Again the first thing Tinhara noticed upon waking was the smell of the room, but this time it was heavy and musky, the smell of sex and sweat, and was far more pleasant than the groggery had been. She shivered slightly and pulled her arm out from underneath Qaltroq where it ended up after their hours of love making. She struggled to lace her clothes quietly, and snuck out from under the blanket. Retrieving her otuk, she slipped it on quietly, blew at the flame of the dying fire in the hopes of bringing it back to life, and crawled out of the ice house.
The sun was low in the sky, as it had been when she arrived, and she was grateful for the dim light. It made her eyes harder to see from a distance, gave her anonymity from any villager who might spy her. Women and children were about, but none turned her way. Qaltroq was truly a disdained woman, a woman whose existence was now completely ignored by people who had decided to band together for food and protection, to settle down on a land that forced any right-thinking person to travel its plains. It was not like that two years ago, when Vel was alive and kicking.
As Tinhara stepped toward her sled, one of Huel’s black eyes opened and his black nose popped out of the snow. Tinhara gestured to him to stay asleep. “I am getting food and bones,” she told him softly. She had spent many years talking to him as he was usually her only companion. She wondered if he understood her, believed her when she told him why she was returning to Visby, why she had to flee the Guards of Galmaq. She opened the caqun as a gentle breeze blew across her gloveless hands. The ghost of one of her missing fingers tingled in the chilly air and she hurried to find the qamux. Just a few moments of exposure could freeze any body part off, causing it to snap, if she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. She’d seen a man lose his penis that way.
On patrol with the King’s Guards, before she became a Lead Guard, she travelled with a group of men, one of whom she had known from the orphanage. He was a small man, but stocky. Lek was not a clever man, not a clever man at all. They had spent the entire day walking the ice fields for dogs and sleds were reserved for those higher in the chain of command. They trundled over hills, through massive depressions and around great boulders of ice, each quietly reflecting on life, mostly unaware of their surroundings. Lek had convinced them earlier that day that no one could possibly sneak up on them in the ice fields. And he was right, but he had lulled them into a false sense of security.
“There is something wrong,” Tinhara told Lek as they walked in formation with the others.
“I don’t know, but can you feel it? The air is thinner, the ice is crisper,” she said.
“No,” Lek said, “I sense nothing. You are mistaken.”
“I am not mistaken, I know the land, I know the air. The Gods are not happy that we are here. We should go back, turn back now.”
“Wuhhh,” Lek cautioned softly, “If the Squad Leader hears you, you’ll be killed on the spot for treason. Keep your opinions to yourself.”
“But Lek, I feel it, I feel something different in the air.” Lek raised his hand to silence her, angering Tinhara. She knew they were walking into an aqlay, a cold zone where even the wind could not blow through the frigid air. She swore she could see it shimmering up ahead, right in front of them. The aqlay had claimed the lives of many people, stupid people who refused to believe it existed. But she had heard the tales, believed it existed, and knew it by sight although she’d never seen it before. The aqlay was directly in their path.
Aqlays were only a few dozen steps in breadth, but were rumoured to be so cold that exposed flesh would freeze instantly. Anyone walking into an aqlay was required to hold his breath for the air would freeze his blood and cause his spit to turn to ice. Tinhara remembered all the aqlay stories of her childhood, and believed them all. She pulled her otuk tight, and made sure her hood covered as much as her face as possible, but just steps from where the aqlay began, the troop stopped.
“Food,” the Squad Leader directed bluntly, and the Guards all fell out of formation and began to ransack their bags. Relieved, Tinhara sat on a nearby block of ice and pulled off a glove so she could rummage through her bag and retrieve a bit of food. She eyed the aqlay carefully, and was so focussed on it she did not notice Lek beside her until he spoke.
“What do you see?” he asked as he gazed off in the direction she stared in.
“Aqlay,” she said as she pointed to the shimmering light.
“I see nothing.”
“It is there.”
“It is not. Aqlays are pretend, they do not exist. They are stories made up to keep small children from wandering too far from the family.” Lek said. He was confident, sure of himself.
