Our Lady of the Snows

Simon Whitechapel


En ce moment, je ne sais encore si c'est une réalité ou une illusion, je crus voir y glisser sur la terrasse une forme svelte et blanche qui étincela une seconde et s'éteignit.

     Théophile Gautier, «La Morte Amoureuse» (1836).

At that instant, I know not yet whether it was reality or illusion, I seemed to see glide across the terrace a slender white form that gleamed a moment and was gone.

     Théophile Gautier, "Clarimonde".

It was the naham' lueb, the sweating season, the very height of summer, during which the city of Harvar was baked in the oven of the sun for a month or more, and the procuress Nghan-Haëk was passing through the maze of ukfuruub, or alleys, abutting the merchants' quarter, when, to her great surprise, her face was brushed by a moment's coolth, as unexpected as a caress to an exoculated heresiarch stretched upon the rack. A moment later she heard the soft closing of a door, as though the coolth had wafted from some secluded garden of tinkling fountains and carp-cruised pools, and she paused, trying to judge whence the sound had come. But the echoing stone of the alleys, more than blood-warm to the fingertips, confused her ear and she shook her head and was about to continue on her way when the coolth came again, brushing her face like the teasing fingers of a naiad, and again came the soft closing of the door.

This time she thought she caught the direction of the sound; and she turned aside to indulge her ever-famished curiosity, having time to spare before inspecting the stock of a newly arrived slave-dealer. She had taken no more than three paces before the coolth brushed her face for a third time and her sharp ear, sieving the air, brought her the whisper of unknown words in some secluded corner ahead of her. And was the very air not losing its heat a little as she advanced? Aye, 'twas so, and here was the mouth of a kfuur where the air was cooler yet. She passed within, turning her body to advance between its less-than-shoulder-width walls. But as she did so an arm brushed one wall and she grunted with surprise. To confirm what she had felt through the cloth of her robe, she laid a palm to the wall.

Aye, the stone was cool to the touch, cooler even than the air, and as she advanced down the kfuur stone and air grew cooler yet, till when she reached the kfuur 's extreme limit she had come almost to shivering, a rare condition even at the height of the city's brief winter. In the dim light she came nigh to rapping her nose on the metal door that awaited her, but the chill radiating from it warned her a moment short of collision and she stopped short.

"What is this?" she said to herself, and the dim air paled momentarily before her face, as though, mirabile dictu, her very breath condensed before her. Out she put a hand, and snatched it back the moment after, for the metal she touched seemed to sear her fingertips with cold.

"'Tis a door, thou lummock," she apostrophized herself, putting the hand out again and finding the metal suddenly less cold.

"Aye, a door."

She could not read the meaning of the incused script thereon, however, nor even understand the basis of its glyphs, for the ramified six-pointed star conveyed nothing to her, child of a desert clime. Yet her curiosity swole thereat, shaping her hand to a fist wherewith she rapped on a panel of the door. She sensed another, higher panel swing back and felt an iced breeze pass through, chilling her face a moment before it whispered away down the kfuur behind her. Through the whisper a low, melodious female voice, striking her ear like the tinkling of a myriad tiny silver bells, spoke her into a tongue she entirely misknew, though her trade had brought her expertise in a dozen tongues and acquaintance with thrice as many more. As she hesitated in unfamiliar confusion, the voice tinkled laughter and spoke again in the language of Harvar.

"Dost seek Our Lady?"

Recovered, she threw out a ready reply.

"Aye, I come in search of our lady."

"Then enter, seeker."

The panel clicked shut and a moment later the door swung open for her, though no iced breeze blew this time and the darkened room into which she walked was not markedly cooler than the air of the kfuur outside. A slim female figure glimmered white in the gloom beside the door, and swung it shut with that soft concussion when she had passed.

"Thou seek'st Her?" came the low, tinkling voice, and the procuress nodded.

"I seek her."

"Then I shall convey thee thither."

And a cool hand slipped over her wrist, tugging her forward. Nghan-Haëk bit back the cry of insight that sprang to her lips and meekly allowed herself to be guided deeper into whatever house of mysteries she had entered. She understood now: this was a nest of that near mythic tribe of the tsukomel, a black-skinned nomad folk whose women were famed among sensuates and procuresses for the permanent coolth of their skin, yet whose menfolk were too doughty in battle for representatives of the stock to enter the catalogue of a slave-dealer more than once or twice in a lustrum. Nghan-Haëk herself had been outbid on her one previous attempt to purchase a girl of the race, who instantly assured a temporary doubling of profit for her successful rival, the procuress Gšonn-Pšucs. But the girl died of exhaustion and nostalgia in less than a month, to the Gšonn-Pšucs' great chagrin and Nghan-Haëk's even greater satisfaction.

