The world began a long time before we did. It was born before life itself. In essence, this world was the first life that was. It came before the sun, before the heavens were set, before gods, and trees, beasts and men. Why are we surprised then, to learn that they were men, of a kind, here before us?
They were like us, but so unlike us. We were tall, they were squat. We lived in the warm places, they in the cold. We knew war, they knew not. Yet none knew how to live on the edge of the walls of ice as they did.
We met them when the world began to change. The moist grasslands of our home had begun to dry. It was slow at first, then ever more rapid. The beasts all changed their movements, trekking instinctively to where food could still be found and we too had to move, or perish in the drought.
That was when we first knew war. As the desert expanded, food and water became scarce and men would fight to the death to claim those necessities of life for themselves and their families. No longer could we afford kindness to strangers.
Many of us were raised with war. It decided rights, claimed slaves who became mothers, provided food and water. Only the largest and the strongest survived, and so, almost magically, it seemed, children grew taller and taller, and bigger and bigger. Over the generations, war became a part of us, so ingrained that, it seemed, we were prepared for battle the moment we left our mother’s wombs in a squalling ball of rage.
They were not like that, the ice-dwellers. They had learned a different lesson from the scarcity of food. They had learned to aid one another, shelter each other, feed others. They understood as we did not yet that their survival depended on kindnesses extended beyond just the family unit, but out to all the families. Once every three years, they would all gather at the great boulder that had been thrown by a mountain that spat fire and ice together. They gathered and they feasted and sang. They exchanged stories and knowledge and reports and daughters. They were woefully unprepared for our arrival.
Constant war forced some families further and further away from our homeland. They would flee in all directions to escape, while the victors stole away their water, their wives and their land. The few that managed to escape would settle and survive until the next family encroached and another battle would be fought. The victor would take and the defeated would flee.
Thus, in ever increasing numbers, we found ourselves travelling north in search of unoccupied lands in which to settle. We were sorely disappointed then, when we came across them. At first the sightings were almost mythic – a shadow in the snow, a mysteriously butchered kill. The first meeting did not go well.
They, long used to helping strangers find food, opened their arms to us, only to be slashed through the heart. At first, they simply fled before us. Later, they began to resist us and in terrible slaughter they were cut down.
Our family was small – a father and his two daughters. They had fled the fighting in the south and were chased again from their homes in the north. Unable to climb the great wall of ice, they walked along its edge. Westward they walked, cold and hungry until at last their legs gave way and they fell.
They did not die there, that family. They were saved by a brave woman – one of the others. Her long wiry hair had once been red, but was now almost the same colour as the ice beneath the three bodies she found. Though she had never seen our kind before, she had heard the stories. She knew we were born murderers and yet, looking in the pale faces of the children, she felt her heart stir and was moved. She carried all three back to her clan, to a fire and warmth, and back to life.
I imagine that there must have been a great argument, for who would willing house the kind that hunted and killed them? But the old woman was adamant. She nursed the man and his two daughters back to health, and saw in the man’s eyes fear when he looked upon her, but the children were different.
She taught them then. She taught them about the northern skies and the fire in the night sky. She taught them about the gods and who they were, and how they came to be, and what they did. She showed them how they buried their dead, and then venerated them every year at a special festival.
There were two gods, she taught. One was a man, who was also a stag. He had as messengers serpents with the heads of goats. He lived in the spirit world, for the most part, and would seldom come into the world of the living. He cared for the animals of the wild, and all the wild places were his domain. He was king in the land of the dead, and ruled over the spirits there. He was the spirit that guided the hunter, or punished him, if he hunted foolishly or needlessly. They gave him no name, but a title – The Lord of the Wild.
She taught about the Bride of Fire, whose power was dedicated to the hearth and to the health of the people. She took special care of mothers and infants, and inspired songs and dance.
Together, these were the two gods, and each had a host of servants, ancestors of the families who had worshipped them.
Three sisters served both gods together. In the guise of crows they came to take the spirits of the departed to the land of the dead. In the guise of three women, they tended to the family. In time, when the others were long dead and forgotten, their roles would be confused and they became separate sets of sisters for each function.
The father learnt to trust these strange people of the ice, and they taught him the paths of the beasts, and which ones to hunt and why. They taught him which herbs were for eating, and which were for healing, and which would kill and mustn’t be touched. The children learnt women’s work, how to weaves baskets of the touch summer grass that grew in lavender and sage across the rocky ground when the sun returned. They learnt how to recognise the signs left by others, telling them where the herds were, where water was, and any other useful piece of news.
For many years they lived with the ice-dwellers and it was their presence that saved that clan of ice-dwellers from the encroaching families of the east. It soon came to be that those families that travelled west found a place amongst the ice-dwellers, and accompanied them to their gatherings, performed their rites, and walked their treks following the great beasts of the ice-fields.
Those of us that could not make peace with the ice-dwellers were left to fend for themselves, and died slow deaths from hunger and pain.
Generations on, the weather began to warm, and the ice receded inch by blissful inch. Rains returned to the homeland and some of us travelled south again. The retreating ice created the vast Sierran Tundra that now sits in the north. Yet, for the wet and the increase in food that we all reaped, the ice-dwellers began to dwindle, their numbers cut by raiding parties from the east, and by a series of unfortunate deaths and disasters.
The last of the ice-dwellers was a woman and she lived in the far north with a clan known as the Ice Bear Clan. She was very wise, and very, very old. In a feverish dream that would be her last she said aloud, ‘We are gone now, gone to be with our ancestors. The world, She has called us home at last, and we leave this place now to you, young ones. Take care of it, and love it as we did. Do not forget all we have taught you.’
Then she died.
She was mourned greatly as she was buried, and each one of us, man and woman and child vowed to continue to live as we had been taught for so long.
For a time, some of us forgot our vows, and began to build and make war on one another. The Tundra was not to be tamed and a woman, in the guise of the Great Tundra Wolf came down from the ice and tore down the follies of our ancestors. None know who the woman was, where she came from or where she went after. Some say it was the spirit of an ancestor, enraged by what she saw. Others claimed it was the land itself, claiming back what was rightfully Hers.
The survivors of the destruction fled south, beyond the lands of the Tundra and continued to build. Those that remained retook their vows, the vows sworn to the last of the Old Ones. We hold that vow still, and every three years we gather at the place where the boulder was, and we feast and exchange stories, and news, and daughters, just as they did.
But nothing can stay the same forever. A change is coming. Dry winds whip in from the east and they bring with them the scent of fear, and more and more at the gatherings we hear tales of a strange people who come in and hunt us as if we were animals.
We are now the ice-dwellers, and we are now as they once were – hunted and scared and confused. These easterners are not like us, not willing to learn as we did, and it seems, that we must do what the Old Ones never did. We must change, or like them, we shall perish.