Recipient's name: Scribe of Mirrormere
Title: New Year's Night
Request: An Avar navigates through darkness and bitter winter storms, among other dangers, to find and rescue their missing sibling.
Author's notes: Gratuitous worldbuilding and gratuitous Elvish abound. ;) I just couldn't resist, seeing this prompt. Linguistic notes and translations can be found at the end of the fic.
Beta: Many thanks to Suz and Sath for their help!
Summary: On the plains of Northern Rhûn in the early Years of the Sun, a young woman of the Kinn-lai goes on a perilous journey to rescue her missing sister.
The jaw of the hyena hung open; spittle and blood ran from between its fangs into the snow. Its eyes were only half-lidded, and Lomi-nai shrank back when a flicker of her fire mirrored in them over the night all around.
For good measure, she jerked on the dagger that still stuck in the beast's chest. The hyena, a tall, heavy, spotted beast with a crippled back paw gave no reaction, and she finally yanked the weapon free, hoping that it would stay in one piece, that it had neither broken nor chipped on the heavy bones of the rib-cage. Her preparations, stealthy as she'd had to be to make them, were done in over-haste, bringing nothing to fix her tools, and she could almost hear her mother chiding in worry: "Tilla-tilla-'in," as though she hadn't earned a woman's name three years ago, and her haste hadn't been merited.
Five days from home, and she still hadn't found her sister.
She wiped the dagger clean in the snow, leaving long, red smears, but found with relief that the flint was whole and unscathed, and smudged one of her fur-gloved hands over her eyes lest her tears froze on her cheeks in the wind-chill. She'd found it was cold enough for that, and then she had been three days south of her current camp - nor had there been a hyena stalking her, nor had the snow been up to her shoulders, too high for her to walk on without sinking, and making a solid wall around her sheltered campfire nook on the downwind side of some boulders.
Lomi-nai began to cry in earnest, pressing both gloves over her face even as she felt the cooling blood in her left fur-glove sticky against her cheek. It wasn't her own - she'd been alert when the creature sprang and her aim with the dagger had been miraculously true - but she'd still bloodied herself and would need to wash as soon as she found enough wood for a larger fire to make snowmelt, lest the creature's spirit took her as host in vengeance for the killing.
If that happened, Kíta-'in would hold out in vain forever. As it was now she had to, only a little longer, in spite of her uncertain girl-name. Lomi-nai wouldn't forgive her if she didn't, and no one would forgive Lomi-nai her running-away unless they both came home unscathed to prove that there was no dark upon them.
She swallowed hard, wiping at the snot running from her nose, and tried to clean her gloves in snow again while she composed herself - or tried to. Ká-nai's scorn would be the worst to bear, seeing her weep and weep when Lomi-nai were made outcast and nameless for her failure, for being - perhaps - crooked and wrong and terrible, for going too far north into the shadow of the Utubbu mountains perhaps a day's march to the north now, and risking her all. Though they had been ruined after the Balla-lai had made their war on the Rider, the deep places had roared to life again before the coming of the sun, belching out smoke and soot and shaking the earth, and with them the darkness and deep winters had come back out of legend.
It had left the Kinn-lain in dire straits. Their usual roaming grounds soon became too unsafe to hunt or gather, and the further they moved south in the plain, the more they encroached on the territories of other clans - they'd already lost several of their number to one Pâra, a Penni leader who styled herself Queen and was offering them a better lot if they settled with her and did their part in refreshing her people's blood - but not all among the Kinn-lai group were willing to give up their wanderings.
And then one dim day that threatened snow, Kíta-'in had gone for berries frozen on some winter bushes with other children who hadn't yet won their adult names, and they'd come running back without her like a nest of skittering mice all talking at once. Aí-'in, Ká-nai's sister, had been the one to draw breath enough to speak clearly first, and when her tale became clear, the truth had been as simple as it had been terrible.
There had been a group of Órok-lai wrapped in furs and leathers so thick they seemed animal pelts come back alive. They had taken Kíta-'in, who'd strayed furthest from her friends and had not been quick enough to run. What they would want with her, no one could say. She was too young, far younger than those who were ordinarily taken, at only six years to her name, and she shuddered to think of it, wishing again she could do more.
