The Ice Tree

 In Short Fiction, Stories

Mirella stamped her boot on the lizard’s head, surveying the gathered crowd. The majestic wafting spell she had placed on her cloak that morning was still working; it furled and stirred even though there were no wind to catch the fabric. She ground her heel against the lizard’s skull to further impress the villagers who squinted up at her.

“No longer will these beasts molest your livestock!” Mirella shouted.

The crowd’s cheer dissolved into a confused burble.

Mirella cleared her throat and considered how to rephrase. “It’s time to take back this village from the tyranny of the lizards.”

The cheer was heartier this time. The Mayor climbed the platform stairs, tripping over the massive lizard’s tail that stretched across the wooden stage. Mirella stepped forward, raising a hand to indicate she wasn’t finished yet.

“I left the comforts of the city to aid you, good people, in your time of need. I promise I will not cease until every lizard in this valley is dead.”

The Mayor shook Mirella’s hand as the crowd applauded. Under her breath, the Mayor said, “You don’t need to kill all of them, you know.”

Mirella stopped mid-handshake and glared at the Mayor. She thinks I can’t do it. The Mayor’s hair was pulled back in a tight bun, strands of white threaded between the brown. She looked a bit like Mirella’s older sister, back in the city, who had spent her life telling Mirella she wasn’t quite good enough, smart enough, strong enough. This lizard-slaying business was supposed to be Mirella’s chance to achieve the admiration that had always been so undeservingly heaped upon her sister. She dropped the Mayor’s hand.

“Make no mistake.” Mirella projected her voice for the crowd. “I will destroy all of these lizards. As holder of an Izka stone, my promises are bound to Izka herself and cannot be broken.”

She retrieved the small stone from her pouch and held it up to the light. It sparkled, refracting sunlight in its milky prism.

“It’s just,” the Mayor said, voice still low, “it’s probably best for the ecology if you leave a couple of lizards. They do eat rats and insects too, you see.”

Mirella stepped forward, Izka stone still held high. “I will rid this valley of monsters, and everyone between here and the cliffs will know me as Mirella, the Lizard-Slayer.”

“Yes, well, we’ll talk about this later,” the Mayor said.

#

Over the next several days, Mirella did slay the lizards, though not in the same way she had hunted and slaughtered the first one. She took a square of the lizard’s skin, enchanted it to attract other lizards, then set a perimeter spell that struck them unconscious when crossed. Easy spells. Something the villagers could have done for themselves if they had an Izka stone. Meanwhile, she lazed in a comfortable rock alcove out of sight of the village.

Every evening, Mirella returned to the village and declared how many she had killed—she, the Lizard-Slayer, holder of the Izka stone—and the villagers rewarded her with so much food and drink that she always woke up hungover and bloated. Whenever the Mayor approached, Mirella launched into a detailed account of her latest battle with the vicious monsters.

The Izka stone accessed the magic that Izka the Infinite had provided this world upon its creation. One still had to learn the various eye movements, hand gestures, or incantations to cast spells, but the stone activated them. Like its namesake, the stone’s power was infinite, not meaning that it could do anything, but that it never needed to be recharged like the crystals affiliated with the lesser gods.

Although spell-casting was a rare skill these days, there was nothing special about Mirella’s proclaimed title of “holder of an Izka stone.” The original Izka stones were massive, and had been split and scattered throughout the land. Mirella had discovered hers in the decorations on the wardrobe in her childhood bedroom when an unlikely coincidence of gestures had accidentally created a spell that transformed her bed into a rosebush, thorns and all. She’d pried the stone out of the wardrobe and messed around with it on her own for a while, but after she’d turned her sister’s hair to wax—a fine improvement, Mirella thought, but not what she had been going for—she took a two-week class with some old hag in an upstairs apartment to learn how to properly use it.

Most people considered it impolite to use magic for everyday tasks. Nor were there many opportunities for heroism in the city, especially for a young woman who lived in the shadow of a sister who seemed to be perfect without magic. So, following a particularly nasty incident in which she had tried to extract a cat from a tree, only to enchant the tree so the cat was flung across the rooftops, never to be seen again, Mirella left the city to seek her fortune somewhere her talents would be appreciated.

