I was told a legend years ago; it was an ancient story of powerful beings who ruled over this world with a strength and will that no mortal could contain. From the beginning of time, a great war began between these who ruled over all of us; all for the ground on which we walked, the air we breathed, and the water and food which nourished us. Some worshipped these beings as gods, while others cursed them as demons and warded their towns and villages against their entrance—all in vain, for the power of these beings was too great for simple trinkets to keep them away. I grew up in a community of mostly women, found as a young child and raised in the ways of the mountain people. As a young boy, surrounded by strong and independent women, I took to their beliefs quite quickly.
The belief of Caoilainn.
Considered the goddess of the mountain, queen of the icy northern lands, they praised her power and took her great storms as a blessing. They wore thick leathers and furs of slain animals, feasting on meat and fat to keep healthy in the dark, cold caves in which they called home. Even the largest fire would not remove the chill from the rock. Caoilainn’s power seeped deep into the ground, through the mountain and into the surrounding plains. For as far as the eye could see it was a world of white snow and deadly ice, keeping unwelcome visitors from approaching the mountain.
As a child I was told that this was Caoilainn’s mountain, where she resided for her entire life in this world, until her death and the passing of her soul onto the next goddess of the mountain. Apparently, she had been growing weak near the beginning of my life, her storms becoming less and her snow beginning to melt. The chill of winter did not seep into my bones as it should, as it had for the women who raised me. When they were young, they could not leave the fire-warmed caves because the winter cold would surely kill them.
Caoilainn was dying, the women told me.
Yet they rejoiced, for a new life was soon to take the place of the late queen of the mountain. A daughter was to be born of the icy womb within the ice and rock, and take the mantle left by her predecessor. The danger of this time was the weakened ice and defences around the mountain. One of the other beings was beginning to eat away at the frozen landscape surrounding the stronghold, melting the white snow and replacing it with green fields and towering trees. It would take time for the daughter to grow within the protective ice her mother had wrapped her in, growing from the tiniest speck into a woman of strength and beauty.
And it would be her destiny to reclaim the land of her mother and all of the mothers before her.
Quickly, I looked up from where my gaze had been resting on the dancing flames within the pit. The very center of the cavern was disrupted with the giant fire pit, used for heat as well as all the cooking.
Across from me sat Elder Malandra, the oldest of the Cailleach people. She gazed at me with eyes of someone who had lived a long life, wise and knowing. There was something about the way that Malandra looked at the people of the mountain that gave off the impression that she knew everything. It was as though she could read the thoughts of those around her.
Most of the villagers here she knew since birth, so I knew that it was simply knowing the people far more than they realize.
“Come here, Réamann, come sit with me,” she insisted calmly, her old age apparent in the soft, wistfulness of her voice.
I rose from my place and moved to sit where she had indicated, crossing my legs beneath me. The fire heated the leathers encasing my legs, but the chill of the air around us kept me from becoming overheated so close to the flames.
“What distracts your mind, Réamann?” Malandra asked without even turning her gaze to me. I could see from the corner of my eye that she kept her gaze forward, her eyes not entirely focusing on the flames.
I wonder if Malandra’s age was beginning to catch up with her. Were her eyes growing too old?
“I wonder when the new mountain queen will awake,” I answered easily, knowing that many others of the community wondered the same. We did not even know for certain if the present queen had passed yet, only that her power was growing weaker each passing day.
“The answer to that, my child, will come in time. Our new queen will come when she is ready, and not a moment sooner.” Finally, the elder looked away from the flames to turn her grey eyes upon mine. “What would you do, Réamann, for our queen? If the day may come within your lifetime that you meet the great being of winter, what will you do?”
Meet the queen? I could never even imagine meeting any of the powerful beings that walked among us, but the queen of this mountain? If I were to meet Caoilainn…I knew not what I would do in that instance.
“There is no wrong answer to what I ask,” Malandra assured after I took a moment to ponder, her weakening eyes swimming with mirth. “No one, to my knowledge at least, has ever met one of the queens. Or any other being out there. Terrible stories are concocted about them but I believe that they want nothing more than to live in peace, as we do. All they do seems to be wrong in the eyes of others. Caoilainn is hated and feared because of the deep winter she spreads around the mountain, killing away the greenery that so many mortals love.”
