Light of the North, Or the Three Impossible Tasks of Te̮la
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There are thousands upon thousands of stories about Te̮la the huntress, for every slave of Daevon when they tell them tells them anew, and that number is always increasing.

Here is only one, that tells of only one of her exploits, and how she tricked her pótnya and thus saved her life and her reputation besides.

Once, in the ancient days, Te̮la emerged from the forest and came again to the city in the south. Now it was the middle of the summer, when the nights are short and blue and all the birds and insects are in full flight, and Te̮la had had much success in her hunting as the furred animals small and great emerge to chase them and to eat the fresh shoots according to their type. So, even though her desire was ever towards the northward hills and the vast forests that covered them, her heart was high as she walked, for she enjoyed the season of summer and she expected that her pótnyā would be pleased with the furs she was bringing back.

Thus laden, she passed through the gates of the city, and came to the estates of her pótnyā, and there she delivered much of her bounty to those in charge of keeping her pótnyā’s wealth, and she entered the palace to present herself again. And at the bidding of the guards she was brought before the pótnyā where she sat on her throne.

There Te̮la bowed low, rough and placeless in that great hall filled with fine silks and gold ornaments and floored with marble, and abased herself before her pótnyā. “O my pót’yā,” she began, “kindest of mistresses, whose beauty is above every gem of the earth. I come to tell you that I have returned with fine furs for your pleasure, and these I have left with your storekeepers so that you may see my word is true. But for you especially, and in gratitude for your keeping, I would present to you the red auroch, that you may see and may know how fine the gifts of the wood are.” And she removed this fur, which she had kept apart, and presented it to her pótnyā.

Her pótnyā was pleased, and said, “You have done well in my sight today. To my storekeeper I will go later, and retrieve the rest of what you bring me.”

And Te̮la rose, and turned to go. But she heard behind her her pótnyā order “Stay,” and so she froze there, all her pride draining away in expectation of the demand.

And her pótnyā said idly, “I have heard,” and she drummed her nails on the arm of her chair, and the sound of them was like the clatter of bones, “that in the forest to the north there dwells a deer, mightiest of all the creatures of the wood. It is said that it stands over man-height at the shoulder, and has a coat of burnished-wood colour. It is spoken among the hunters of both high and lowly status, who say that it can run fleeter than any arrow, and evades all their traps, and so they claim that such a deer cannot be caught by the hand of any man. But for you, my best trapper, I know such a thing would be no hardship. So for my next task I set you to capture this deer, and you will bring it back to me, to be kept captive with my herds, for I would possess such a creature. And you shall do it before the next moon has waned.”

And Te̮la left in despair, for even could she find a single deer among the whole forest, if the hunters’ stories were true how could she capture such a creature? And behind her her pótnyā laughed to herself, for she knew Te̮la would never find what she had been sent out to seek, and thereby she would break the pride of her slave.

Taking up again her bow and spear, Te̮la went out from the palace and out onto the grounds about it, and there she sought her brother, Sükni. Unlike her he did not leave the city and travel through the hills and mountains, for his skill lay in the gardening and the tending of crops rather than in the trapping of prey. And she found him in the orchards of the estate, trimming the coppice orchard for kindling and for withes for craft. “Brother!” she called out, running between the trees to greet him, and at the sound of her voice he laid down his billhook and turned towards her.

“Te̮la!” he responded, and drew her into an embrace. “You have come back!”

“I have,” she agreed.

“And you are well?” Sükni asked, stepping back and taking her face between his palms.

“Yes,” she answered, “but I fear not for long. For the pót’yā has demanded of me to go north again and hunt the greatest deer, the one in all the hunters’ stories, the one glimpsed but never seen fully, the one pursued but never caught, and she has commanded it be done before the next moon. And I do not believe I shall be able to do such a thing, and even if I do I would regret it the rest of my life, for such a creature as the deer of stories deserves never to be laid in any bond. Yet if I fail surely she will kill me.”