“It is there,” Tinhara repeated. Lek coaxed her to point it out, but he swore he saw nothing that she saw, no shimmering light, no white tinge to the air, no place where even the wind feared to go. Their break was almost over when Lek stood up and readied his bag for the rest of the trip. Tinhara had spent those entire few minutes staring at the aqlay, determined that she would be able to spot another again no matter what.
Without warning, Lek headed toward the aqlay.
“Lek!” Tinhara shouted.
Lek turned around and grinned. “Fellows, Tinhara has this idea,” he said. His face changed, his demeanour changed. “She thinks there’s an aqlay here. You know, one of those places only children believe in?” He was mocking her and she felt the blood rush to her cheeks. She could feel her face turning red and she set her jaw tight in anger. Tinhara was already an outsider, a woman amongst men, an ice-eye amongst earth-eyes. Only Lek had befriended her but now he turned on her, tried to humiliate her in front of everyone. The Squad Leader glared at Tinhara as if she were an annoying child.
“Tinhara, if this really were an aqlay, would my piss freeze?” he shouted as he reached down into his pants. Squirming his hand around, he stuck his penis out the front of his pants and stepped forward to where Tinhara had told him the aqlay started. A stream of hot urine began to flow out, but it froze before it ever hit the ground. The golden stream turned to a golden arch of ice as it froze quickly all the way back into Lek’s penis. He shrieked in pain and stumbled back, and the tip of his penis, everything that had been exposed outside of his pants, fell to the ice.
Lek writhed and screamed, falling to the ice and rolling like an animal caught in a trap while everyone stood dumbfounded, watching as he bled. Everyone turned to look at Tinhara, then back at Lek, in unison like a herd of tawnluk.
“Pick him up! Tend to him!” the Squad Leader shouted and the others obeyed quickly, all except Tinhara. She sneered at him and spit on the ground, watching her spittle slowly turn to ice. “You warned him,” the Squad Leader said. “How did you know?”
Tinhara explained the change in the air, the feeling she got as they approached the aqlay. She had difficulty finding words to describe what she felt in her bones. The Squad Leader, a giant man with a fierce brow, listened and nodded while the others tried desperately to follow his orders. It seemed that no one knew how to repair a penis, and so despite everything they could think of doing, Lek, who had teased her and humiliated her, was going to die. She had warned Lek, but he refused to believe her, and she felt no sympathy for him. She spoke ill of him as the troop left him behind to die in the snow and ice. There was no way they could heal him in the field, and it was Tinhara who pointed out that taking him with them would only jeopardize the mission. He was a fool, and deserved to die by his own misdeeds, she had declared. From that day forward she was a favourite of the Squad Leader not only for her ability to read the land, but for her cruelty.
Huel huffed and Tinhara withdrew pieces of qamux from the sled, and then searched around for a few bones, selecting a couple of long leg bones from a tawnluk, and two small seal skulls. She grabbed the grogskin from the back of the sled and threw it around her neck, then threw small pieces of blubber and skin to Huel, who licked them up through his muzzle. She went back to the ice house, giving the eating bear a wide bearth as she went past him, and crawled back inside.
“Qamux,” she announced when she saw that Qaltroq was awake. “Eat, enjoy,” she said, handing over the raw meal. The qamux came from northern traders who killed whales and harvested thick pieces of blubber and fat from the animals. Whale qamux was the best, and the qamux from a snow-coloured whale was very prized, but normally Tinhara could only afford seal qamux. But Qaltroq was special, she represented an opportunity to Tinhara that had not come along in a very long time. Qaltroq was a dream for a quiet life. She could not stay with Qaltroq, she knew that, but she could always dream, always remember her kisses and fingers and for that, Tinhara was happy to share her best food. Qaltroq chewed joyfully on the blubber, letting it fill her mouth with its slick flavour.