Since then the procuress had explored every avenue of further supply, only to return empty-handed from each. But here, it seemed, she had stumbled across some shrine of the tsukomel maintained in Harvar itself, for light was waxing to meet her as the white-clad girl led her forward and they were stooping and stepping to pass a circular portal beyond which lay, yes, a circular shrine to some goddess of the tsukomel. Yet was this place maintained by that race? Shrine it certainly was, for genuflecting worshipers rocked over low-droned devotions before a thrice-life-size central statue of its dedicated deity, but the statue was carved in ice-white marble and its features, though difficult to trace, so pure and unblemished was the stone, were not at all those of any black-skinned race with which the procuress was acquainted.

Nay, 'twas no nest of the tsukomel, for now she glanced down and saw that the cool fingers loosely clasping her wrist were snow-skinned, and looked up to see that the white face turning to her beneath a priestess's cowl was too delicate and fine-nosed to admit even a tincture of black blood. And was that a stray wisp of blonde hair on the smooth purity of the shaven brows? She murmured in apology, for the priestess had spoken to her and she had not caught the words. The pale lips smiled a moment and the priestess repeated her words.

"Thou hast come."

"Aye, I have come."

"And may'st worship Her, an it please thee."

"It pleaseth me."

Another smile touched the lips, like a flash of sunlight on ice, the procuress thought, though how the simile had occurred to her she knew not.

"Then I leave thee to worship."

The cool fingers tightened for a moment on her wrist, then fell away, and Nghan-Haëk turned to watch the priestess glide back whence the two of them had come, stooping and stepping to pass the circular portal, returning, she guessed, to await another rap on the door of the kfuur. Aye, she heard a rap sound faintly thence and saw the priestess's glide quicken, prompting a greater swing of the nates, as the girl hastened to meet the new enquiry. The procuress licked her lips as she watched the white robe dwindle into shadow, her mind already pregnant with a scheme of kidnap. What a prize for her lupanar! A cool-skinned ice-maid of the north, and likely virgo intacta too, if she remembered aright of the cultic rules of septentrional sects.

As the glimmer of the robes faded from sight, carrying with it the enticing swing of the nates, she turned back to the shrine and the central statue, sharp eyes flickering left and right as she advanced to pay her counterfeit devotions. Were the worshipers of the north too? No, for skins and faces seemed all those of Harvar or the desert-folk who traded with her. She quickly absorbed details of the worship, then knelt to begin her counterfeit of it, choosing a spot wherefrom, by glancing sideways, she could watch the entrance to the shrine. Aye, and here came the priestess again, leading some new devotee, a male this time, and one Nghan-Haëk recognized with interest as one of her customers. But his mind seemed set far from concupiscence today, for he barely spared the priestess's youthful beauty a glance during the question-and-response and went to his knees for worship immediately as she left him, with no glance for her gliding departure, eloquent though it was of full-flowered feminine grace.

Infected herself with a little of the enthusiasm with which he gazed on the goddess's statue, Nghan-Haëk turned her gaze thither and noted details she had overlooked before. The crown on the statue's head was silver, she now saw, its tines bearing ramified six-pointed stars that glittered frostily in the clear-burning lamps set in cupolas around the shrine's single curving wall. Oh, and a silver star, greater twin to the crown-stars and dependant from a silver chain of what seemed hexagonal links, glittered between the goddess's shapely breasts, like wind-sculpted mounds of snow. And what was the silver instrument the goddess lifted in her right hand, in minatory contradiction of the blessing she seemed to gesture with her left? Ah, 'twas a tiikum, a flail, of unfamiliar design and its strands, she saw without surprise, bore the six-pointed stars too.