“Do not be so afraid, sister,” said Sükni. “Walk with me.” And so throughout the rest of the day they took counsel together, as Sükni continued with his work of trimming the coppices and binding the withes so that they could be laid upon the ass he led as a beast of burden and brought to the stoves and craftsmen that would have the use of them. And at the end of the day Te̮la took her leave and returned north to the woods, to begin her hunt.

There she set her traps, and her deadfalls all in a wide circle, and she baited them with salt and with bone ash. Then she took her bow and spear and settled herself down far from the circle of traps, and she waited. Through one day and a second she made her camp there and waited, and was passed by the red and roe and reindeer all, but none matched the description in the stories, and she did not attempt to capture any. But Te̮la was a patient hunter, and so she was content to simply wait there.

Eventually, however, she saw the faintest movement in the woods, and heard the slightest brush of undergrowth, and hardly breathing she stilled further, and watched what stepped then into the clearing before her.

Its coat was the colour of burnished pine-heartwood, and beneath the scarless fur it walked with a smoothness like frogs swimming through oil. Its antlers were the shape of a man’s outstretched hands and yet stretched wider than Te̮la’s entire span, and a single gleaming black hoof would have taken both her hands to hold. There could be no uncertainty: this was the deer of the hunters’ stories, and the one that always got away.

And Te̮la knew the tongues of all the birds that fly through the air and the animals that run upon the mould, and so she made no attempt for her bow or her spear; “Elder brother,” she greeted it, fairly as any.

Younger sister, she was answered. What are you waiting for here, far from your traps? It came forward, for there was salt still upon her hands and upon her clothing, and delicately licked it off.

Te̮la sighed. “My dearest brother,” she said, “I would rather not be here at all but in the companionship of my other family, but my pót’yā has given me an order for your capture. This I am not willing to do, because I refuse to bring any others into captivity along with myself,” and here she showed her collar, “but if I do not return with you bound surely she will slay me or set me to torment forever.”

Fear not, younger sister, it told her. I see your will in this is not your own, and it is as wrong that you be slain for my freedom as I be captured for your life. Since you have not touched your bow or spear, I will come with you to the south, to prove your worth to your mistress.

So for the look of the thing Te̮la wove a halter out of beaten nettle stalks, and the great deer suffered her to place it about its neck, and it followed her south as would any domestic reindeer. Indeed, so that they would make better time and Te̮la could be more speedily returned to Sükni’s company it even suffered her to ride upon its back as upon a horse, and this way they returned through the woods to meet the road built that led back to the city.

Well before the gate she dismounted from its back, for to ride upon any beast of burden would have been a great affront in the sight of the pótnyāt and freeborn of the city, and she led the deer to her pótnyā’s palace again to show it before her. “Here is the quarry that you desired,” she said, “and I have captured it and brought it to you just as you asked.” And Te̮la knelt, as it was demanded all slaves do before their pótnyāt, and she folded her hands in the gesture of submission, as was again demanded of all slaves. And thereby she released the halter that she held.

It was well that Te̮la had knelt then, for the instant that her hand left the rope the great deer wheeled, its hooves flashing through the air just above her head as it kicked out at the pótnyā and all her servants and guards, and these fell to the ground to avoid the blow. Swifter than any other of the creatures on the earth it fled from there, hooves thudding against the ground like the march of a host of men, and disappeared into the woods, and though the guards chased it in accordance with the stories they could not catch it.

And all the servants and attendants were in disarray, and her pótnyā was angered much at the escape of the deer, yet at the last she had to admit that Te̮la had done as she asked, for her orders had been but to capture the creature and bring it before her, and no mention had been made of holding it after. So Te̮la was begrudgingly spared her life for the moment, yet her pótnyā sought another excuse to have her slain for failure, and so she said, “I have a second task for you, trapper, and if your skills availed you to catch the deer of the hunters’ stories this second one should be no great thing. The forest in which you hunt is fruitful, and it provides you with much prey to bring back to me. I would have you carry back your forest from the north mountains, that I may keep it as a part of my estate and that the bounty therein may be mine. And you must bring it back to me within the bag that I shall give you.” And she produced for Te̮la a skin bag, scarcely more than a span in both length and width, and she said, “Surely you shall find this task easy to fulfill - trees, after all, cannot flee.”