“But the mountain is alive,” I defended vehemently, angered at the thought of other mortals daring to slander the name of the queen. “Many manner of beasts roam the rock and ice, strong and-”
Malandra’s warm hand fell to rest atop my head, the soft, feather-light pressure bringing me to an immediate stop.
“I know, child, I know. But in some ways, they have reason to stand behind what they say. Not all mortals can survive as we do in the cold weather. Some live only on the warmer landmasses, where snow and ice never touch. These people live off of the land, the greenery, and that is why they are so angered by Caoilainn’s power, seeing it only as destruction and death. And there are other communities elsewhere that understand the importance of Caoilainn’s influence, the water produced by her melting ice bringing fresh water to the land around us.”
Admittedly, I did not consider the other communities of mortals out there, or the beings that ruled over them. Was that why Caoilainn perished, stronger than all of us yet still destined to die, because she was fighting against those who wished her gone? What would happen to the icy chasms of the home I knew if they succeeded? Would they grow green like the distant plains? Break away and decay without the protective layers of ice?
“Réamann…” Malandra began, her voice pondering, “have I ever told you the story of the southern mountain?”
Hearing the unfamiliar term, I blinked in surprise. “No, Elder Malandra. I was not aware there was a southern mountain.”
Returning her grey eyes to the flames before us, I sat patiently as I waited to see if she was going to continue.
“When I was a girl, younger than you are now, there was a terrible feud between Caoilainn and the ruler of the southern Mountain. This mountain was one of fire, too hot for mortals to live upon. It burned up all life and spewed fire from the opening that resided at the top. The ruler of this mountain was Fionntán. He was a being of overwhelming greed; he was not content with his mountain and so he sought out to claim other lands around him. He burned out the plains, the fields and forest, and tried to melt away the great walls of ice that surrounded this mountain. But Caoilainn stood firm, and fought against Fionntán’s burning might. She pieced his heart with ice and cast him into the great ocean, into the deepest chasm, before freezing it solid with ice.”
Without think on it, my hand instinctively went to my chest and fell to rest above my heart. “She killed him?”
“That is not known; perhaps she did, but there’s rulers are not stilled in the same way that we are. We mortals are killed so easily, our life is but a flicker in their eyes. Caoilainn knew this, that is why she cast him into the chasm and made sure that he would never rise again from within it.”
My throat felt tight as I looked to the fire before me, imaging the protective ice that I was so accustomed to being melted away by a fire much like this.
“The ice is melting away,” Malandra confirmed, her eyes saddening as her hands moved to fold politely in her lap. “We fear that Fionntán will rise again and seek vengeance on Caoilainn’s daughter, our new queen.”
In the beginning there was always darkness—it is all I can remember. Darkness and an encompassing lack of feeling that I could not shake. I know now, the darkness was not solely my environment, but my own body—I could not open my eyes. Just as the rest of my flesh, they too were frozen. My mind was the only thing that I could control, but even that was nothing but questions and wonderings; why could I not move? Why was it so cold? What purpose did I serve, stuck in one place with no hope of leaving? I wondered at the cold, hard shell that bound me, taking in the feel of it—it was all I could feel. It did not only surround me like a shell, it clamped over my body like a perfect mould—it was a mould, and I was the newest creation formed within it.
How long I was locked inside that dark mould, I do not know. But I remember very vividly the day that I first knew change—it was small at first, the tiniest pinprick of light that grew like a flame tossed amongst dry kindling; it penetrated the dark shell and my closed eyelids, appearing pink through my flesh. So small was this light, so fragile and new, such a delicate change.
Then, as abruptly as that tiny speck appeared, it grew.
The mould I lay within shattered, breaking away as the light exploded around my still body like a supernova. My sensitive eyes burned at the intensity, the muscles of my face reacting before my mind knew how, tensing and scrunching up to try and further protect my senses of these new sensations, assaulting and powerful.
Another change, this time against my flesh, was somewhat like a soft caress, but it had no body and no control of what or whom it touched. For the first time, I felt more than my cold, dark mould against my flesh. It was still cold, but it was soft and new. And with one tremendous inhale, my lungs welcomed it in—air, I was breathing, feeling and experiencing air, all for the first time. My bare body prickled against the change, my airways freezing and warming with each inhale. As my body took in more air, greedily eating away at this new nutrient, my body gave a sharp jerk of movement.