She sat almost childlike, a huge grin on her face, as she watched Tinhara set up the fire. Tinhara sliced off a few thin slices of qamux and used them to grease the seal skulls, before placing the bones carefully on the fire. The fire was as hungry as Qaltroq was, and ate quickly at the qamux that covered the bones, feeding itself and growing stronger. It was now strong enough to tackle the bones, slowly, the way Tinhara had expected. “Get your water bowl, fill it with fresh snow” Tinhara said to Qaltroq, who obediently got up and found her carved bone water bowl, and scrambled through the tunnel of the house to the outside. While she was gone, Tinhara took a couple of long drinks from her grogskin, feeling the strong berry taste fill her mouth. It was ice cold from being outside, and it felt good in her stomach.
Qaltroq’s slender fingers stretched into view as she handed Tinhara her water bowl. For good measure, she had collected a few other containers of snow, almost a half dozen in all. It was a good start, and Tinhara nodded. “Watch what I do,” Tinhara commanded as she stuck the water bowl into the fire. The snow melted quickly and began to boil almost as quickly. The heat of the bone in her hand began to burn, and Tinhara knew it was time. She withdrew the bowl from the fire and, working out from where she was, dragged the hot bowl over the surface of the floor, melting a thin layer of ice, smoothing out the spots made rough from wear, pouring water into the larger crevices and gaps. It took her a few hours, but the floor was finally smooth and fresh looking. Qaltroq had spent the entire time watching.
“Vel never did that,” she said. “All the years I was with him, he never once fixed up a house. He would just go build a new one, and after we joined the village, it became harder and harder because people got mad at us for leaving behind the old ruins.”
“How did he die?”
“I am not certain, it could have been either way. He left me one day to go hunt, but did not return that night. The next morning, I asked the men to go find him, and they took only a few hours to find him and bring his body back. He had a large wound on his side, they said it was from a tawnluk antler, and her probably bled to death. They left him for me to bury,” Qaltroq said as she watched Tinhara begin to work on the walls. “I like your hands,” she said, “they are strong, sure. You always seem to know what to do with them.” She lilted her voice slightly at the end and grinned up at Tinhara, who by now was standing so she could reach higher up the wall.
“What is the other way?” Tinhara asked.
“There was a young girl named Cath, a beautiful young girl. She had the golden hair of the Arpinians, not our dark hair. She was from Arpine, and she was stolen by one of our villagers and brought here. She hated being here, hated being kidnapped and brought to Qan. Cath would do everything in her power to fit into the village, but her beauty caused us to fight amongst ourselves, the men were always vying for a look or a smile, and the women hated her for it. It wasn’t Cath’s fault, but you can imagine the disruption a beautiful woman like that would cause. I guess Cath arrived a few months after you were here, although was not her given name, it was the name Xem gave to her when she was brought here.”
Qaltroq paused here as she watched Tinhara continue her work on the walls. “Do you need a drink? Can I fetch your grogskin?” she asked.
“I have it here,” Tinhara said without turning around. She was half listening to the story, because it was obvious where it was going.
“So one day, Xem got drunk with the men and began bragging about Cath, about how she could cook, make love, clean, and how she never complained. She even washed herself as often as every week! Can you imagine? But she was beautiful. Maybe if I was beautiful I would bathe that often too.”
“You are beautiful.”
Qaltroq smiled and giggled to herself like a little girl, and shook her head. “You must be blind. But when Xem got really drunk, he revealed his secret. He had given her the name Cath, which we all knew, but he had committed a sin because it turns out, Cath was a truncation of Hecath’s name, all praises to the great Goddess and may Her bright blessings shine down upon us, but none of us knew that. We thought her name was Cath, just plain Cath. But Xem told the men, including Vel, about how his wife’s beauty rivalled Hecaths, his words not mine! Of course that was not acceptable, and all of the men were called together than night to discuss the problem. They met as a Council and, as you know, their word would become law. But they were drunk and lustful for Cath, and so to punish Xem’s arrogance, they all agreed to rape Cath, each one. It was horrible, she screamed the entire time and everyone in the village could here. Of course that was the point, wasn’t it? To humiliate Xem, punish him for his bravado, for his challenge to the great omnipotent beauty of the great Goddess Hecath, all praises. She was not the same after that, not in personality and not in looks. Some of the men had become very rough, Vel included I am sure, as he often beat me before making love to me. Some of Cath’s teeth were missing, and they had cut her hair, she had cuts and bruises all over her face, and I am sure her body was worse.