And in despair Te̮la took the bag and departed, for without all the power of men and horses at her side how could she hope to uproot even the smallest of spruces, and even could she remove a tree alive how could she hope to fit it in the skin, and there were many millions of trees in the forest besides. So, seeking advice, Te̮la went out to the estates and orchards again to find again Sükni her brother, and she found him in the fruit orchard, searching within the trees for the webspinning worms that would blight the crop.

“Sükni!” she called, and in a shower of lichen and bark he dropped down from the branch upon which he stood and came to greet her, and they embraced.

“You have returned,” he said.

“I have,” she answered, “but I am afraid I must leave again in haste. For the pót’yā has given to me a new task, and this one is even less possible than the first. For she has demanded that I bring back the entire forest for her within this bag,” and here she showed it to him, “so she may have the hunting and all the wood within for her own. And this I know I cannot do, for even if I could uproot one tree there are trees in the forest beyond counting, and not even the smallest sapling would fit in this bag.”

Throughout the rest of the day they walked in the orchard in counsel together, and at the end of it Sükni bid her leave and begin upon her pótnyā’s task, and as always he asked her to promise to return to him. She made the promise, and as she turned to go Sükni took from the tree above him a red apple, smooth and unblemished, and he placed it in her hand. “The very first of the year,” he said. “I give you all my luck, sister, and may you return speedily with what you seek.”

And Te̮la left, and set her feet upon the northward road back towards the forests that were her home. She walked until the night fell, and the moon rose full and white into the heavens, and there she made her camp at the edge of the road, and wrapped in her blanket under the stars she did not sleep, but pondered further on the task she had been given and any means by which she could achieve it. Out from her pack she drew her brother’s apple and ate it, even down to the black seeds within the core, and the thin bit that she could not eat she left for the fieldmice and the songbirds. The following day she went on again, until the road dwindled to a track and she entered the pathless woods.

The woods were still green with the heat of the summer, and the ground was overlain with soft mosses and tall grasses, and yet as she wandered among the trees and boulders and clear streams, listening to the calls of the birds and the scurrying of small animals in the leaf mould, Te̮la could take no pleasure in the woods as she had before, anticipating her failure and the punishment that would follow it. And she sat herself down below a wide-spreading maple to think on her unhappiness.

But the forest was not unaware of her coming and her distress, and the wind rustled through the leaves above her, and as Te̮la knew the speech of animals she also understood that of plants, and they spoke to her with the wind. Ni̮lyuka, the trees whispered to her. Te̮la River-daughter, we will tell you what to do. We will grant you that which you seek, so that your mistress be not wroth with you, and spare your life. And with the aid of the trees Te̮la’s bag was filled to bursting, and she turned to return to the city.

Again she went to the palace and again she came before her pótnyā, and bowed low before her, and said, “O my pót’yā, I have returned, and I have brung with me that which you sent me out to retrieve.”

And her pótnyā said, “Is this so?” for she had known the task was impossible when she set it.

And Te̮la said, “It is.”

“Show me then,” demanded her pótnyā. So Te̮la lifted up the skin that sat at her hip, and she unfastened a toggle and opened the flap.

And out of the skin spilled seeds onto that marble floor, many hundreds of them, paper-thin seeds of pine and spruce, the round brown of the hazelnut, the shrivelled red of rowan berries and the small black seeds of the hawthorn, the winged seeds of the fir and maple and the pale birch-nuts, long flattened ashseed and the round walnut kernel, the minute nut of larch and the lime on its fine stems, the dark powdery spores of ferns and kernels of the grasses, and also the fine coin-like seeds of the elm. And Te̮la said, “I have brought to you your forest, o my pót’yā. You only must wait for it to grow.”

