The stinking mix of vomit and sweat was the first thing to penetrate Tinhara’s slumber, and she was grateful that the room was still so dark that only the faintest of silhouettes could be seen as she opened her blue eyes slightly. Old habits die hard, and despite the bitter smell and the contents of her own stomach welling up, she refused to cough. She had learned long ago that coughing at the wrong time could get you killed.
Tinhara wanted another drink to quell the protest in her gut, to take away the pain in her head, and to steady the room. “Kieron,” she cried out, “give me another grog!” She sat up and heard the curse of another patron who resented his sleep being disturbed. She listened carefully, and heard nothing penetrating the sound of heavy snoring. Foggily, she replayed last night in her mind. Tinhara had walked into the groggery with the last of her money, and drank it all away. She inhaled deeply, quietly, and the bitter smell confirmed that she was still there.
“Tin!” came a voice through the haze of the hangover. It was soft and urgent. Kieron called to her again. “Tin! Get up!”
“Hmm?” she asked wearily as she opened her eyes. The groggery was lit only by a single candle in a far off corner, but she could make out the sleeping silhouettes of the others who, like her, had passed out on the floor and spent the night at the Tluq. The Tluq groggery was one of Tinhara’s favourites. It’s old roof and sod walls were strong. No matter how many fights had taken place, no matter how many drunks had passed out on the floor, the Tluq withstood them all. Inside, the building showed its true size. It was small, only enough room for a dozen people: four tables and four seats at the bar. But plenty of room on the floor.
“Get up!” Kieron hissed in a voice that sounded about as frightened as a giant, meaty man like Kieron could get. He doesn’t offer any more information, no outstretched arm to pick her up off the floor. She opens her eyes and looks at his face. It is stern. He has a frown that is visible in the faint light, his brown eyes reflecting the flicker of light coming from the lone candle in the corner of the room. Despite his massive size he was a good-natured man who forgave any transgressions, provided they weren’t against him. And for that reason, and that reason alone, the Tluq became the place for scoundrels, murderers and thieves to have a moment of respite from the King’s Guards. Anyone who crossed Kieron would have nowhere else to go, and everyone knew it. Make him angry enough and he’d close the entire place down, knowing that the vagrants like Tinhara would hunt down the problem maker and deal with him to set things right. Kieron knew how to balance the needs of the bad with the rules of the land. And he knew better than to help her up off the dirt floor. It took Tinhara a little time to put the pieces together. Her was refusing to help her, or do anything at all that might be considered aiding a war criminal. He never used her full name, knowing he could always claim ignorance, swear that he did not know he had Tinhara the former leader of the King’s Guards, now hunted animal, in his groggery.
Tinhara bolted upright and nearly spewed last night’s drinks all over herself. Her head ached and the room spun wildly. She shivered uncontrollably, and with each twitch she felt like her brain smashed against the inside of her skull. The Guards must be on their way for one of their regular sweeps of the outlands, looking for thieves and whores and anyone else bad enough to be arrested. Images popped into Tinhara’s mind of what would happen if the Guards caught her. She had lead them long enough to know exactly what they would do with a woman like her, so detested and despised in her own country, and it made her stomach heave. She threw up on the ground beside her, and struggled to her feet. The room spun wildly and she lurched for a chair to keep from falling. If the Guards caught her, she would be dragged along the ground behind a sled, through the streets for all to see. First her wrists would ache with the pain of the rope that would bind them, and then her shoulders would stretch as she was hauled away. They would pop out about half way to the castle, but by then, the agony of her ripping skin would distract her from the pain in her arms.
“Tin!” Kieron hissed again. Tinhara was thankful for the deep voice that reached inside her reverie and pulled her out of her own horror.
“How long?” she asked Kieron. “How long have I got?”
“Twenty minutes or so, depending on how many other places they stop before they get here.”
“Twenty minutes,” she mused as she reached up and held her head with her hands.
