It was all too different, all too strange. Helda sat in the corner of the strange cave, her knees drawn up and her arms wrapped tight around them. The stuff she sat on was hard, like the stone of a cave, but smooth and so white. Above her was some sort of fire that gave off light, but not heat, embedded into more of the mysterious white stuff. The walls of the cave were white and smooth too. There was a low hum, like distant insects, almost on the verge of hearing.
Deska, the Sharman, had said that the world of the gods was unlike the world of the tribe. He was right Helda saw that now.
That was, if this was the world of the gods, but then what else could it be?
It was not like the caves in the Black Mountains where the tribe sheltered during the winter months. It was nothing like the hide tents used for following the migrating herds, nor did it resemble a roundhouse where the grasses they made into flour grew.
Helda reached out a tentative finger and touched first the floor under her and the wall behind her. She had not felt anything as smooth as this since she broke the ice in the water pot in the depths of the winter. This white material was not cold like ice, but faintly warm, like the ashes of a fire the following morning.
It has been a long hard winter.
They had needed a sacrifice made to the gods to make that winter go and the spring and summer return, bringing the warming sun. Too many had died, both the young and the old. All the tribe had hoarse throats from chanting in the smoke-filled caves to ease the dead ones on their journey.
Helda glanced around her white cave. There should be others here. Where were those from the tribe who had died and joined the gods?
There should be others like her too. The young girls, yet to become women, who had taken the tribe’s pleas to the gods as Helda had done.
She knew the words she had to say to the gods. The Shaman and the wise woman had spent her final days making her rehearse them until she could think of nothing else, until she could think and say no other words.
She was here to plead with the gods. She was here to beg them to bring back the warm sun. Turn away the cold and feeble winter sun and the winds that blew the howling blizzards.
She had been chosen, like her own older sister, Betna, two winters before.
She remembered shivering in her nakedness as the Shaman led her through the watching tribe to the wise woman waiting next to the cave of Cold Fire.
Only the shaman, the wise woman, Jefna, and the tribe’s leaders could enter the cave of cold fire.
The cold fire they passed though would not let anyone else enter. No matter what promises they made to the gods, or what sacrifice they offered.
There had been part of Helda that hoped the wall of cold fire would reject her too, would not let her pass. But it did.
Then, she stood alone, naked, in the centre of the cave of Cold Fire. The tribe’s leaders, the shaman, and Jefna all stood as far away from the altar as they could.
Only Helda herself, and those young girls like herself, could lie on the altar stone, she knew that.
With one last look at the tribe leaders, the shaman, and the wise woman, and all she had ever known Helda had lay down.
There had been light that made her clench her eyes shut. A noise that seared through her head like no other sound she had ever heard.
Then a tingling, all over her body.
Then, after she did not know how long, she had awoken in this strange white cave.
Now, the one white wall slid open somehow, and someone stood there.