For Lomi-nai was neither a hunter nor a tracker; she was a carver of bone and ivory who made beads and rings and flutes, and had yet to begin learning to free figures and animal-crested atlatls from the material - Tana-nai, her teacher, still thought her too rash and impatient for finer work when one ill scour could undo it all, and especially so when her hands shook with hunger, and with worry for her sister over her parents' impossible, and impossibly long, un-moving, un-doing grief that her sister's child-name had come true in all its uncertainty. So she'd stolen out of camp, and gone after Kíta-'in in secret.
She took the bird-bone flute she had packed on a whim from her belt and twisted it between her fingers. Ká-nai had brought her the vulture-wing it was made of, and Lomi-nai had crafted it with especial care remembering the way their fingers had brushed when she had handed it over, and once she was done making it had even rubbed it down with fat until the instrument shone a beautiful, translucent yellow and made the most wonderful high-piping sounds. But that didn't change what she had been thinking - Ká-nai should be there with her, Ká-nai was a hunter and tracker, Ká-nai would not have lost the trail, Ká-nai would not sit snivelling and let her fire burn low in the cold hours before the scant dawn.
And Ká-nai would kiss her and comfort her. Lomi-nai felt tears start again when she remembered the warmth of her arms, the muscles under her skin shifting as they moved together, and the gleam of fire setting her beautiful skin golden and glowing.
She'd put all that into danger for her sister's sake. Laughing, curly-haired and not a little cloud-headed, Lomi-nai didn't want to bear the thought of never seeing Kíta-'in again, but sitting with a guttering fire that shone a lurid light onto the corpse of a hyena stiffening in the frost, hungry and cold to the marrow of her bones, she wished herself nowhere except into Ká-nai's arms.
But she could do nothing - couldn't grow feathers, couldn't grow wings, couldn't fly back. With the eyes of birds she might be quicker in her search, and might even pick up the trail again, if the snows of the past day that had come down heavy and thick had not wholly covered it. She'd hoped waiting a night might let the snow settle so that where Kíta-'in's captors had gone would become more obvious. If so - dawn might bring counsel, the slanting light would be serving her better in highlighting tracks than the glaring sun of midday when she'd need to limit her sight through a slit of wood or risk blinding herself in the white, white, white expanse of snow.
She kicked snow over the fire, and spread great armfuls over the dead hyena. It had been a cruel, unclean creature, slavering and terrifying with its high-pitched, whining, whooping laughter and teeth that would crush mammoth bones as easily as a dry stick. No other animal that she knew could do so, not even the great cats with their dagger-teeth, nor bears, nor wolves. It was best it were covered, so its spirit was at least a little at rest.
The blood! Lomi-nai pulled off her glove, finding with relief that it had not seeped through the fur and treated leather, her fingers at least were not stained. Instead she took snow in both hands, watched the edges crinkle and become translucent where it melted against her fingers, and rubbed it into her face until it fell down, stained pink from the blood on her cheeks. She repeated the measure a few times until she could be certain no trace remained, nothing for the spirit to sniff out and follow.
Such a small thing, and she already felt a little better. Rituals always did, although they would not help her find her sister.
Her face stung from the cold, and her eyes stung from the tears, but she was clean again, and she'd leave the ill place soon. She might even find something for sustenance, other than the lumps of salt, fat and berries that she carried in her pack and ate sparingly, just ever so much that she could keep going.
There still was time until dawn, and Lomi-nai decided to wait until the sun showed her face to go on. She took a nugget of food from her pack, stuffed the flute back into her belt, and clambered onto the snow-covered boulders, dragging her unused sleeping-furs with her to sit and eat. It gave her a better vantage-point, but as yet not even her night-sight could make out any clue to Kíta-'in's captors. Only where the solitary hyena had churned through the snow there was any disturbance of the white blanket all around. She melted a little snow in the palm of her hand, her fingers almost frozen stiff, and breathed on it for the morning blessing - remembering the lost Waters of Awakening - before dousing her eyes and mouth with her fingertips. The icy water revived her a little more. Breathing became easier.
The air still smelled like snow, although for the moment the clouds she could see through the smears of grey smoke emerging from clefts and crevices in the mountains were high and white like the tails of deer or hare, or the white-tufted sedge that flowered in spring. She hoped it would stay that way - to lose the trail even further in yet another shower of snow would bring her chance of finding her sister from nearly naught to naught at all.