“Twenty minutes, maybe less.”
Kieron watches her carefully, waiting for her to move, to spring into action, to flee for her life. Instead, Tinhara sits for a moment and finally coughs up some phlegm. She spits it out on the floor, hitting a sleeping man in the foot. “They will kill me too!” he finally shouts. “Kill us all! Everyone get out! Move! Move!” he screams at the sleepers. He runs around kicking the half dozen people sleeping on the floor of the Tluq. “The Guards are coming!” he shouts over and over. By telling them all, they will all flee at once, in all directions. It would provide great cover for Tinhara. Confused voices begin to fill the air, deafening Tinhara with their din. Men scramble for their meagre belongings, shouting and fighting to be the first up and out of the Tluq. The chaos confounds Tinara for a moment, and she remembers the massacre of Krat, where she lead the Guards in an attack on an entire village. The screaming, the yelling, the stink of urine as the frightened villagers pissed themselves while staring death in the face. Tinhara felt a stabbing pain in her head, and threw up. She wondered for a moment if she should just give up, let herself be caught, pay for her sins. It would free her finally the grief and guilt. Being caught would quiet her stomach, end her nightmares, bring her drunken descent to a final halt. The King would make quite a spectacle of her death and perhaps then she could ask the people of Qan for forgiveness, plead with the Gods for peace. She could end the hunt now.
But Kieron had other ideas. If she was found in his groggery, he would face the same fate, and he would have none of that. He picked Tinhara up by the scruff and rushed her toward the door. His sweaty smell filled the air around Tinhara, and he, like most others, had not bathed in months. But unlike most others, he spent his time indoors, where the stink could not be cleared by a bracing wind. He screams at the stragglers, cursing their mothers and their grandmothers for having stupid children. Tinhara struggles to gain her feet as the strong hand releases her clothing and she returns to the ground. Her stomach tightens again, and a wave of nausea passes over her, causing to pause long enough for Kieron to push her from behind. She feels numb from the grog, numb from the life she has lead, and does not feel the biting cold wind outside the door of the Tluq. She was the last to leave, but as the cold air hit her face and cleared her eyes, she could see that the others had not yet travelled far. Kieron pushed her toward her sled and headed back into the Tluq, cursing under his breath. He paused for a brief moment, his eyes flashing a moment of forgiveness, and he sighed.
“About ten now, Tin. You have about ten minutes now. Take the old bootlegger’s route, in the south west corner. They haven’t closed the hole yet.” He looks quickly around to see if anyone could have heard his words, seen him give aid to a criminal. No one else was around, all the others had scattered like pictu. He went inside the Tluq and closed the door.
Tinhara waits for a moment, trying to get her bearings. Drinking helps her forget only while she is blind drunk. Before and after those few precious moments of freedom, she reels from pain to rage, sorrow to fear as she fights with herself, with her past, and with the dim hope of a future. Beneath it all is the drive that moves her on, a faint recollection from the shadows of a vague promise once made that she was special, that she would change the world. Her blood began to move her on, her keen sense of survival kicking in.
She heard a faint sound coming from her sled and she turned slowly. Two eyes peered up at her from the snow, and Tinhara smiled. Huel, her constant companion, sat up from where he had curled himself, and stretched. The great white bear did not mind that spent all of her ill-gotten money on grog, he passed no judgement on her past, and never asked her to tell him about her nightmares. He grunted a quick hello, and shook again, sending a spray of snow that lightly touched Tinhara’s face. He was ready to go, and Tinhara jumped on.