Cath became very quiet in the days after the Council Judgement, and in retrospect we know she was plotting her revenge. This is just rumour, of course, because the Council agreed that Vel died during the hunt, but really, what man goes out alone at night to hunt? Without any weapons? But all of that did happen to Cath, and I know that she was speaking with Vel the day he died, and when I asked him that evening where he was going, all he said was, ‘Even battered and beaten she is better looking than you,’ and he left. That was the last I saw of him. I think she tricked him and killed him, extracted her revenge on him. And I think that if Xem had not left the village after Vel’s death, more men would have died.
I hated what he did, and he deserved to die a thousand times for it, but I have been struggling ever since, as if Vel was the only one who joined in on the Council’s Judgement, as if I should be punished for him doing what all the others did. It is not fair, Hara, not fair at all, not fair to Cath who did nothing more than beautiful, not fair to Vel because he was no better or worse than the others, and not fair to me because I lost my husband and there are no others in the village who would have me. It’s been a struggle, Hara, and the others in the village are looking to blame me for their bad hunting. It is easy to blame me, alone without anyone to protect me, a taker of resources with not much to give back.
Hara? It took me a few months after Vel’s death, of going over this story time and again, to realize one important thing. It doesn’t matter now how Vel died, he is dead and there is nothing more to it. But Hara, Hara? It made me think, I’ve got nothing to do but think these days and it is enough to drive a woman mad, but I have been thinking about names. About what Xem did, hiding a name like that, hiding the truth. And when the truth came out, people died.”
Tinhara turned to look at Qaltroq, who sat crosslegged on a blanket. She wondered if she should kill Qaltroq now, prevent her from trying to reveal the truth to anyone. Funny how an incident completely unrelated could threaten to unravel Tinhara’s life so completely. “And…?”
“And I know who you are, Tinhara.”
“Then you know who I am.” Tinhara’s voice was menacing and angry, and she could feel her stomach clench as she considered her options. Flee or kill were the only two that came to mind until she realized almost instantly she would likely have to do both. Qaltroq shrank from Tinhara’s eyes and raised her hands to cover her head.
“Please don’t, don’t kill me, I won’t tell. They will do far worse to me than to you should your truth be discovered,” Qaltroq begged. “Please please please, by the power and grace of Hecath, do not.”
Tinhara threw the water bowl across the room and lunged at Qaltroq, climbing on top of her pinning her quickly. She clamped a forceful hand over Qaltroq’s mouth. Tears began running down Qaltroq’s cheeks and over Tinhara’s fingers. Her arms shook with anger and the air took on a very light blue. She ripped her hand away from Qaltroq’s mouth and bent her mouth close to her lover’s ear.
“Why tell me you know if you don’t want to die?” Her blood was pounding in her head, her body throbbing with anger.
Between sobs, Qaltroq replied. “I needed to be certain, I wanted to hear it from you, to have you tell me if it was true. And I see it is, I know it is, I know that you are Tinhara, head of the King’s Guards, killer of entire nations. Please, I don’t want to die. I just wanted to know. I, I wanted to know that it was you I bring pleasure to, that you came to me, come to me again, that you desire me. That I am desired by someone powerful, someone feared and strong and known across the land. When I first thought of who you were, I cried for days in fear and shame, but then I realized, Tinhara desires me, I am lusted after by a woman who has the power to kill my worst enemies. I dreamed of it for weeks, months, about your power, and I listened at village meetings whenever they raised your name and told of the bounty on your head. Do you see? Do you see? I am wanted by someone important, someone talked about around the village fire, over meals in the longhouse, someone whose stories are told to frighten the young children. Do you still desire me? Do you still want me, want my fingers and breasts and lips? Or do you want to kill me? Please, don’t kill me.”
Tinhara clamped her hand back over Qaltroq’s mouth, content with all she had heard. “Wuhhh. Be quiet, let me think.” She withdrew her hand from her lover’s mouth but remained sitting on her chest. She had arrived in Visby thinking she would be safe from her past, hoping to get respite from being hunted, only to find that the woman she trusted knew her secret. But did it change anything? Tinhara knew never to trust anyone, it was instilled in her early in the orphanage, and it was a truth played out over and over again in life. Trust and you go weak, trust and they have an opportunity to strike, to capture or kill. She sighed.