Lomi-nai took out the flute and lifted the triangle of the mouth-piece to her lips, closed her eyes, and began to play. Her fingers ghosted over the bone, and she let the music pipe far out over the white waste. If her sister was near, she would hear her - if she was not, and all would stay silent, she had lost nothing, but gained at least a little solace for herself.
Then, faint and wan and out of breath, but swiftly coming nearer, her hymn to Il-tair of the Stars was taken up in words, in a voice she knew, and then there was Ká-nai jogging over the snow out of a fold in the land, fur-wrapped as a bear but unmistakeable, and with a pack on her back much larger than Lomi-nai's, vaulting over the boulders and nearly tripping over the woven snowshoes on her feet. She fell forward into Lomi-nai's arms, made breathless from march and song and joy.
* * *
Day was blessedly overcast, with none of the glare that Lomi-nai had feared. Ká-nai had brought her snowshoes as well - another item she'd left behind - and together, their hands twined, they marched on, testing the snow with their walking sticks for firmness and depth.
"The one good thing about these creatures," Ká-nai said with a sidelong look, for glad as she was to have found Lomi-nai, she'd admitted to be angry with her and her thoughtlessness, "is that they are not as nimble as we are. Had you not gone walking straight into the thickest of snow in your search for shelter, you'd have picked up their trail again soon enough - they're plowing through it, not walking atop it as we do."
"Perhaps. But where do you think they are going?" Lomi-nai glared at the trail of snowed-over passage leading in the direction of the setting sun, covered in a fine, grey sheet of acrid soot blowing from the mountains. It lay like a veil over Ká-nai's furs, and she suspected she looked no cleaner.
"West, it seems - there have been a great many movements into the west this winter, the Órok-lai and Panno-lai and Nukko-lai all, even some of the great herds. Perhaps it is less harsh there, or they have also had their calling." She spat. "But we will go no further than it takes to find Kíta-'in; the Balla-lai want nothing from us and we should want nothing from them, let them be remote, and subjects of our songs, and no more than that. Shining trees I'll believe when I see them; Ilí-nair was bewitched and stolen along with the other two as surely as the Rider stole and bewitched our people."
"And you'll never see those trees if you don't go west," Lomi-nai concluded. "But that is what I meant - I see that they are headed west; I do not see their purpose."
"If you think you can question them when we find them - do so. Perhaps they will let us sit around their fire and share their meat and broth with us, if they have any customs at all that aren't violence - they're Órok-lai!" Ká-nai ribbed gently, chuckling under a breath that misted out in a great cloud.
"That is not what I meant, and you know it. Are you not the least bit curious what happened to the ones who went away? Had I been born then I might have gone." Lomi-nai stretched and pulled her hand free of Ká-nai's, who frowned in response.
She shook her head. "I am not so unhappy with our life that I need to question what might be elsewhere. It is… enough for me to know that you are there when I return from hunting, and finding that you were gone only made me more convinced that I wanted none of the wider world, unless it were with you, and a reason to travel the westward road." Ká-nai gave a rueful smile. "And here we are, and we both know that there is no homeward road without Kíta'in."
"Let us move on," said Lomi-nai. "If that is how you feel, then there is more reason for haste alone than finding her."
* * *
By nightfall, with the moon rising fat and silver over what Ká-nai had said was the first night of the new year - already! in her marching Lomi-nai must have confused the days! - they were both exhausted. They found shelter nearer to the mountains under a deep overhang in a cliff that ran like a faultline through the landscape. Along its edge ran the trail - and what was more, they had found the remains of earlier fires there, and trampled snow, so much and so fresh that Kíta-'in's captors must have made their rest there no longer ago than the past night.
They were gaining on them.
But Ká-nai, who had made far more speed than Lomi-nai in following her, needed rest and slept like a rock, barely moving in her bedroll by the fire and her head pillowed on Lomi-nai's lap. The light playing on her placid face and over her aquiline nose in sharp contrast made her look so beautiful it made Lomi-nai breathless. She'd want to turn her into an ivory carving if she could, last the moment past the inevitable time of Ká-nai's waking. The ringlets of her dark hair fell from beneath her hood over her forehead, and her lips lay half-open. She tended to talk or murmur in dreams sometimes, and Lomi-nai felt herself smiling despite herself and the tiredness that was slowly creeping upon her from the exertions and the previous night spent waking, watching, fighting. She wondered what the Órok-lai would do when they caught them, whether either of them would live, whether Kíta-'in still lived. The hyena felt like a trial now, for whatever unknowns still lay ahead of her.