“We go tonight through an old bootlegger’s tunnel,” she said to Huel as she turned him toward the south. “Back in the old days, when grog was illegal, I used to spend my time chasing down the bootleggers. That’s back before I became the Lead Guard, of course,” she explained to the bear as he pulled the sled along the thin layer of snow that still sat in Galmaq. Tinhara hated this walled city, with its heat, brought here to the country of Qan by foreigners who could not stand the cold. Qan was a frozen land where only the hardy survived, except here in Galmaq where magic melted the snow and made the earth turn green. Her hands shook as she pulled the reins to head him more westerly. She saw the tracks of a running man, probably someone from the Tluq also fleeing, and she wondered briefly what his crime was. Murderer? Thief? Maybe he had simply been stupid enough to insult the King within earshot of the wrong person. Or maybe he too had done unspeakable things for a glory that passed too quickly, came at too high a price.
Tinhara closed her mind off to everything but the tunnel. The footprints faded from view, the memories of her past became safely cloaked again in shadow. Even her stomach stopped heaving and twisting as she concentrated on the tunnel. “There it is,” she announced to Huel as she pulled back on the reins and stepped on the footbrake to slow the sled. The entrance was marked by two small mounds of snow that to most people would be indistinguishable from any other mounds of snow. But Tinhara had spent her life in the snow and the cold, on the open plains of ice where the white spoke to her, telling its stories of wind and cold, safety and danger. She glanced quickly at the thin layer of ice that covered the tunnel entrance and it quickly told her its story: it now covered the large entrance of a tunnel, it was thick around the edges but very thin in the middle, it would break easily under the weight of her sled and allow her through, it demanded that she proceed slowly to allow it to break evenly, gently. Tinhara heard its story and nodded. She was glad to speak the language of snow.
Huel eased slowly over the ice, his great paws causing the ice to snap and crack under his weight. It gave way slowly, just as it had promised, as Tinhara encouraged the bear to go forward. He was the only one who trusted her, even when she did not trust herself. But Tinhara trusted the ice, and it did not fail her. With a loud crack, it split down the middle and, with a few more steps forward, a split streaked across from one side toward the middle. Then came another crack zipping along crookedly but determinedly from the other side, stretching itself out to join the others. Finally they all hooked up in the middle, and gave way.
The sled dropped only a few feet before hitting the sloped ground with a bounce. Huel chuffed as his massive paws hit firm earth, and he was off. “Easy, Huel, go easy,” she chided him. “I cannot see, I do not have your eyes. To the left, that’s right. Slowly, slowly,” she said as she lead him through the dark. The tunnel’s gaping maw was fading behind her, and she strained to see in the dark. When it was finally too dark to see, Huel simply stopped and refused to go forward despite every entreaty Tinhara could think of.
“Damnable animal!” she cursed as she stepped off the sled and slipped past it. She grabbed Huel’s muzzle, careful to keep her fingers away from his mouth, and reached her hand out to the side of the tunnel. It was cold, but still earthen. They were yet not beyond the wall of Galmaq, not yet into the snow and ice of Qan proper. Her rough hands feel rough earth as she steps forward, leading Huel through the dark. When the wall arches left or right, she arches left or right.
“Very clever, these bootleggers,” she says to Huel. She has long become used to talking to Huel and never getting an answer. She was grateful he did not speak. There was enough perverted magic in the world now, she wanted none of it. Animals that talked, shape-shifters, they were all strange things. But snow seers, she hated the snow seers, the liars, the liar, who tricked her into joining the Guards, who promised her power and glory, fame and love. Do as he asked, kill them all, he promised, and the world would be hers. “Liar!” she shouted out, startling herself with the rage her own voice carried. She spit and shook her head, trying to clear her mind. “Bootleggers.” She remembered the story she was going to tell Huel.
“Bootleggers were very clever. You see, they made their path very twisting, unexpected, and completely without light. The path is big enough to go at full speed with a large sled, if you know the turns. They knew the turns, and could outrun us as we chased them. I remember once when Tikmuk and I were chasing…” she trailed off. She had not said Tikmuk’s name in more than a year, had not seen her face in more than five. Tinhara fell silent again, wondering what life would have been like if she had met Tikmuk under different circumstances, if neither had been in the King’s Guards. Tikumk had always been kind to her, even warning her that she was on an evil path. “She called it an evil path,” Tinhara said out loud. “Wish I’d listened.”