Her eyes came back to the cold perfection of the goddess's face, easier to read now that one of the lamps was flickering and shadows darted to and fro on its polished planes and curves. The features struck her with uncanny déjà vu, and she had to grope in her memory before she realized the face mirrored that of the priestess at the door. Had the girl been selected for her likeness to the statue, or had the statue been sculpted in the likeness of the door-priestess? As though in answer to the question, a door previously unnoted by her swung open in the shrine's wall and a second white-robed priestess glode through it, bearing a flask of pale oil for the flickering lamp. She passed but an arm's-stretch from the kneeling procuress, who glanced covertly up to see that she was the twin of the door-priestess, and so the twin of the goddess before whom she knelt.

She stayed a further hour, leaving shortly after her customer departed, lest she exceed some standard length of devotion and arouse suspicion among the priestesses, of whom she had seen three more during her stay, gliding to and fro to tend the lamps of the shrine or light incense at the request of some new-arrived votary. The face of one of these priestesses she had been unable to see, but the faces of the further two were easily stored in her memory, for they too mirrored those of the door-priestess, the first lamp-attendrix, and the goddess-statue. The procuress's scheme of kidnap was blazing higher and hotter than ever on this rich-burning fuel, for from what she had seen she believed she could whistle up sufficient bravos to take the place easily by storm and capture every last priestess within it. Then how the jaded sensuates would flock to her stable! With such fillies for hire while the sweating season lasted she could charge two gold karsuub a gallop, and not have to lower her prices much thereafter, if it all.

Even if, like the true black-skinned tsukomel, the girls pined and exhausted easily, well, forewarned was forearmed and if their venereal sessions were rationed she might be able to raise her prices higher still. Aye, perhaps even auction filly-time to saddle-masters. Her mind, as she retraced her route to the outer door, crackled and glowed with the heat of her ambitions and hopes, but she kept her voice suitably low and pious as she responded to the murmurs of farewell from the door-priestess who glimmered in the gloomy vestibule.

"Hast worshiped?"

"Aye, I have worshiped."

"And 'tis well?"

"Aye, 'tis well."

"Then 'twill be well."

"'Twill be."

Aye, very well, very well indeed, thou toothsome morsel, she thought as the girl nodded and swung the door open for her. She passed through and back onto the flags of the alley-maze.

"Goddess with thee," came the final murmur, but her responding "And with thee" was truncated by the soft concussion of the closing door. She smiled and hurried to her interrupted business with the slave-dealer, already composing the flowery excuse whereby she would excuse herself to him for her belated viewing of his stock. But she cut short the excuse when she saw the line of girls being shoved into place for her inspection by the dealer's minions. These she had been eager to inspect for a week, in expectation of at least three purchases? Nay, with the pale beauty of northern tsukomel glowing softly in recent memory, these scrawny and dusky-visaged desert maids seemed unworthy of her time or the opening of her purse, and she had to force herself to praise and buy even one. But the raid on the shrine and kidnap of its attendrices were not yet consummated, and she knew she would be foolish to forfeit the dealer's future goodwill even if her hopes were fulfilled to the limit.

Nevertheless, when she had the purchase home she vented her true feelings with a brisk stripping and slippering, and packed the girl off sniveling to begin her venerean apprenticeship without the customary week of instruction given even to her harlots of the lowest grade. "'Tis sometimes best to break them in fast," she exculpated herself to her mirror as she arrayed and perfumed herself for the evening traffic, when she would personally greet and advise her most important customers. But she knew she had acted unprofessionally, out of thoughtless malice, and made a point of enquiring after the girl before the evening was out.

The report, fortunately, was that she had taken to her work like a kigvuu, or swallowing-snake, to a nest of eggs, and Nghan-Haëk dismissed her from her thoughts for good. When the middle sessions of the evening were under way, she sent word that she wished to speak to the senior of the temporarily idle door-guards; and when that worthy came she told him she was planning to hire another kidnap squad and wished him to recruit for her.

"But 'twill need more men, and more skilled, than usual, for we must raid a shrine and I know not how many priestesses dwell within its walls, of women I wish to enclose all in our net."

The guard's eyes flickered at that and she remembered with irritation the superstitious nature of his trade.

"Nay, 'tis no shrine of the city," she said soothingly, "but some northern sect staffed by pale-skinned sluts for whom I have taken a fancy. Akin to thine own fancy, if I remember aright?"

The guard nodded with a smile, and she smiled in return.

"Then thou shalt have first pick when the kidnap is done, and assist in breaking them all to the saddle, bridle, and, aye, the whip. Very well?"

