Sallow

Humans are an endangered species in the frozen wastelands of Anien.

Rae Sallow is one such human. Torn from her family and enslaved by a Clan of Ice People, the humans' better-adapted cousins, each day is spent maintaining the Ice Peoples' roaming caravans and having her body-heat siphoned away by her masters' greedy hands to keep them alive in the freezing climate.

But her brother is out there somewhere. Freed from her slave life by the human raiders her brother had been travelling with before his violent disappearance, she and her new friends do everything in her power to find him, and soon discover that his capture at the hands of an unknown Clan is only a thread in a decades-old web designed to bring humanity to a withering end...

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1. Prologue

Humans are dead now.

      Well, not really. Not all of us. We still live. Us survivors, we who beat the odds, facing down a world that has tried in so many ways for so many thousands of years to be rid of us. Snows, to start with. Eternal and ever-present, swirling thickly in the fog that had been with us and around us and a part of us for as far back as any human still alive can remember. Wind, next. Shrieking and hissing as it catches at our overcoats, pulling our long yellow hair from plaits and tails, whipping our faces a permanent pained pink. But the last straw, the thing that very nearly got us for good – and looks like it still might – were the Ice People.

       If we thought there hadn’t been many of us left before, we’d been wrong. Dead wrong. The Ice People were out to make us that way.

       At first, the legends say, there hadn’t been much of a difference between us and them. Family members here and there who got colder than the others, and much faster. Nothing helped; coats and blankets hampered them, furs irritated them. Fire, possibly, but the only time they were ever satisfied was when they sat amongst the flames. It used to scare me that, according to Omma, my grandmother, some were desperate enough to do that. End their lives young, but warm. If they didn’t… well, they’d just die anyway of the cold from which there was no relief, all purple and shivering and frostbitten, their eyes as black as a charred lump of log.

       Omma used to tell me that you could always tell one of the Ice Ones, as they were first named by us humans, from their hands. Born with it, they were: tiny slits in their palms, surrounded by skin so black and shrivelled as to be dead.

       Nobody’s really sure when they first realised how to cure themselves of the terrible affliction with which they’d been cursed. Not even Omma, and she knew all the old stories. All we really know for sure is that over the course of months, whole human families were discovered by others half-buried in mounds of shifting snow. Mothers and fathers and children and even the dogs that pulled their sleds of meagre supplies were withered and twisted and frostbitten beyond belief, and the only people safe from the attack had been the sons or aunts or cousins who had been born with the black hand. They were nowhere to be seen. It did not take us long to deduce the answer.

     Our enemy was born, and of our own flesh. To this day, we burn with that knowledge.

      Our lives are spent in sparse family units, hunting and gathering in the mountains – the only place in all of the frozen wasteland of Anien that is somewhat hospitable to our basic human needs – and trading what we make or grow to survive. Of course, some humans endure in the Plains: vast stretches of rolling fields of snow that make up the bulk of Anien’s landmass. It’s the traders, people like my family with enough supplies and basic merchant smarts to nail together a rickety old trading wagon and get it filled with goods and food, who cater to them.

       Some people wondered why we did it. Sometimes, so did I.

       “Stay in the mountains, where it’s safe.” That’s their usual concerned argument. “Up North, perhaps. Why not trade with the Northsmen?” was another. But who are they to speak of safe? The Ice People thrive on the Plains, it’s true, where there are no gnarled old trees or steep inclines to hinder the movement of their enormous roaming Clans, but there was no life for us in ‘safety’. Supplies are not easy to come by when there are at least fifty other families all scrounging for the aforementioned safety in the same mountainous area as you, and as close-knit as we humans tend to be for survivals’ sake, the majority of us are not the best sharers. Our own children – and there are usually many – mean too much to us for that.

       So we traded. It was a risk either way, as Omma used to say with a light smile. Her green eyes, narrowed against the wind, used to crinkle in the corners when she smiled. That’s the part of her I remember best, those crinkles, shadowed in the flickering light of the campfire, and that thick yellow hair trailing in a plait over her muscular shoulders. I’ve thought of that plait often these past several years. The practicality it represented, the determination to survive no matter the cost. It’s what keeps me going during the hard days where my icy pink skin splits with the cold and exertion and my nights are filled with shivering and horrific visions I can never un-see.

     She hadn’t always been a trader, my Omma. My father, who must have been only nineteen when Omma, his mother, let the cold claim her, had been the one to set up that particular enterprise. When he decided that there simply wasn’t enough worth anymore in cutting down trees for other people to trade for wagons or sleds of their own, he spent the last swings of his rusted old axe on himself. The wagon he made out of those trunks lies shattered somewhere now, in a clearing in those ‘safe’ mountains I’ll probably never see again. And nor would I want to.

      Like I said, humans are dead. Or they might as well be. Mine are, the ones I cared most about, and they’re only five among hundreds. For you see, humans might have trouble but sharing their food, but Ice People have an even worse problem. They don’t know when to stop eating.

     We humans are going to be extinct before they finally figure it out.

 

 

 

 

 

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