“I won’t tell anyone,” Qaltroq said softly.
“Not if I cut your tongue out,” Tinhara replied.
“If you cut my tongue out, I won’t be able to give you the pleasure you deserve.”
Tinhara laughed out loud. Qaltroq was no threat to her. Even if she did tell, the villagers would not be any match for the killer of entire nations, but they would do unspeakable things to Qaltroq. Anger and lust sometimes felt like the same thing to Tinhara, causing her blood to rush, her head to pound, her fingers to tingle and her hands to throb. As she looked down on Qaltroq’s face she felt her anger slip into lust, felt Qaltroq’s warmth squirming lightly between her knees. They made rough love on the blanket, Tinhara demanding that Qaltroq’s tongue do all the pleasurable things she had promised as Tinhara strove to release the energy that had been pent up inside. She felt much more tumultuous than usual, and Qaltroq’s quiet moans turned into loud shrieks and groans of pleasure as she arched her body under the command of Tinhara’s demanding hands.
Tinhara stayed with Qaltroq for three weeks, fixing her ice house, hunting ducks and making love. Qaltroq told everyone that Tinhara was a man, a hunter passing through, and no one questioned it when she brought food to the longhouse. She taught Qaltroq about saluma, a particular kind of granular snow that could burn hot enough to start a fire with almost anything. She assured Qaltroq that it was saluma that would keep her in good standing with the villagers. “Tell no one the secrets I have told you about saluma, let no one know the type of snow you are looking for, let no one handle the snow before it burns, and you shall be safe here in the village,” Tinhara had told her. Tinhara had let Huel wander the area without a muzzle, cautioning him not to tear into any of the local dogs or they would be forced to leave and since he did not, it only served to convince Tinhara that he did understand her. It was a good few weeks, but when Huel returned with the remains of a tawnluk, Tinhara knew it was time to go.
“But why now?” Qaltroq asked, her lips pouting, her eyes downcast.
“Huel has brought a great kill, and there is enough meat here to last a long time on the road. It is a good sign, a sign that the time has come. You will do fine without me.”
“You almost sound concerned about me.”
“I am concerned about you. I stayed to help you, to make things better for you, to make them fair. Remember you said things were not fair? Now maybe they will be,” Tinhara said as she used her xix to cut chunks of meat off the carcass. Deftly she skinned the animal, portioned the meat into sizes for both her and Huel, and set aside some smaller bits to leave behind for Qaltroq. She cracked open a leg bone and handed half to Qaltroq. She put her half to her lips and began to suck out the marrow. “With the saluma, you will be required by the village in the winter time. Even though they never had it before, it will be vital, and your survival will be vital. That’s the way people think: give them something good and they will never want to be without it.”
“But I am good, and you want to be without me,” Qaltroq said with a coy smile.
“It is not what I want, but what must be. I cannot stay here with you, pretending to be a man, keeping my eyes covered and my bear at bay. And you won’t want me here forever, you won’t want me when I come home drunk and angry, and I do not want things to end like that. I want them to end like this, happy, knowing you will be safe for the next time I come by.”
“When will you be back? Do you think I need a husband to care for me while you are gone?” Qaltroq asked. “Or should I wait for you?”
Tinhara paused and looked at Qaltroq. She looked years younger than when Tinhara had seen her just a few weeks ago, revitalized and happy again. A husband would simply beat her down again. “No you can become the grandmother of the village, the widow who pines for the loss of her husband.”
“Or the loss of her lover.”
“Or her lover. Learn the role of the grandmother, Qaltroq, and you will be fine. Keep your secret of saluma and show them only how to use it, and you will prosper from their generosity. Keep my secret, and I will come back to you,” Tinhara said as she loaded the food into her sled.
“I will never tell your secrets, they are safe with me.”
