be not to have to live any longer in such a world. Then another thought came to her. It isn't I, she reasoned, who has done all this, so why should it be I who has to suffer for it? Why must I give up my life, and my baby's, just because God has ordained so? Then she thought no, no! I must be mad to blaspheme our heavenly Father like this! Still, in spite of all her efforts to restrain them, her thoughts kept coming back again and again to that one point. I am not responsible, why must I pay for it? Why should my baby pay? Who are the President's dogs that they may devour my baby's flesh? I have not just given life to him that a pack of dogs may dine on him! Why must it be so - why? How can it be so? God surely cannot wish it so! His love is too great for so dreadful a thing. He cannot wish it so! Nor will I let it be so. I will do God's work, I will save my baby. I am resolved. It is God's will. I only follow His will. With this in mind, she slipped into a very deep sleep, while in the back of her mind was the resolve to awaken in the early morning, strengthened by her sleep enough so that she could gather up her baby and escape, before her mate, young William, could arrive to supervise her and her baby's killing.
Before the morning got beyond the hour of five she awoke, still many hours away from sunrise. She was still very weak, but that made no difference to her, nor did the terrible pains in her belly matter to her; she got up, knowing she would have to drag them along with her, her pains and her weakness, wherever she went. She dressed herself, as warmly as she could, then gathered up as many warm blankets as she could find and carry, and finally lifted her baby from the bed into her arms. She had nursed him well just before going to sleep, so she reasoned, and prayed, that he would remain asleep till she had gotten somehow away from this place. She ran out of her room, down the dim corridor and out the building, undetected, as there had never needed to be guards there since no one had ever attempted to escape. Escape was forbidden, and no one before had ever questioned God's will or the laws of society. The natural order of things had always been observed, always. In her mind neither did she question the will of God; she saw herself as doing God's bidding in escaping. She had come to believe that God had not created her baby that it might be fed to the President's dogs, and she was doing no more now than simply acting upon that belief.
The building lay just outside the city, near a deep forest. It was to this shelter she ran, carrying her baby and the blankets. Deeper and deeper into the forest she fled, past spaces where the trees were so thick the sun could not wedge its light between the treetops or amongst the leaves, and past spaces open to the sky, where the light streamed down, even once in a while coming upon a rare clearing where the high peaks of the Clara Lux could be seen to tower, hovering black and menacingly like the outstretched wings of hawks. The forest led eventually to the foothills of the great mountain range. She stopped in a clearing, a particularly large open space, like a lush meadow, where a few autumn leaves were strewn, and looked around, suddenly realizing she had nowhere - had left herself nowhere - but up to go. She had not meant to attempt so bold an undertaking as crossing the mountains. Not that there was anyplace here on the coast to hide, or anyone who might give her and her baby shelter; but, though she had not thought farther ahead than the actual escape from immediate danger, she somehow assumed she would remain here on the coast. This was her home now, even it it had not always been. She had been captured and brought here when a little girl; she could barely remember her other home, across the mountains, and had no recollection of the mountain pass which had brought her across. She had never meant this to happen, yet it had, and it was overwhelmingly clear to her that she must take her baby and attempt to cross the mountains. There was nothing else open to her.
She knew she must first build up her strength before undertaking such a venture. She moved on, beyond the clearing and once again deep into the forest, ever nearer the great peaks hovering over the forest. She found a place which seemed to afford some shelter. By now her baby had awakened, and cried to be nursed. She sat down to let him feed, falling asleep herself. It was evening when she awoke, and there was a chill in the air about her, so she wrapped a few more blankets about her baby and, wishing to go gather some food for herself - berries and roots and nuts - she marked a spot with twigs, set her baby down on the ground, and covered his sleeping head with the blanket, keeping just enough space for him to breathe, then covered him with the beautiful autumn leaves which were everywhere on the forest floor, whole handfuls at a time until nothing remained uncovered but the tiny opening in the blanket. She gathered food, ate, returned to nurse her baby once more, then returned him when he fell asleep to the covering of leaves, finally going to sleep herself against a tree near enough so that she could awaken if he should cry yet far enough so that should she be discovered and recaptured there was a chance he would not be found. She would rather him be left here to starve beneath the beautiful leaves than be torn limb from limb to be fed to the President's dogs, which were big black spoiled pedigreed dogs, disdainful of the flesh of cattle but addicted to the flesh of human babies, particularly that of the head, which was always marinated overnight, after being torn from the trunk, in a delicately seasoned sauce. Morning came, however, and neither had the child starved nor herself been discovered. She awoke, and while she wished it were possible to remain another day in this blessed forest to build up her strength, she knew it was too dangerous, that he would be searching for her, and that she must make straightway for the mountains. She feared the mountains though, for so many dead leaves on the forest floor warned her of an early winter, and a bitter cold one. Nevertheless, she gathered up her blankets and, after nursing her baby, lifted him in her arms and fled the forest for the greater safety of the mountains.