Near sunset on her fourth day of lizard-slaying, Mirella surveyed the carnage. The lizard skin she’d enchanted had lost its glow, which meant all the lizards were dead. Mirella stabbed a few lizard corpses in celebration, stopping only when the green blood sprayed on her boots.

A rat sniffed experimentally at one of the lizards.

“You’re finally free of their tyranny, little one,” Mirella said. “You’re welcome.”

The rat regarded her with a quiver of whiskers, then scampered back into the desert. Mirella tried to pry a tooth from the lizard’s mouth to take as a trophy, but couldn’t work any of them free, so she cut off its whole head instead. Green blood trailed her the entire way back to the village.

They declared a victory feast. Even the Mayor apologized, saying maybe she’d been wrong about the whole ecology thing. Mirella gave a speech about perseverance and bravery and the legacy of Izka the Infinite and the worlds that came before. Young boys carried out trays of food.

Mirella took a drink from a stein but spit it out in a messy spray. “Ugh,” she moaned. “What is this?”

One of the boys knelt beside her. “It’s water, madam.”

“You need better water,” she said. “Bring me a beer.”

“I’m sorry, but our stock of spirits is depleted.”

She shoved the stein at the boy, sloshing water onto his ragged clothes.

“Take this away. I’ll do without.”

The boy carried the stein away. Mirella took a large bite of her steak.

From halfway down the long table, a man leaned forward. “It’s those bastards at the cliffs, won’t let us have better water.”

Others around the table nodded or muttered in agreement.

“Oh?” Mirella chewed. “How so?”

“The Ice Tree,” he said. “It holds all the water back, walled up inside the cliff under their control.”

Mirella sliced another piece of steak. “How’s that now?”

The man tilted his head at her. “The Ice Tree was one of Izka’s last spells. I thought you of all people would know the story. ‘Holder of the Izka stone’ and all.”

Mirella narrowed her eyes. “Of course I do.” She vaguely remembered a story about a tree of ice with some animal frozen inside of it, but she was fuzzy on the details. “I just want to see how well you remember it.”

The man considered her skeptically. Mirella chewed defiantly, trying to sit tall and regal. Finally he shrugged and offered the story.

His version wandered and looped back on itself, but the gist was that Izka had chosen the cliff dwellers as her favored people. Izka created the Ice Tree at the base of the cliff  to hold in all the water that used to flow into the desert in myriad streams and rivers. Inside the Ice Tree, Izka placed a wild-eyed bear to scare people away from trying to melt it. As the man spoke, Mirella recalled the story. It had been the subject of a puppet show she had seen as a child. The cliffs were so far away from the city that it hadn’t meant much to her, though cliff traders were common in the city market, often peddling odd fruits and little carvings of bears.

Mirella lifted her fork, since she had no cup to toast with, and smiled at the man as he finished his story. “Perhaps Izka’s preferences will one day change,” she said. “I’ll put in a good word for your village.”

#

The next morning, something scampered over Mirella’s body. She flailed out of bed, her foot landing squarely on the back of a squealing rat. Several others swarmed around the floor, digging through her travel bags, knocking over the ink vial on her desk, popping their heads out of toiletries with a sudden puff.

Mirella grabbed her cloak and tried to herd them outside, but the majestic wafting spell was still active. Each time she flapped at the rodents, the fabric only curled up and over them with a pleasant swish. She abandoned the cloak and chased the rats with her boots instead. They hissed and crawled over each other.

“Nasty bastards,” she muttered, once she had chased them into the dusty street. Then she looked up and let out a strangled wheeze.

The village was covered in rats. They knocked over garbage bins, carried off whole sacks of grain, drove the goats onto roofs, spooked the horses into panicked runs.

The Mayor would be coming for her. That thing about upsetting the ecology had been right.

She dressed quickly, then burst out the door, clutching her Izka stone. She sent a blast of blue light down the street. Rats flew into the air from the explosion, but so did a couple of villagers who happened to be in the way. The rats landed, stunned. The villagers cursed her, rubbing sore necks and elbows.

“New plan,” Mirella muttered, but she could think of nothing.