Tinhara doubted that, but she would keep the secret of her identity long enough to allow her a decent amount of time to leave. She would head south and then swing to the west and head north, throwing anyone who may follow her off her tracks. She fastened Huel into the muzzle without another word, while Qaltroq sat quietly watching. Tinhara felt good about the way she had treated Qaltroq, had helped her, had given her a knowledge about saluma that would keep her alive with the help of the villagers. It was one of the kindest things she had ever done.
Huel was harnessed and ready to go when Qaltroq finally spoke. She stood next to Tinhara and stretched out her arms for a farewell embrace. Close together, the hoods of their otuks fell together and blocked out the cold wind. “You are a puzzle, Hara,” Qaltroq said. She had fallen back into calling Tinhara by her fake name out of necessity. “You stayed here longer than you expected, nearly killing me on the first night but then teaching me things that will save my life. You make passionate love, and then fall into a haunted sleep. I know you are haunted by your past, and that is why I welcomed you to my bed. I can forgive you, but you must forgive yourself.”
Tinhara laughed slightly and a sneer crept across her lips. “You do not really know what I have done, the depths I sank to, but I thank you for your words. They are kind.”
“As you have been kind to me. Come back to me again, Hara, perhaps next time to stay.” They shared one long, last kiss and Tinhara stepped back to the sled.
She climbed onto the runners and grabbed the reins. With a wave over her shoulder to Qaltroq, she slapped the reins. “Fit! Fit!” she shouted out and Huel began to pull the sled away. She felt no sorrow for leaving Qaltroq, her deeds as a King’s Guards had long ago caused it to freeze into a ball of ice in her chest. It had no room for love. A few minutes out of the village, Tinhara turned south and increased Huel’s pace. Even if Qaltroq did inform on her, all she could say was that Tinhara headed south, and continued in that direction until out of sight. While they travelled, Tinhara fought with herself over her treatment of Qaltroq. It was kind, there was no doubt, but it hardly made up for the terror she brought upon so many others. She had been tricked into becoming a killer, but it was her own fault that she enjoyed it so much. She was haunted by her past, but not enough to let herself be caught and punished.
Tinhara felt torn as she talked to herself and it wasn’t long before she grabbed the grogskin from the back of the sled and began to drink.
Under a cold sun that had not set for several months, Tinhara raced along the frozen Qanpun River. The icy world around her was featureless only to those not familiar with the rugged beauty of the ever-changing icescape and the shifting snow dunes that covered the land. Every few seconds, her vision was clouded by her own breath, taking form in the cold and rising up past her eyes toward the Heavens. She had spent three days covering her tracks, travelling south, then east, then west and now north again. In front of her, she saw a thin streak of lavender and indigo sky stretching across the horizon. But the ice and snow barely reflected these colours, instead mirroring the dazzling white of the sun. She adjusted her squints to block out more of the painful brightness, and looked again. She could see hours into the distance. As long as they stayed on the Qanpun River, she could easily avoid the deadly hazards that lay before her.
“Hoh!” she shouted as she pulled back on the reins, bringing Huel to a slow stop. “Where shall we go today?” she asked and, sure she would get no answer from Huel, answered herself. “Perhaps it is time to return to Kashunaq. Maybe travel to the Ataani Ocean to see the great snow-coloured whales. I think that north is the best direction, we just need to veer off the Qanpun before we get within sight of Galmaq.” She scratched her head and took a drink of grog from the grogskin.
She climbed onto the back runners, slapped the reins and the sled lurched forward. Its movement was ungainly and rough at first, but once the great white bear caught his stride, she sailed easily down the glacial road. She kept Huel at a quick pace; in her drunken stupor, she found it intolerable to travel slowly when another groggery was hours away. Unless she met another drinking traveller on the road, and that was the only reason to take the road, she might even be days away from a restocking of drink. “I have enough to last another week or so, but that is all,” she explained to Huel. The Qanpun River twisted from north to south the entire length of the country, but, the story went, turned to solid ice the day Qan and Hecath were separated. It was as solid as Qan’s heart. “As solid as my heart,” she said. She thought quickly of Qaltroq and then pushed the woman’s image from her mind.