Slowly the earth gave way to ice, and although it was impossible to see, Tinhara knew it would be the dark blue ice of the Ancestors, the old ice that held up the new ice. Finally, the floor of the tunnel began to rise up toward the surface, and Tinhara knew she was approaching the other end of the tunnel. She stopped Huel and searched her caqun for an ice pick to break the ice. She rummaged around in familiar territory, surprised she could not find the stick. It was always in the same place. Everything was always in the same place on the caqun: her food near the opening, the grog on the outside near the back runners, the weapons to the left and everything else to the right. But the bone ice pick was not in its place. She huffed and kicked the caqun, cursing loudly. “Damn the tawnluk that died that gave me the bone for the ice pick!” she shouted as she kicked the caqun again. She finally grabbed a small spear, her favourite for hunting tawnluk, and began jabbing away at the ceiling. Bits of ice flew into her face, calming her, reassuring her, comforting her with its melting cold. The spear broke through and, after almost an hour, she had a hole large enough to lead Huel through.
In the open field, Huel ran quickly, as happy as Tinhara to be away from Galmaq and back on the road. She decided to head toward Visby, a quiet village with a warm groggery and possibly even a warm welcome. She met a woman there a few years ago, a dark little woman with broken teeth and a nose smashed by her husband too often. A woman who gave her a place to sleep and comfort while her husband was away hunting. Tinhara spent the hours imagining making love to that woman again, and hoping her husband would be away again.
Tinhara can tell from Qaltroq’s voice that she is alone. It is halting and frightened, but she speaks when Tinhara calls softly through the window. If her husband had been home, he would have answered for her. Instead, she hears Qaltroq asking who it is. It has been two years, it does not surprise Tinhara that Qaltroq has forgotten her voice.
“It is me, Hara. From before.”
“Hara. From before. Before,” came the response. Tinhara moved closer to the ice house and leaned forward to try to glimpse inside the window. The house was once sturdy, but it seemed poorly taken care of now. Tinhara noticed that the chinks between the ice blocks were losing snow, that the ice itself was pitted and rough, instead of the usual glistening sheen a house has when snow is packed between the blocks and water is poured over every inch of the outside to form a hard shell.
“Hara?” Qaltroq asked, vaguely remembering. Tinhara used only the last part of her name when she spoke with strangers. It was just one of many ways she used to disguise herself. She could tell that Qaltroq was scared, tell by the slight tremble in her voice, and she wondered if the woman’s husband was around, ready to return home at any moment.
“Are you free?” Tinhara asks as she leans against the wall. A small chip of ice cracks off, causing her to frown. No man would let his home become so degraded.
“Hara, come in, please.” Qaltroq’s voice almost cracks with desperation, and Tinhara wonders quickly if she should leave, flee this unsettling home. She turns and sees that Huel, still strapped in his harness, has curled himself up and gone to sleep in the snow. They were a day from Galmaq, a day from the Guards who rarely ventured to Visby. Visby was a small village of a few dozen homes built of ice and snow, whose men banded together to hunt, and whose women banded together to cook and raise children. A few of the families were directly related, and all were loyal to the King. If anyone had an inkling that Tinhara was here among them, they would hunt her down like a tawnluk and take her dead body back to the King to reap the reward. Take her back if they caught her, that is.
Tinhara crouched down and crawled on her hands and knees through the small tunnel that formed the opening of the house. The walls were thin but they still blocked out the wind, kept the dangers of the world at bay. Once inside Tinhara saw Qaltroq crouching by a small fire, staring at her, mouth open and eyes wide. Tinhara gave her a quick nod and crawled over to her. “Bright blessings,” she said now that she was finally face to face with Qaltroq.