A rat gnawed on the toe of her boot; she kicked and it tumbled away.

The Mayor arrived then, followed by three shepherds and a whole pack of dogs. The dogs swept down the street in a clean line, driving the wave of rats out into the desert. Mirella raced behind the shepherds, and at the edge of the village, the Mayor turned to her.

“Can you keep them out?”

“What? Oh, yes, a protection spell.”

She grabbed one of the fleeing rats, pinched the stone and summoned a general protection spell around the perimeter of the village. The rat struggled in her hand while she made the gesture to initiate the spell. When she tossed the squeaking creature back to the ground, it landed, rolled to its feet, and charged back toward the village. The rat came to an abrupt stop as the spell activated, exactly like thumping against a glass wall.

Mirella pocketed her stone and brushed her hands together. “That worked out,” she said.

The Mayor gave a look of disgust, which Mirella chose to ignore, still gazing out at the desert with hands on her hips.

#

Mirella realized her welcome in the village was wearing thin, but she laid low in her room at the inn for a few days, waiting for the rat incident to blow over. Finally she emerged, pack slung over her shoulder. She strode onto the platform and interrupted the Mayor’s address to the villagers about rat trap updates.

“Your Mayor,” Mirella told the surprised audience, “is a good woman. She cares about this village, I can tell. But she thinks small, worries about the little problems. I can see the big picture. I know what this village needs.”

The Mayor was practically seething, but Mirella pressed on.

“I will go to the cliffs and free the waters. Izka has visited me in a vision and declared that the cliff dwellers have fallen from her favor. When I melt the Ice Tree you, my dear villagers, shall reap the benefits. Your dry riverbanks will flow again. Your dependence on cliff trade ends now!”

The villagers screamed with applause. Mirella held her head high and jumped off the platform to start her journey to the cliffs.

She had seen no vision from Izka, who had been absent from the world for some time. But if Izka’s magic had bound the waters, then Izka’s magic could free them. If it would benefit the desert village, others would probably benefit too. Mirella thought of the superlatives she might acquire: Mirella, Freer of the Waters, Mother of Rivers, the Liquid Liberator. Perhaps they’d name a lake after her.

It was a three-day trek to the cliffs. She searched her unorganized notebook to find a spell that might destroy the Ice Tree. She tested a possible one on an unsuspecting cactus and it burst into flame.

On the third day, the cliffs appeared on the horizon, rising higher with her every step. A thousand irregular splotches spread over its rock face where people had carved out homes and shops. Closer, she could see a myriad of ropes and pulleys strung between these windows. The road from the desert village intersected several roads from other cities and villages. The cliff people controlled all trade between those who lived on the large mesa above the cliff and those who lived in the lowlands.

Mirella jumped onto a load of sheep’s wool as the ropes lifted it off the ground, flicking a coin to the man who labored over the pulley to staunch his protest. She rode the wool halfway up the cliff, then ducked into one of the windows at random, finding herself in a tavern. Though it had been a bright and cloudless day outside, light hardly squeezed through the stone window. Candles dripped in the center of the small tables.

Mirella dropped from the window ledge and ordered a stein of the most expensive ale. The tavern patrons were mostly men, gruff and bearded, as well as, a few older women dressed in baggy pants, with hair cut short or braided tight. Mirella took a gulp of her ale and leaned against the bar. No use in being subtle.

“Who can tell me where to find the Ice Tree?”

Conversation ceased and everyone in the tavern turned to stare at her. She did love a rapt audience.

“What do you want with the Ice Tree?” asked a man with a puff of black hair at the other end of the bar.

“Nothing much.” Mirella shrugged, took another swig of her ale. “I’m a traveler, seeing all the great wonders of the land.”

“The Ice Tree is no mere tourist attraction. There was once a hole in the center of the world that threatened to pull us all in. But Izka took pity and infused the hole with never-melting ice. She placed the great bear-goddess inside to watch over us.”

Simultaneously, everyone in the bar raised one hand into a claw shape and mumbled thanks to the bear goddess.

“I see,” Mirella said.

That was certainly a different version than they told in the lowlands. Of course the cliff dwellers would think they were the center of the world. When the Ice Tree melted, the bear corpse would wash away and leave them realizing how lost they had always been.