All the while she was being followed, pursued by the young man, William, the young cadet in military training to whom she had been given. He would one day be a warrior, as his grandfather William had been; but for the present he was only a cadet. He wore black trousers and a red jacket, which came down just over the upper curve of his hips; on his hands, when in uniform, were white gloves, and on his head the white cadet's hat with a black visor. It was his duty to recapture the girl and her baby, for as they were his property so were they his responsibility. He had begun tracing them as soon as he was given official permission by the commandant of the military academy. Though they had gotten almost a full day's head start, he knew he would catch them, his training prepared him for tracking down fugitives. He automatically assumed they had headed for the forest, it being pointless for them to go anyplace else. He had no trouble detecting signs of their having come this way, almost immediately picking up their trail. Within a day, he calculated, he would have overtaken them. By week's end they will have been punished for their infraction of the laws of God and man. This he knew as he knew his own name.
The blind babies had all made the same prediction of unusually early winter snows in the mountain passes of the Clara Lux. These passes, beginning in the foothills just west of, just behind, the forest, rose in their progress, like jagged scratches across a limb, deeper in places, curving with the muscle to a peak then tapering, no more than eight thousand feet up into the mountains. Every single peak looked down upon them, and in the years of the great blizzards, dumped streams of snow onto them. It always snowed, if only lightly, on the peaks, so there was in them no clue to either the intensity of the storms or their pre-maturity. The cadet knew what to expect, though he did not bother to adequately prepare for it since he was certain of quickly catching his prey; but the girl, ignorant of what had been learned through the other newborn babies, had no idea other than through her observation of the forest of dead leaves that the snows would come early - and what were the predictive powers of leaves and forests compared with that of blinded babies who read the signs God Himself placed on the surface of the sun? For that matter, she had only the vaguest idea what to expect at all in the mountains, having almost forgotten the trail along which she had been led when first taken. She hoped she could remember enough as she went along to find the trail and to make her way along it, for if not, then both she and her baby would perish, from the cold if they got lost and never found their way out, or from falling down some crevice, or from being devoured by the Icemen if by chance they ventured too high up. She only half believed the tales of the Icemen, but even if there were no such thing, she reasoned, might there not be other creatures, just as dangerous, lying in wait up there - creatures even more vicious and heartless than the President's dogs? Every part of her held fear, and what could not hold fear would have been dead tissue, and itself a threat to her and her baby's lives. She had finally reached the place where the foothills gave way to the mountains themselves, and where the passes began, one of several immediately before her, others to her left and right. Memory could not advise her which to take, so she made no effort to choose, she simply took the one nearest her and never gave a second thought to any of the others. Yet for the cadet, with his greater range of knowledge, having crossed the mountains many times during training, his familiarity with each of the trails well established, the problem was almost insurmountable. Not that he had the slightest difficulty determining which pass had been chosen - the girl's trail made it only too clear. Perhaps indeed too clear.
"How could she have chosen this one - how could anyone have chosen this one?" he asked himself as he stood just steps away from it. It was the highest, going almost beyond eight thousand feet at its summit, and the most dangerous, going past horrible crevices and past at least four caves known to be the lair of wolves. "How could anyone have chosen this one?" he asked. "It must be a trick - it must be!" He lost a whole day investigating each and every pass for signs of entry before finally concluding that, indeed, she had taken that one pass, that first one he had come to. At least, he thought, I won't have any trouble finding her, so it doesn't matter, the time I've lost. Yet, as it happened, it did matter.
The poor girl was horrified every step of the way at the dreadful mistake she had made in choosing this pass. Every step seemed fraught with terror, each succeeding step opening up yet greater vistas of danger than the last. Surely, she thought in agony, they can't all have been as bad as this one. She looked up, into the sky, at the jagged peaks hovering almost directly over top of her, at the snow beginning to fall, at the black endless rise of the trail into the mountains; then, frightened by what was above, she looked down, but saw only bottomless crevices to either side, little paw prints in the fresh snow that made her think the President had sent his dogs after her, slippery black rocks that seemed about to twist sideways to hurl she and her baby off into space. She closed her eyes and asked God why He had chosen this pass for her, praying to Him for guidance and for help. Suddenly she was startled by a howl from somewhere, like a demon's laugh of scorn. She opened her eyes and hurried on, preferring whatever unknown horrors lay ahead to the certainty awaiting her if she turned back. Rounding yet one more black bend which seemed to jut straight out into the outstretched gaping sky, she eventually came upon a cave. It terrified her, yet at the same time it afforded shelter for her and her baby, who was beginning to stir, which meant he was hungry again. She said a prayer and made for the cave.