And her pótnyā was angered, and yet was forced to admit that Te̮la had done as she asked. But she said, “I have a third task yet for you, my faithful servant. I am sure you have seen the lights that fill the sky on the nights, and yet are never steady as the sun and moon, and appear and disappear within the blink of an eye. I would have you bring me back a little of that light, that with it I might light my halls until within my court it should never be night, and I be known among all the people of the city and all the cities of the land. Perhaps it will be a meet test for your skills, to pursue a prey so fleet as this.”

And Te̮la rose and left the hall in despair. She did not know the place at which the lights came down close enough to the earth for her arrows, traps, or lassoes to touch, and even if she could find such a place light is immaterial and can be trapped by no trap and lain in no bond. As before she went out through the estates, and passed the lanes and hedges and gardens, the pools built for the delight of those who dwelt there, and she came to the orchards, but they were empty.

And she walked along between the rows of coppice and of fruit-trees, and of trees for timber, and still saw nobody, and she feared that she would have to leave without saying farewell to Sükni. At last, however, she came to the small shed that marked the boundary of field, tended land, and wood, and she opened the door and looked in, and there within she found him, and he was hard at work cleaning and plaiting garlics for storage for the coming winter.

But at her entry he dropped his work, and rose, and embraced her joyfully. “Te̮la!” he cried, as she was enveloped in the warmth of his arms and the scent of garlic. “You return again.”

“I do,” she said, and she told him the entire tale of how she had achieved the second of her pótnyā’s tasks. “But she has set me a third,” she said, “and this one is the hardest still. For she has demanded that I find her a portion of the light of the north, and bring it back to her so that she may light her halls with it. But even if I could find the place at which the lights draw near to the ground, surely I would have no way of capturing them to burn forever, because light,” and here she held out her hand in the ray of sunlight slanting in through the single window, showing how it fell honey-yellow over her palm and was yet intangible, “cannot be held by any means.”

And they took counsel together there throughout the rest of the day, and Te̮la lent her hands as well to his duty, and by the end of their speech there remained no raw garlic left, and Te̮la arose and took her leave of him, and they embraced once again. “I cannot tell you exactly what to do, sister,” Sükni said. “But you have all my luck once again, and I hope to see you return soon.”

So Te̮la left the city for the third time upon her pótnyā’s errand, and took the road to the north into the hills. Her path tracked ever northwards, for that was the region from which the lights would always proceed, and so it took her up until she reached the high plateaux, where snowfields remained even in the summer and fed the rivers that flowed down along the hillsides. And she came upon the headwaters that braided over gravel bars in the highlands, and sat herself down beside it to think on her task.

“River,” she said, “have mercy upon me, Te̮la Ni̮lyuka who has always honoured you. Show me how I may fulfill my task and thereby save my life.”

The river did not answer her with words, for although Te̮la knew the speech of animals and the speech of plants the speech of the waters remained wholly unfamiliar to her. But its noise and its onward rushing stirred in her heart, and so she rose again, and began to follow along its path. Long was the journey, and many days and many nights she travelled, stumbling over stones and trudging through moss and drying brush in the beginning of the year’s waning. But the river provided her with fish as food, and within the forest there were still many nuts and the late berries flourishing, and ever above and before her as she went on the lights of the north flickered and danced in their myriad of beams and their thousand fires, a temptation and a taunt both for her.

As she journeyed the river, which had in the hills been deep and fast and filled with spray, began to slow and widen, until it was a width that no known builder could bridge, and at last Te̮la came to the edge of the forest, and she crossed the strip of scrub and fen that bordered it, and looked out upon the north sea. Beneath the grey clouds its waters were the blue-brown of a new-formed bruise, and it filled all the air with the scent of salt, and its edge was inhospitable rocks. And seeing that she could go no farther, there Te̮la made her camp among the stones.