Tinhara looked up into the endless, indistinct sky, and noticed the sacred formation of clouds coming into being to the east. As she travelled along, she watched the thin shards of clouds swell and grow in size, turning dark and wild and blue. They looked like Naqtuk, the sacred bear Goddess lumbering lazily across the sky to her den. Tinhara blinked back the fogginess in her mind to remember the stories of Naqtuk her mother had told her. A person who could find Naqtuk had the power to find anything. Anything? she wondered. Tinhara belched and the sound made her laugh a little. She blinked again, and wondered what she had just been thinking. She flicked the reins and Huel stepped up his pace again.
Flying along the snow road, the wind pushed at her body. “The wind is strong today, Huel. I think it wants to make love to me, it wants to rip my clothes off and make love to me,” she said. Tinhara bent her small frame down over the end of the sled, trying to streamline herself. The cold did not bother her; she had a soft sealskin rag tied around her head and a warm hood pulled up. Underneath her stained and well-worn leather otuk were layers of fur, leather, hide and finally, next to her ravaged and scared body, was the soft and supple skin of a young tawnluk. Tinhara’s feet were well protected by the thick, double-skinned boots that had fur on both the outside and the inside. She had stolen them from a dead man after leaving Visby.
After more than two hours’ journey, Tinhara was directly under the Naqtuk clouds. She stopped the sled and looked around, cautious superstition getting the better of her. “What does it mean, old friend?” she asked Huel. He chuffed and sat down on the snow with a thump. She had always trusted the weather to tell her the truth. The wind never lied, the ice told only true tales, the clouds pointed to the one truth of the moment. “Too bad I’m too damn drunk to read the clouds!” she laughed out. She readjusted her otuk and tightened the straps on her tough leather gauntlets. As she pulled the sinew tight, she spied a dark object in the snow. Getting off her sled, she walked over and picked up an old fur glove. There were footprints around the glove and when she followed their staggering journey, she saw another glove, and further away was a fur hat peaking up from the snow. “Whoever these belonged to should not have been on foot. Whoever it was has fallen under the call of the snow. You see Huel,” she said as she turned to face the sled, “I was right when I said the wind wanted to rip my clothes off. Here the snow has gently coaxed someone to strip!”
Tinhara pushed her hood back a bit and scanned the area, looking for the dead body of whoever had been foolish enough to take off the protective gear. “Ahhh, there!” she said as she pointed to a body in a snow bank at the far side of the wide road. Tinhara strained to see, wishing she hadn’t had so much to drink. Finally, she climbed back onto her sled and headed across the river toward the figure, pulling up near her target. “What have we here? Are you dead, or still alive?” She stared at what lay at her feet, tilting her head this way and that, in an effort to allow a better view through the squints that she wore. Here lay an old woman, her paling skin not much different from the snow that would be her tomb. Tinhara stepped off the sled, the icy crust crunching under her weight as she walked toward the woman. “You, old woman, are you dead?” she asked before laughing at how absurd it was to talk to the dead. They could not answer.
The old woman raised a wrinkled bare hand toward Tinhara. “Bright blessings from Hecath and Qan.” The old woman gave the traditional Qanian blessings for a stranger.
“I thought you were dead,” Tinhara said with a frown. She had been looking forward to easy pickings, although taking from a dying old woman was only marginally harder than taking from the dead.
“I am Cyr. Please help me. I was on my way to Galmaq when the winds hit.” She peered at Tinhara, half-pleading, half-cautious. Her head shook slightly on its delicate, wizened neck.
“They have fine food, and fine grog. Why are you here?” Tinhara said as she gestured around her. She looked the old woman over — a townswoman, for certain, but not of Visby, at least, not lately. Her withered hands showed no trace of hard work etched on them. “You have very long hair,” she said to the woman, thinking quietly to herself that such hair, especially hair greyed with age, was an emblem of the mystics. It whipped wildly around Cyr’s face as the wind rose and fell. She looked at Tinhara with small, fragile eyes. Her cheeks puffed slightly as she smiled, revealing a full set of teeth. This woman had seen no hardship, had never lost a tooth gnawing on an old bone to stave off starvation, never felt the ripping and tearing of an animal’s horns when she got too close during the hunt. This, Tinhara decided, was definitely a woman of importance.