Inside, she fed her baby, cleaned him as best she could, and rocked him once more to sleep. She had traveled several days already, had managed to survive on anything she found, never questioning whether it was edible or not, always aware of the gentle pressure at her breast, which made all things delectable. Vermin too will provide milk for my baby, she constantly reminded herself, thereby finding the will to eat whatever she must, the strength to digest it, for which she thanked God again and again. She managed to sleep for minutes at a time without ever letting the minutes become hours. This way she got sufficient rest to maintain her strength without jeopardizing her and her baby's safety. She knew her pursuers were not far behind, and were doubtless gaining on her. Wherever she would stop to rest, she would clear out a little section to hide her baby in case she detected signs of her pursuers, so that he should not be found. Let him die of starvation or from the cold, she vowed, before being taken back. And if she should be caught suddenly, with no chance to hide her baby, she resolved to hurl him over the side into some endless crevice before allowing him to be returned. It was not she who had decreed such a hideous choice for herself, it was...whoever or whatever it was. She knew she would be eternally damned for murdering her baby, since she had no legitimate authority to kill him as had the people back there on the coast; but her soul made no difference to her. It was a small price to pay for keeping her baby out of their hands. Besides, could hell be all that much hotter or worse than her native land?
Finally it happened, what she knew must happen but what she dreaded above all else. It was very early morning, she had just fed her baby and lulled him back to sleep. Warm blankets wrapped about him tightly. They were at the mouth of a cave, which dipped a few feet into the cave to form a ledge invisible from the outside. The very first few rays of sunlight were spreading like searchlights through the cave; shadows were cast on an inside wall, faintly stirring, several rounded shadows barely moving, as if pacing. Suddenly, outside, at a short distance, a shadow came around the bend; then, almost as quickly, the figure itself followed, the bright red cadet's jacket like a sunrise of blinding brilliance. The girl had just enough time to grab up her baby and, reaching back down onto the ledge just below the mouth of the cave, set him into the little hollow she had dug out for him, covering him with blankets all but where he could breathe a little through a slit. She cast a shadow herself across her baby as she arose to move quickly from the cave a few feet, only a few feet, for there was no time for her to hide and, save farther inside the cave, no place to hide. It was all over for her, and for her baby now. She would be returned; he would die. She stood there, just beyond the mouth of the cave, like a creature paralyzed by terror, feigning invisibility, without the aid of camouflage. He saw her and ordered her forward. She came to him without looking back. The shadows on the wall within grew more restless, more angular with increased motion, grew bigger with increased distance from the wall.
"My baby died," was all she said. Her eye was on the ledge to the side of the pass, where it ended abruptly over a monstrous crevice. She slowly began inching her way toward it, about to dart for it, when the most terrifying sound she had ever heard stopped her cold. There were two sounds but she heard them as one. There was the muffled sound of her baby crying, and there was the piercing sound of a howl, both coming from the same place, at the mouth of the cave. First she saw the horror-struck eyes of her captor then she turned and let out a scream of such intensity that the wolves inside the cave momentarily halted to look her way. Then they growled menacingly and returned to their work. She regained use of her limbs momentarily and began running toward the cave, but it was too late. The wolves had already taken her screeching baby and were dragging him deep into the cave, far past where it was light, back to where no one could see them. Soon the baby's screams stopped and only the faint slobbering sounds of eating could be heard, the gnawing, munching sounds of her baby being devoured by the wolves. Then that too stopped, and only the most awesome silence ever heard on earth was left, like the silence of quick sands when the gurgling has ended.
She looked down, and at her feet were the blankets which had wrapped about her baby, a few traces of his blood still fresh on them. She reached down and picked up the blankets and held them lovingly to her breast, bending down to lightly kiss the bloodstains. She stood there, in the mouth of the cave, some moments before turning to go. She clung to the blankets as tenaciously as to memories, all the while her baby's blood fading into a dim crust which soon would brush away with the slightest touch. She walked away, conscious only of two things: of her baby's blankets, and of the cadet standing still frozen in horror where she had left him. She had forgotten to pray.
When she got to where he was, she realized that it was only a matter of resuming her journey. He would remain where he was, perhaps forever, unless the wolves dragged him off too. She took his arm in hers and, headed still westward, led him away. He went willingly. It did not surprise her that he put up no resistance, only that he could move at all. She half believed she might have to carry him; she was grateful when he moved of his own volition. They had scarcely taken a hundred steps till they had reached the summit and now started down again, toward the other side. Suddenly he stopped. She too stopped, turned to look at him. He seemed to have regained some sense of awareness.
"I have sinned," he muttered. "I showed fear. I am no longer worthy. I am an outcast. I must die."