Her head dipped, and darkness crept into her vision despite her heart throbbing with a mingled excitement and fear, and the frantic pulse that came from keeping herself by force of will when she jerked upright again and scanned the landscape. They hadn't seen any animal tracks all day, aside from the scratch-marks of small birds on the snow where bushes or wind-bent trees stuck the highest of their branches through the snow-cover. There was no danger of predators, another creature like the hyena, which must have been desperate, wounded and outcast from its clan as it had been.
But wasn't there laughter on the wind? Or merely sharp whistling along edges of the rock?
Lomi-nai held still, held her head up, held her breath. She willed the wind to still, and in the silence of the sky taking a great breath to blow again, once more listened. It was said that in the new year's first night, the night of the first awakening of her people, strange things could happen - miracles, even, that were hard to dare hope for, yet were desperately wished-for all the same. It felt as though surviving the hyena, being found by Ká-nai, still living, had already drained her store of luck, but perhaps it was not yet wholly empty.
Beyond the crackle of the fire there was silence, and a star high and bright and cold in between the clouds. The night was colder yet than the one before, but with the fire burning high she barely felt the chill, unless it were through the rock wall at her back.
The wind whistled in from the west again, set the fire sputtering, the flames leaping, the heat dancing.
There was the laughter again, young and high-pitched and happy.
And not the wind.
Kíta-'in made that sound, and made it often, when she was being tickled, or teased, or she found something delightful - a bright, red-chested robin picking at crumbs by the camp, the last time Lomi-nai remembered, before she had been taken.
Her sister was near, and she was, by the sounds of it, safe, cared-for, treated with love. What, then, had happened to her?
Lomi-nai shifted carefully, little by little, until Ká-nai's head rested on her pack, not on her lap. Her warmth and her regular, gentle breathing Lomi-nai missed almost immediately, but her lover did not notice - muttering softly but not waking.
When Lomi-nai grasped her dagger from its sheath around the smooth bone handle - the first thing she had carved herself - that was the thing that gave her momentary pause. She was moving into uncertainty and leaving Ká-nai behind a second time, but Kíta-'in was her sister, her responsibility, her task to return, whatever it took. And in doing so, she would keep Ká-nai safe. It was only right to go alone. She half wished she'd left the blood on her face, a trace for the hyena's spirit to follow her - perhaps she could have convinced it to aid her? But no - she was on her own. Perhaps it was not necessary for the worst to happen.
Her lips set into a hard line, she moved past the fire and out into the freezing night. Stars slung their high circles above snow and dirt, and the wind blew harsh and cold into her face. Kíta-'in's laughter had stilled, but now that the fire's crackle no longer masked the softer sounds, she could hear other voices - a man's, several women in a sing-song not unlike the lilting mothers' tongue that her clan used to speak to small children. Her heartbeat picked up, moving further west along the cliff's foot until finally, not far from her own camp, but unseen behind a protruding tongue of rock that she moved around - the spill of firelight over snow.
The broad mouth of a cave opened before her, leaving her standing without cover and in plain sight. She could hear cries of astonishment, and almost rushed back when several tall figures came at her from around the fire, but then saw the truth of it in flashes of strangely pale skin on the bare, soft, weaponless hands of the women reaching for her, and flaxen hair blowing shining in the wind. Her sister hopped among them, bouncing for clumsy purchase atop the snow.
Not Órok-lai at all.
Mortals. Panno-lai had taken Kíta-'in, and done her no harm. Her dagger dropped from numb fingers into the snow. What if she had --
Before that thought had finished, she found herself being pulled into the cave, and pressed into a seat of furs. Someone pulled her gloves off, and a hollowed bone filled with warm liquid was pressed into her hands, her fingers were closed around it before she herself had time to make the movement, and then as sudden as they'd come, the Panno-lai retreated back into the cave, leaving only Kíta-'in with her.