I could move.
Opening my eyes for the first time, the light tried to force them closed against but I refused. Because I could see.
The darkness was gone, replaced by blinding white and shimmering blues and sharp, clear crystal. I was on my back, staring upward at broken fragments, the blinding, beautiful light that touched my flesh having shattered through my shell and banished away every last shadow. I could see my breaths whispering before me, a white cloud dancing past my parted lips and dissipating before my eyes. Ice surrounding me on all sides, once so thick that it blocked out the entire world but now shattered and thin—I could feel small fragments littering my cheeks and eyelashes, melting as my body warmed beneath the overwhelming light.
I tried to move again, my legs giving a weak shift and my arms barely twitching from where they curled against my chest.
Suddenly, sounds echoed from somewhere beyond my broken shell of ice, reverberating off the crystalline water. I could do no more than blink, trying to fight against the urge to close my eyes for good—I did not want to return to the dark, so alone and weak. There was power with awakening, power with something more than just questions. Now I could move, I could breathe.
Now, I had something more.
The sounds drew closer, my legs giving another flinch as the muscles began to awaken in my limbs. Closer and louder, the sound seemed to shake my eardrums and I found myself twisting in the shell, mouth opened in a silent cry of discomfort as I curled onto my side, trying to hide away from the sounds—too loud, they were too loud!
All at once the sounds stopped and the light was blocked, lessening the force in which it beat down upon my body, but still causing the ice I could see to glitter and shine. Turning my head to gaze upward one more, I blinked at the shadowed form that shielded me from the light. I could discern no features from this sudden silhouette, but it was shadows—the shadows were back.
Straining, I tried to reach for the light, tried to grasp it past this sudden intrusion, but I could do no more than stretch my fingers out past my shoulder before my body seemed to sag back against the cold ice. I had spent so long sleeping, yet I could not find the strength to move again.
However, the shadow above me moved instead, reaching down with a large hand, wrapped in dark materials, to take my smaller, chilled one. The gentleness was a surprise, the size of the hand holding mind leaving me to expect harsh strength behind it. Instead, I was welcomed with warmth and soothing comfort, another hand coming to rest further up my arm to provide further support.
The deep baritone reached my unused ears suddenly, my arm almost jerking back at the unexpected sound.
“Welcome, my Caoilainn.”
Who? Who is Caoilainn? My eyes fell closed as I allowed his told to guide me up, removing me from the protective dome of ice. My legs refused to remain beneath my body, still too tired and new to keep support my body. The one holding me seemed to know this was to happen and was immediately slipping an arm beneath my legs to take my entire weight.
“All is well, Lady Caoilainn, I have you.”
No longer beneath this man’s shadow, the bright light assaulted my sensitive eyes once more. Instinctively, I ducked down so that my face was pressed into the soft material that covered the man’s shoulder, hiding myself in shadow once more. This light was too much, too hot and too powerful. A large hand came to rest at the back of my skull, keeping me buried in place as my body was slowly lowered to the cold surface that I had once been buried beneath.
The cool, slightly prickling surface was familiar and comforting against the blinding light.
The man’s hand remained at the back of my skull, soothingly stroking my hair down in a soothing manner. Yet it was too unfamiliar. I had never felt this before; I wasn’t sure how to take the contact. I wanted to move away, to push his arm from my person, but my limbs were still too weak from waking to do much of anything. Unfortunately, I was relying on this strange man to keep myself from falling.
“I know you are confused, my lady. In time, you will remember.”
Barely able to keep my head up, the attempt I made to shake it in denial was barely noticed. Had it not been for his hand on the back of my skull, the motion would have been overlooked.
“Shh, all will be well.”
Sitting on the ice as it was, the man was able to use his free hand to cover my eyes, blocking the blinding light from my unaccustomed eyes. As unfamiliar and terrifying as all of this was, the thoughtfulness of this stranger touched my heart. The thickness of the material over his hand blocked out all of the light that had once burned my eyes, lowering the stress that was causing my heart to speed up and my breathing to stutter.
“My name is Réamann, Lady Caoilainn. I swear my allegiance to you, and I will take care of you.”