“Hara!” Qaltroq sputtered as she reached out her arms and wrapped them around Tinhara. Qaltroq had aged more than a few years. Her short brown hair was now mostly grey, her smile more crooked and her hands more gnarled. Tinhara shivered at the woman’s touch. It had been so long since was held in another woman’s arms. Perhaps it was Qaltroq who last held her, but Tinhara could not remember who last caressed her, who last ran a gentle hand over her scarred skin. The last touch she felt was Kieron’s fat hand on her neck, and before that, a fierce fist smashing into her belly. There had been a fight at the groggery, and she tangled with a brown eyed man who took great exception to her blue eyes.
Qaltroq did not mind her blue eyes, did not mind that she came from a race of people reviled and despised by the majority of Qanians. Tinhara’s blue eyes had taught her a valuable lesson: that there was no longer a place in Qan for her people, that despite living on the land for generation upon generation, those who settled after her people, who formed villages and towns and cities, thought they owned the land, thought it was to be bought and sold, trade and raped for its precious resources. It was these people, these brown eyed people, people with eyes the colour of the earth, who despised the blue eyed people, the Kashunaq people who had eyes the colour of the deep ice, who were connected to the land, whose ancestors were frozen in the depths of time.
“Qaltroq,” Tinhara murmured softly as she buried her face in Qaltroq’s neck. Pushing aside the fur hood, Tinhara pressed her cheeks against Qaltroq’s skin, inhaled her musky scent deeply.
“It has been a long time,” Qaltroq said as she pulled away and turned toward the fire. Even it was sickly, as if lacking in energy, lacking in hope.
“Two years,” she repeated, as she stared into the flame. “It has been one year since Vel died,” she said in a tiny voice. “One year I have been alone.”
Women were rarely alone in Qan, for to be alone meant almost certain death. Girl babies were raised by their mothers until old enough to be traded into marriage, and then they stayed with their husbands, despite any abuse, because the alternative was a brutally cold death on the ice fields. Here in the village of Visby, Qaltroq stood a fighting chance, a chance to survive although Tinhara refused to call it living. Living was blazing across the ice fields with the cold wind in your face and a grogskin in your hand, hunting your own meals, subservient to no one. Living was not huddling in an ice house over a dying flame waiting for death to gnaw at your flesh.
“Vel was a brute,” Tinhara said as she arranged the furs on the floor and made herself comfortable. Qaltroq had lost one husband and obviously not found another. Tinhara was disappointed that Qaltroq was not able to take care of her home, of herself, but she could teach her, if she wanted to learn. “You told me he would beat you bloody if you made the blood soup wrong. He would leave you for days without food, with nothing to burn to keep you warm. When I met you two years ago, you were pathetic, starving, uncared for. Vel treated you worse than he treated the dogs.”
“But I had food and protection,” Qaltroq spit out with a vehemence that caught Tinhara by surprise. “The men of the village despise me because I am a widow. They say I am the cause of the hard times we are facing how. We should have had a good hunting season, but we did not, and they blame me. Their wives are not much better, and the children fear me. It won’t be long before they turn me out,” she said. She shivered as a small tear rolled down her cheek. Tinhara finally took off her gloves and settled down. Qaltroq was hated by the villagers she bragged about so much. “If we don’t have a kill soon, they will break my walls down and ride me out of the village, leave me in the snow to die.”
Qaltroq got to her knees and crawled over to Tinhara. “I do not want to die. Hara, will you take me? Will you be my husband? Care for me? You know how, you care for yourself, you can care for me too. I won’t be a burden. I can cook, I can keep your house clean, I will tend to your sled, do any repairs, make you new clothes. Look at your clothes now, full of holes. I can fix this,” she said as she plucked at a rip in Tinhara’s otuk. Tinhara smiled and held Qaltroq’s hand.