She burned brush for her fire that was so encrusted with salt that the flames danced blue, and as the sun went down and the clouds began to dissipate in the pink twilight she listened to the endless lapping of the waves and the crying of the seabirds over it. And eventually the twilight too faded, and it was night, and sky and sea both lay black as black. Her fire burned lower, and Te̮la was afraid then, both of the vastness of the sea and of the likelihood of her failure, and she wondered if it might not be better to remain there in the treeless north until she died, so as not to face the punishment of her pótnyā.

But the light of the north came to her once again, burning blue and green and red above her, so that all the world was illuminated with their light. Te̮la left her fire and approached again the shore, hoping against hope that they would dip there and touch the earth, for there was nowhere more north that she could walk in search of them. As she approached the waters, the light grew brighter, and she saw with amazement that the water had now become calm, and its black surface was like a mirror to the lights, which caught them and reflected back their every movement. And Te̮la now saw a way that the lights had descended within her grasp, and a way in which she might endeavour to capture them.

Quickly she turned back towards her camp, and took from her pack a vial of oil with thin walls of brownish glass, which she used in the tanning of the hides from her prey. She darted down to the rocks where river met sea, and there she removed the stopper and poured the oil away into the river, where it swirled in concentric rings upon the surface. Thoroughly she rinsed out the vial, until not a trace of oil remained, and she went back down to the shore and dipped it into the shining water, and immediately returned the stopper so that no light could escape.

And Te̮la lifted the vial to her eyes and looked into it, to ensure that she had captured her prize, and lo! the dark water within held many points of dazzling blue-green light like minute stars, and she was very pleased. Fervently she thanked the ocean many times over for its aid in capturing the light of the north, and she replaced the vial in its sleeve on the outside of her pack. There that night among the stones and brush at the shore she slept, and with the first edge of morning she rose again and turned back southwards, eager to bring her prize back her pótnyā and be released from her labours.

The journey back took no fewer days than the journey outwards, and she arrived at the city with the first snow of the winter, coming dusted in white to her pótnyā’s halls again. And she came in again through the gate, and bowed again before her, and she said, “O my pót’yā, I have brought you the light which you sent me to find.” And she drew out the vial which still glimmered blue, and gave it to her, and the fires flared as her pótnyā took the vial and looked at the light within. Although she had known that the task she set was impossible even for all the spells of the Daeva, yet she was forced to admit that Te̮la had brought back a light that was indistinguishable from the light of the north.

Impressed despite herself in her slave’s completion of the tasks, and angry that she could not find an excuse to have her put to torment or death, Te̮la’s pótnyā could not come up with another demand. Begrudgingly she released her then, and Te̮la went as speedily as she could to find her brother again. And she found him out among the grounds at his work, but he did not look up to greet her, for she had been gone a very long time and his expectations for her return had fallen as the sun fell each day, expecting that she had instead found a free death in the wilderness.

So Te̮la slowed, and called out to him, and he startled at the sound of her voice. Then Te̮la embraced him and told him every word of how she had found the light and had retrieved it, and was now released from her labours, and how her pride could not be touched nor ever broken as long as she might live, now that she had done three impossible things and survived. And Sükni laughed to hear it, and he lifted her up and swung her around in his joy.

“It is only a pity,” she said, “that it shall be only you and I who will know the truth to my words. And I know it is no great thing, but I cannot imagine the pót’yā ever telling the tale of how she was tricked by a slave, nor any of her other servants doing so in her despite.”

“But I will,” said Sükni. “I will tell everyone what you have done. There will be no-one who will not know how clever my sister is, how she tricked the pót’yā and thus saved her life.” And so he did so, and the tale of Te̮la’s impossible tasks was passed from speaker to listener over the years, and in time even to me, who now tells it to you.

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