She could hear them talk among themselves. "Nimîr," they said, again, pointing at her and again between strings of words that Lomi-nai could not understand. They seemed - delighted, almost, and strangely shy, but her attempt to reason out what was happening was futile when her sister clambered onto her lap and leaned her head against her shoulder, her little arms went around her, and she nestled close with a soft noise.
At last she simply leaned her cheek against the top of her little sister's head, the tickling curls, the soft hair, and pressed a kiss to her forehead. After a while of sitting so, Kíta-'in began to talk in her high, babbling-brook voice. Lomi-nai found it hard to listen at first, overwhelmed by the feeling of her sister safe in her arms, but at last her voice became clearer, surer, happier.
"... and then they said that we are blessed and wise and I brought them luck and kept them safe from dangers, and they called me Izindî because I should keep them on the straight way, and that they were going to follow the sun into the west to the great water where no shadow is and if I came with them then I could know where the Ádil-lai went as a reward."
She fairly glowed with pride, grinning up at Lomi-nai. "And I missed you sometimes and became sad, but they were nice to me, and they had summer honeycombs they let me eat. They won't do us harm!"
Lomi-nai found herself caught in between laughter and tears when she realized how close she had come to losing her sister, if not to death then to distance. Both rose and rose and rose in her throat until a noise came out that was the croaking of a frog more than any speech. Kíta-'in nudged the cup of broth toward her lips with some concern.
Lomi-nai drank, and once she trusted her voice again, asked, "And do you want to go with them and fulfil their superstition? For then I will fetch Ká-nai and we will go with you - or you can come with me to her, and we three will go home together. I am not leaving you, and she is not leaving me, so your choice is all our choice. And it is the new year - what you choose may prove well for all of us, for finding you is nothing short of a marvel and why would there be no more of it? Perhaps even they may benefit."
Kíta-'in considered, earnestly and in silence, and at last squirmed from her sister's lap to walk to the people in the back of the cave, speaking to them in a quickness that left Lomi-nai astonished at her aptitude for language.
"With them!" she declared at last. "They're desperate to leave, and ask that we guide them until they are safe, past these mountains. And then we'll go back home!"
Some linguistic notes:
Even though a one-word corpus of the Kinn-lai language is not very extensive and I realize that attempts to build on that have to be rudimentary, it was fun to try and replicate the sound-changes from the Primitive Elvish (PE) kwendî, apply to them to other words and work out similar developments into what I hope works for the suspension of disbelief on a linguistic level and a somewhat unique feel to the language. If you'd like details beyond the list below, feel free to ask. :)
Kíta-'in maybe/perhaps from Quenya quíta yielding PE *kwîta, and PE -wen, maiden, girl - referencing uncertainty that she'll live past childhood, something like a prophetic name
Lomi-nai night-woman, from a PE stem *LUM, darkness, gloom, also night by association with the stem *DOM, and PE nî, woman, with the same intensive a-infix that is found in -lai
Ká-nai dove-woman, reduced from PE kukûwâ, dove
Aí-'in bird-girl from PE aiwê, small bird
Tana-nai crafty woman, derived from PE tanô, craftsman
Il-tair Star-Queen from PE êl star and târi queen with intensive i-infix derived from the PE y/i infix (it's not an a-infix, but I really just wanted a consistent pattern of diphthongs in the adult female suffixes, and it follows a similar purpose of "elaboration", as Tolkien calls it).
Ilí-nair Star-Person, a Kinn-lai form of Elwë, the suffix is derived from PE nêr, man.
Balla-lai, Órok-lai, Panno-lai and Nukko-lai Valar, Orcs, After-Born (Mortal Men) and Dwarves derived from their respective PE stems/words.
Ádil-lai Away-Goers, from PE awa-delô, the Elves who departed from Cuiviénen.
tilla-tilla-'in hasty-hasty-girl, from a PE stem *TYEL
Nimîr, Izindî Since the Men that Kíta-'in and Lomi-nai met are (proto)-Hadorians whose language Taliska will eventually yield Númenorean about 500 years on, I appropriated some of the vocabulary. Nimîr are the Beautiful Ones (Elves), and Izindî means Straight with a female suffix -î, in reference to the straight path Kíta-'in is supposed to show them.