Well-pleased and suppressing a grin at the prospect, the guard promised to recruit with a will, and as he departed Nghan-Haëk slipped him an ivory ticket for one of the chained rooms, which he might visit when his shift was over. Nor did his word prove hollow: within a fortnight a large and skilled kidnap-squad was ready and Nghan-Haëk needed only to complete her espionage of the shrine, which she conducted through off-duty pimps and apprentice procuresses. The reports confirmed, though did little to extend, her own observations and at the end of the month she gave the order for the raid to be launched. But such was her interest in its success that she accompanied her hirelings, anxious that they should neither mishandle nor overlook a single of the shrine's priestesses.

So it was that, an hour after midnight, she stood but a few paces behind the sledge-bearers as they battered the outer door of the shrine down in five lusty strokes; and ran after them as they and their fellow bravos swarmed within. Soft female cries of alarm sounded ahead of her, and she smiled behind the veil she wore against recognition. Were the snow-birds already in her net? But it seemed not: her bravos were still in pursuit, not yet in possession, and she was running after them down the dim corridor that led to the statued shrine. As she stooped and stepped to pass through the circular portal, cries sounded ahead of her, and yet these were in no soft female tones, but in harsh masculine, and conveyed not alarm but horror. Now she was through now and looked up to see whence and why the cries had come. But what was this? What was this? Her bowels twisted and shriveled within her, for a nightmare scene met her disbelieving gaze: her bravos were milling about the circular chamber in uttermost panic, for the statue at its center had taken life and was pursuing them with both flail and fury. Even as she watched the flail whisked back and descended atop the hiring guard of her lupanar, who had accompanied the raid too, and at the sequela the procuress added her cry of horror to the hubbub.

For the flail crushed no flesh and shattered no bone, but lifted to leave its victim stark and frozen stiff in the very act of flight. Now the statue, lithe as one of the priestesses it twinned, spun and aimed the flail at another bravo, but the procuress was already spinning on her own heel to dive back through the portal and escape, and saw no further supernatural horror. But as she fled up the corridor for her own safety, a white shape glimmered ahead of her and she realized that a priestess was fleeing ahead of her, seemingly unaware of the salvefactory strokes being dealt by the animated statue of the central shrine. And there, look, the slut was passing through the shattered outer door and fleeing down the kfuur. By now Nghan-Haëk, hardened by the decades of her trade, was already half-recovered from her horror.

Thus it was that a new thought had taken hold of her. The raid was failed, but might there not be some salvage from its wreck? If she herself could capture this fleeing priestess, she would risk that the goddess's wrath might extend beyond the precincts of the shrine. But the girl was light-footed and fleet, and Nghan-Haëk's heart hammered in her bosom as she toiled on the pursuit along the kfuur and across the square whereon the merchants' stalls were tied and covered till sales began again at dawn. Yet the white glimmer of the priestess's robes drew her on, tantalizing her with the prospect that the girl would tire and become easy prey. So on Nghan-Haëk ran, over the merchants' square and down through the streets leading to the western gate. Harvar was strangely deserted, even for that late hour of night, and the gate was open and unwarded. She saw the girl glimmer between its posts a moment, and set her teeth grimly against the stitch lancinating her ribs.

The girl would tire, she must, having led no active life in that ice-goddess's shrine, but a routine of lamp-attendance and incense-lighting which was no preparation for continued flight over the stony flags of the desert road. And even less so for flight over the irregular scoria of the desert itself - which was where the procuress, once through the gate herself, saw that the girl had turned. White glimmered on the dark face of the desert beneath the harsh glitter of the stars, and Nghan-Haëk set off in pursuit. The girl would tire and fall easy prey. She must. But oh, what slippering awaited the slut, when once Nghan-Haëk had her safe back in the lupanar. The procuress even found a little breath to chuckle at the thought of it, then grunted with satisfaction, for was not the glimmer nearer than before?

Aye, she thought so, and it was not till she was far out on the desert, straining her eyes futilely for another glimmer of the girl's robes, that she realized the cunning by which she had been lured on to her doom. And with the realization the doom was upon her: through the heat of her exercise she felt the chill that rolled over the desert; and as she lifted eyes to the dimming stars her sweating face stang with a hundred needles of fragile ice and her ears caught around her a myriad pitter of ice-crystals, whose fall thickened even as she watched in the fading starlight.

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