“I don’t need a wife. I don’t want a wife. But if you let me stay a while, if you make love to me, then I will find some food for the whole village, I will fix your house, I will teach you how to hunt, to survive on your own. Not with me, but on your own.” Qaltroq leaned over and hugged Tinhara tightly, thanking her over and over again, kissing her and blessing her.
“Hara, I would prefer that you stay with me. I thank you for offering to teach me, but why not stay with me?” she pleaded.
Tinhara frowned and rubbed her forehead. “I doubt the others in the village would accept a blue eyed man among them as your husband. As a blue eyed woman, well, it would simply be too difficult. You are better off on your own. If you bring in food, learn a few special things, they will let you stay with them.” Tinhara told the truth, just not her truth. The villagers would not be happy with a blue eyed woman, a woman!, taking one of their own as hers. But here in Visby she would have to be on constant vigilance, fearful every moment that her identity would be discovered, that they would turn on her in her sleep and capture her. The villagers were dimwits, but eventually even they would be able to put all the pieces together, the blue eyes, the missing fingers, the sled pulled by the bear, and discern her identity.
“But Hara, you can keep your eyes covered, as you did last time. Just wear your squints whenever you leave the house, and no one will know you have blue eyes. Your voice is already deep. All you need to do is grown a moustache and they will all believe you are a man.”
“I would need to grow more than that to be a man,” Tinhara smirked as she pushed Qaltroq laughing onto the furs. “But I can still touch you, please you like your husband never did.”
“He never did at all,” Qaltroq whispered. She shivered slightly under Tinhara’s body but Tinhara could not tell if it was from anticipation or cold. She caressed Qaltroq’s breasts through the layers of skins and furs, and a burst of desire shot through her, running from between her legs into her stomach. Tinhara kissed Qaltroq’s thick lips, biting gently on them, sucking them into her mouth, letting her tongue run against their cracked skin. She felt light-headed but every nerve was on fire as she worked her rough hands into the folds of Qaltroq clothes, searching out flesh. She finally found some, touching Qaltroq’s ribs. They were so prominent that Tinhara withdrew her hand immediately.
“What?” Qaltroq asked. “What?” she repeated. “Do I repulse you? Please, Hara, don’t turn me away. Even if you do nothing else, make me feel good just one more time.” There was a desperation in her voice, a fear of being abandoned to die a slow, cold, lonely death on the edge of the village.
Tinhara laughed at the thought that Qaltroq was repulsive. She sat back and looked at her hands. Each hand was missing pieces, each carried the scars of battle, and deep inside where the eye could not see, each hand was covered in the blood of innocent people. She was surprised that Qaltroq was not repulsed by her, not now, not years ago. “Something to eat, we need something to eat, to drink” Tinhara said.
Qaltroq grinned slyly and reached out toward Tinhara. “Eat me, drink me. Swallow me up, Hara, swallow me up. Food can wait a little while longer.” Qalroq cocked her head and batted her eyes. “You know how very talented I am, that I have ways of getting what I want. You know my touch,” she said as she pulled Tinhara back on top of her, “you know my mouth, my… strengths.” Tinhara grinned and let the pounding blood in her body take over her judgement. They began to kiss passionately, never taking their eyes from each other. Tinhara unlaced her otuk and let Qaltroq work on her sealskin shirt, but refused to take them off completely because the fire was not warm enough.
“Let me get something to keep you warm,” Qaltroq said as she scrambled toward a pile of furs. She retrieved a thick blanket and threw it on top of Tinhara before snuggling under it. “Off with the otuk, off with the shirt, off with the pants,” Qaltroq said with a smile. Tinhara rolled onto her back and waited while Qaltroq’s deft fingers made quick work of the stiff laces on her clothing. Each time her mind wandered Qaltroq seemed to notice, and touched her this way or that to bring her attention back where it belonged. She was never completely naked beneath the blanket, but now her otuk was in the corner, her shirt open, her pants around her ankles. Tinhara slipped into a moment of ecstasy as Qaltroq slipped into her.