The girl shook her head and held him tighter. She shook her head no, she would not let him die. "You must come with me," she said. "You must be one of us now."
He began to nod yes, that was as it should be, as it must be now. "I am unworthy of my people," he said, still in a daze. "I will become one of your people now. I will learn to live as they live. I will learn to love them. I am unworthy of anything more." With this resolution he pulled away from her grasp, but only that he might undress. "I am no longer worthy," he muttered in agony as he removed first his hat, then gloves, then his shoes, then his trousers, then, finally and with the greatest anguish of all, his brilliant red cadet's jacket. He gathered them all up in his arms, holding them for an instant tightly to his breast, then walked over to the high ledge at the very summit of the pass and hurled his armful of clothes down into the endless crevice there in the thick black shadow of Mount Wilhelmina. He began to shiver, and would gladly have hurled himself too off the ledge were he not now unworthy of so noble a death, unworthy to lie forever in the folds of Wilhelmina's womb. He turned back from the ledge to rejoin the girl on their cold journey downward.
The girl turned her head so that he could not see the bitter tears of remorse she shed when she had taken the blankets from her breast to put them over his naked shoulders. The last of her baby rubbed off against his bare skin. Though it was growing gradually warmer as they slowly descended, he was growing increasingly colder, shivering with greater intensity every moment. A day or two passed like this until, finally, he could go no farther, his body becoming immobile with trembling, as if he were palsied. He stumbled several times but, with the girl's help, managed to get up, only to stumble all over again in a few feet. It became clear to both of them that this was as far as he could go, even with her help. She leaned him up against a boulder while she worked to dig out a hollow in the ground for him, which she then helped him lie down in, wrapping his shivering naked body in her baby's blankets, promising to return with help as quickly as she could. She left a little food beside him, next to his hand so that he could reach it. Then she bent over him and kissed his forehead and turned to go, looking back every few feet until she had passed the next bend and could no longer see him. A light snow was beginning to fall.
He began to weep, for her safety and, ironically, for his own. Through the small opening she had left in the blanket covering his head for him to breathe a few tiny beads of snow entered. Please, he prayed, don't let me die here, with your women looking down on me, dear God. I am unworthy. Let me live, so that I may go among her people to become one of them. No other shame befits my sin. I am no more worthy to be dead than to be among my own people. If I die, and am found, I will be thought a hero who died in pursuit of runaways. My body will be returned to the coast and laid in our sacred ground. I will be honored. Please, dear God, don't let this happen! I am unworthy. If it pleases you for me to die, then let the wolves devour me, or the Icemen carry me off; but please don't let my body be discovered. I was weak. I am unworthy. I was frightened by the wolves. But far worse - dear God, far far worse: I was paralyzed with anguish at seeing my baby dragged off to be eaten by the wolves! My heart froze for him. I didn't want him to die! Dear God forgive me! I felt love for him. For him, dear God: for one of them. I have made myself unworthy. Please let me live that I may be punished for this unforgivable sin against you and against my people. Please let me live! He looked up into the sky from the tiny slit in the blanket, and thought for just an instant he saw the face of God looking over top of Wilhelmina down on him, smiling. He shut his eyes in fright, then prayed for forgiveness when he realized what he had done. Even so, he did not open them again until, perhaps three days later, he heard footsteps approaching from around the bend where the girl had disappeared. He was almost entirely covered with snow, even the tiny slit had begun to crust over with ice. From the translucence he saw the girl there again, standing over him, with four men behind her, or what looked like four men. Then he felt the snow being brushed from his blankets, a very faint vibration of hands. Then he felt himself being raised up out of the hollow and borne on a stretcher, all the while being watched over by the implacable face of the girl, who in turn was being watched by the black shadows of God's women.
He felt nothing. He was brought from the mountains into the scorching hot desert village on the western side of the Clara Lux. He felt no heat. He was brought into a small house filled with a choking smoke. The surgeon's knife went quickly to work cutting away the frozen and gangrened parts of his body, his blood spurting everywhere. But he felt nothing. So much of him had to be cut away that he scarcely knew what was left. He could not feel, and lying without a pillow under his head he could not see, except for the spurts of blood and the black smoke arising from his wounded flesh being cauterized. He lost both arms, he lost both legs, he lost his manhood, all, in turn, to the surgeon's knife, that every chance might be taken to save his life, since all life was precious to these people and had to be saved, if it could, at whatever cost. Their surgeons were renowned for the ancient skills they possessed, skills handed down for generations, skills whose origin was a mystery.
His body was black and pungent where the wounds were cauterized. The last thing he saw was the girl once more standing over him, looking down at him. She reached her hand down to his body, he could not see where, then raised it up again. Between her fingers was a singed hair. She placed it gently onto a piece of cloth. She held it to her breast. Then she left.