No one would tell her anything more, so Mirella rented a room. After another day of poking around, she discovered a great mural with a map of the whole cliff. She jabbed her finger at the Ice Tree, leaving a smudge. “There you are.”

At the cliff’s base, she walked confidently, each boot print a step toward victory. She pulled her hood up against the sun’s wrath and drained her flask of its last bit of fresh water to clear the dust from her throat. There would be plenty of water soon.

She wondered briefly if the dry riverbeds and culverts of the desert would be able to handle so much water and had a sudden vision of the desert village flooded and muddy. Like when she had rotted all the cabbages in the school garden. She pushed the image away. Too late to worry about all that.

The Ice Tree came into view.

It was smaller than she had imagined. The trunk stood twice as tall as she. Its ice branches snaked through the stone, tapering into fine twigs. The bear filled most of the trunk, claws extended, lips curled up over glistening teeth. It stared out at the world through frozen eyes.

Mirella deployed a temporary blinding spell at the first guard she encountered. He screamed and clawed at his face. It would wear off in an hour or so.

Another guard fired an arrow but Mirella dodged it. She sent forth the blinding spell again, but the guard waved it away with a gesture. Mirella smiled.

“So the cliff people have retained some of Izka’s magic after all.”

The guard loaded another arrow and aimed it at Mirella’s heart.

“I am Jetha, order of the Tree Guard. What is your business here?”

“The water must flow,” Mirella said. Lightning crackled at her fingertips.

Jetha deflected the lightning bolt with her shield, but the force still knocked her backward. The shield glowed red and she tossed it away with a hiss. Mirella sent a second bolt over the guard’s head, hitting one of the upper branches. The ice whistled as a fissure opened across the front of the tree.

Jetha rushed forward, shoulder colliding with Mirella’s sternum. The two of them tumbled down the rocky switchback path. Cactus spines stabbed Mirella’s arms; rocks bludgeoned her bones. Mirella’s cloak slapped against her face. Jetha grabbed it and tried to tie it around Mirella’s neck. Mirella struggled free and stomped on Jetha’s hand to release her grip. Jetha rolled a few more rotations and Mirella leapt to her feet. Her hair had pulled free and it snarled wildly across her face.

Jetha spat dust. “If the tree is destroyed,” she yelled, “the cliff will collapse.”

Mirella placed a boot roughly on Jetha’s chest, standing over her. “Then watch it crumble.” She sent another arc of light toward the Ice Tree.

Jetha kicked, striking the back of Mirella’s thigh. She buckled enough for Jetha to roll out from under her boot. Mirella steadied herself and conjured the stunning spell she had tried on the rats. Blue light struck Jetha square in the back.

The Tree Guard spun from the force, hit a rock and lay still. The ice cracked, and then Mirella heard something unexpected: a terrifying, bone-shattering roar. She turned to see the bear snapping away the shards of ice.

“That can’t be good.” She raced back to where the ropes hung against the cliff face and climbed, leaping between the platforms to get as high as she could.

Behind her, the bear roared again. People screamed. The rope went suddenly slack, and she swooped into one of the cave openings before the platform tumbled to the ground. She caught her balance on the ledge, then turned to look.

The bear seemed much larger than it had inside the Ice Tree. Some protector-goddess. Some scarecrow. This thing was a monster. Not the I’ll-eat-your-sheep-and-cats kind of monster like the lizards had been. A real monster. The bear cut people down with an easy swipe of a giant paw, caught up with them in a couple of bounding pounces.

Mirella recalled a deadly spell she had studied but never used. She aimed at the bear. Blackness arced out of her fingertips like obsidian flashing in the sunlight. The spell hit the bear’s side and rolled off its pelt like water. It stopped and turned its gaze directly at her. Then it started to climb.

Mirella grabbed another rope and climbed too, though she didn’t know where she was going. She swung onto a small ledge and huddled back under an outcropping, clutching her Izka stone to her chest.

This was the worst. This was worse than the rats, worse than when she’d toppled all those fruit and vegetable tables in the market, worse than when she’d managed to smash every window in her uncle’s house, worse than when she tried to make that boy fly and he landed in the river and nearly drowned. The bear clawed its way up the cliff.

She scudded her boot heels against the stone shelf, trying to push herself deeper into the cliff’s outcropping, but there was nowhere left to go. The bear was close enough she could hear it breathing. She gripped her sword with both hands.

Claws the size of meat hooks curled over the ledge. Mirella froze, heart racing. Even if she’d known an appropriate spell, she couldn’t have concentrated long enough to cast it. The bear’s gruesome face appeared, teeth dripping with blood. It glared at her with death in its eyes, then lunged. Mirella flung her cloak over herself, the only flimsy protection she could manage.

Only, she wasn’t devoured. And the snarling suddenly changed pitch, sounded higher, farther away. Slowly she lowered her cloak and peeked out. She had to blink a few times to believe what she saw.

A tall woman stood on the ledge. Her gown glittered with the same opalescent sheen as Mirella’s magic stone. Red curls tumbled past generous breasts. Pinched between two fingers, she held the bear, now about the size of a hamster. It kicked and snarled uselessly against her grip. Mirella dropped her cloak.

“Izka!” She laughed. A real vision, the creator goddess here in the flesh. “You stopped it, you stopped the bear!”

Izka the Infinite frowned at the struggling creature. “It’s temporary. That’s the problem with the old beasts: they develop immunities. You’ve broken my ice curse, so I can’t trap her that way again. She’ll regain her size soon and keep growing with every life she devours.”

“Oh,” Mirella said. “Can’t you just kill it while it’s small?”

Izka dangled the flailing bear out to her. “Go on, try. Slice her in half with your sword. Smash her head with a rock. She won’t die.”

Mirella flinched away from the struggling rat-sized bear. “What can you do, then?”

“For now…” Izka hurled the shrunken bear way out into the desert, farther than any mortal could have thrown.

“It will come back, won’t it?”

“Yes,” Izka said. “More wicked and dangerous than ever.”

“This is my fault.”

Izka turned to face her again. “Yes, it is.”

Mirella crossed her arms. “It’s not entirely my fault. Where have you been for the past thousand years?”

Izka nodded. “You’re right. People forgot the old stories, and I never came back to remind them.” She gazed out at the horizon, her gown sparkling like sunlight on a quiet lake. The screams from below shifted to lamenting wails as the cliff dwellers dealt with their dead. “If I could do it over again, I’d have frozen the bear deep underground, and buried the whole mess. It was ego on my part, putting her in so conspicuous a place, trying to make art out of danger.”

“It was a pretty tree,” Mirella said.

“You—” Izka pointed at her. “—will use your singular talent to deploy the only solution I’ve got left.”

Mirella shifted onto one knee and bowed her head, sword tip grinding against the cliff.

“Whatever I can do, Infinite One.”

“Do you know what your singular talent is, Mirella?”

Mirella looked up uncertainly. It felt wrong to brag or boast in her usual manner in front of Izka herself.

“Um,” Mirella said. “No?”

“You’re damn good at destroying things.”

Mirella gave an embarrassed smile.

Izka pointed out into the desert. “I can’t control that beast any longer. It was a mistake to ever bring her to this world. She will terrorize and consume everything I have created. The only choices I have left are to sit by and watch it happen, or wipe the slate clean and start over.”

“You want me to destroy the world?”

Izka conjured a jagged bit of blue wood and held it out to Mirella. “So I can rebuild it. You’ll need a shard from the Ice Tree too, around the same size. Strike them together as though starting a fire, within a hand-width of your magic stone. It is crucial you do this before the bear returns, or you may not have another chance.”

“Why can’t you do it?”

“I’m a creator,” Izka said. “I cannot destroy.”

Mirella took the blue wood. It was light, almost insubstantial.

“And if I don’t?”

“The bear will terrorize and eventually destroy everyone and everything, until she grows so large that she damages the world beyond rebuilding. Then, she will head back to the stars and destroy other worlds.”

“Oh. Is that all?”

Izka faded to translucence and then vanished into the sky behind her as though she were never there.

#

Despite Izka’s warning, Mirella waited until the next day before returning to the Ice Tree. The cliff people were healing, cleaning up after the massacre. Mirella walked among them, feeling guilty about everything. There had been many worlds before this one; it was always assumed there would be many more after it. But that was supposed to be on an epic timescale. Not… tomorrow. The cliffs were quiet aside from the creaks of the pulley system, and the sloshes of water as people washed away the blood. Mirella could almost believe the danger was gone, that her vision of Izka had been only a panicked hallucination.

Then a page came running in from the desert to report that the bear had laid waste to several desert villages and was heading back toward the cliffs. People rushed to the platforms to be lifted to the top. Mirella rode an empty one to the base and made her way to the Ice Tree.

What had been the trunk was now just a chasm in the cliff. Ice shards littered the ground. A few of the branches survived, reaching out into the cracks and crevices. The Tree Guard’s bow lay haphazardly against a jumble of rocks. Paw prints pocked the dirt: the bear’s first steps back into the world.

Mirella climbed toward one of the high branches, clinging to uneven handholds along the cliff face. She pried a jagged shard from one of the branches, so cold it was difficult to hold onto as she climbed down.

In the distance, the bear’s roar rippled across the desert. It was almost time. She could have done the task right then and there, but it didn’t seem appropriate.

She rode one of the platforms to the top of the cliff, clinging to the rope, her toes hovering off the sides because it was so loaded with people and their travel bags. At the top, they all headed across the mesa, but Mirella walked along the uneven edge of the cliff, looking out over the world she was about to destroy. Somewhere beyond the horizon was the city where her sister lived, and her parents, her uncles. Izka was right about her “talent.” If a page were to run through the city declaring the end of the world was imminent, none of her family would be surprised to learn Mirella was the one behind it.

Below, the monstrous bear lumbered toward the cliff. It was huge now, bigger than any animal Mirella had ever seen.

She knelt, then placed the Izka stone on the ground and readied the two pieces. Here it was, the last piece of magic she would ever perform. The last action she would ever take, until she was reborn in the new world, with no memory of who she’d been or what she’d done.

She paused. No one would remember her as the Liquid Liberator, or the Lizard-Slayer. Mirella, World Destroyer: that was the only epithet she deserved.

The bear galloped, moments away from sinking its teeth into the remaining cliff dwellers. Mirella looked to the sky.

“Izka!” she shouted.

No goddess appeared.

“Izka!” she shouted again, her voice breaking in a scream like she hadn’t used since her tantrum-filled childhood.

Izka materialized on the cliff’s edge. “You are running out of time.”

“I know,” Mirella said. “I’ll do this, but I have one condition.”

“What is that?”

“When you remake the world, will you tell them about this one?”

“Of course,” Izka said. “As I always have.”

“Then here’s my condition.” She stood, brushed the dirt off her knees and tried to look dignified and heroic. “When you tell them about me, tell them… tell them I was a hero, not that I was the clumsy idiot I am.”

Izka looked on her with pity. She reached out and squeezed Mirella’s arm in a motherly gesture.

“When I spin the tale, I will place Mirella, the Warrior Maiden, the Lizard-Slayer, in a favorable light.”

“Can I get a statue?”

“Don’t push it.”

Screams erupted from below. Izka let go of Mirella’s arm.

“It is time,” she said. “Do it before anyone else has to suffer.”

Mirella nodded. Izka faded away.

She knelt before the Izka stone. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, to her far-off family, to the world.

Mirella struck the ice shard against the blue wood. She closed her eyes and the world melted, bubbling and heaving itself into cliffs and mountains, deserts and rivers.

New eyes opened on a fresh-formed world. The people of the valley looked up at their opalescent creator, standing at the base of a great tree of ice.

“Welcome,” Izka told them. “Let me tell you the story of how you came to be.”

 

 

Sarena Ulibarri is a graduate of the Clarion Fantasy and Science Fiction Writers’ Workshop at UCSD, and earned an MFA from the University of Colorado, Boulder. Her fiction has appeared in Lightspeed, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, Weirdbook, and elsewhere. She is Editor-in-Chief of World Weaver Press, and edited the anthology Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Summers. Find more at www.sarenaulibarri.com or find her on Twitter @sarenaulibarri.

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