“I thought I could walk to Galmaq and have fallen down and hurt my ankle. I think it’s twisted. My bones are too brittle for the walk and my flesh too weak to fight this cold much longer. Please, help me?” Cyr’s voice pleased Tinhara with its warm notes and gentleness, and it softened her a little. She yielded to a sudden whim, and bent down, her face just inches from where the shivering old woman sat in the snow. The wind flickered, blowing soothing snow into her face.
“I do not lie! I was…”
Tinhara sneered. “And now you hear for yourself how foolish your lie is. No one walks to Galmaq. No one walks anywhere. Liar.”
“I am going to Galmaq,” Cyr said calmly, unafraid that she had been caught in her lie. It did not matter to her.
“I could take you to within real walking distance of Galmaq, I am going past there myself,” Tinhara offered.
“You are a kind soul, friend” the old woman smiled back.
Tinhara laughed. “I’m not kind at all. I want payment,” she said. She knew that this genteel woman, lying here freezing to death in the snow, would have something of value. Otherwise, she would not have lied.
“I have nothing, I… I was robbed and left here to die, they took everything,” was Cyr’s mumbled protest. Her hands now began to tremble, not from fear, but from cold. Tinhara looked up and down Qanpun Road, and back to the old woman.
Tinhara smacked her lips. “Lying again. There are no fresh sled tracks, no one has been by for a while. I don’t care anymore, liar, I just want something from you. Someone of your age will have at least one hiriqta, perhaps two. Now, I want an hiriqta from you. Give it to me, and I will take you to Galmaq.”
Cyr was shocked. The holy crossover coin was the only way the dead could pay the price of the qayaq ride to the Sacred Grounds of Nasquelek. “I can’t give you the coin,” protested the old woman. “If I die without my payment, my soul will never travel to Nasquelek. I’m old; I’m close to death. I can’t be without it.” She tried to stand up, but her arms were not strong enough to lift her body out of the snow.
Tinhara stood up and looked down on the old woman. She kicked a bit of snow at the old woman and shook her head. She was trying to be nice, to be reasonable and fair like she had been with Qaltroq. “No one can save you, except me. Now, I could wait until you are dead — it will only be a few more minutes before the snow has you in its grips — and then take your coin. You certainly smell of death. Did you not notice that stench in the air? Or, I could be nice, and take you close to Galmaq, and you could pay me for my troubles.” It sounded quite fair to Tinhara. “Normally, I would let you die,” she said as she bent slightly, “or maybe even hurry it along. But I’m drunk on grog, the weather is clear, the day is cold and I’m feeling generous. Would you like the ride?” She was getting a bit tired of trying to reason the coin from the woman.
“But it’s all I have,” responded the old woman.
Tinhara stomped her foot down close to the woman’s knee, trying to intimidate her. Things had been going well since Visby, and she didn’t want to kill the old woman. “You’re wrong, old woman. You have two things. You have the crossover coin, and you have your life. I know which one I value more. Which do you value more?” She stood still, silent, sneering at the shaking hag.
The hair on the back of Tinhara’s neck suddenly stood on end. “What was that?” she asked as she turned. She knew there was something wrong; she sensed something in the air. She raised her head and scanned the horizon. She saw nothing, but she felt the change. Was it a roaming aqlay? She had heard once that those frozen places had legs, and that was why they could never be found where they had once been. Although the wind was blowing, whipping past her hooded face, it was as though the life had drained out of it. It was the wind, not the woman, which carried the smell of the dead.
“What is that? Please, take me,” Cyr relented. She pulled her crossover coin from her pocket and rolled it over in her aching cold palms. The gleam of the gold against the woman’s now-blue skin shone into Tinhara’s eyes. She smiled, and reached down and quickly snatched the coin from the Cyr’s hands.
“Water to water, ice to ice,” Tinhara mused as she pocketed the coin. She had spent years of wandering the icy wastelands robbing the dead of their gifts, and here she was helping a foolish old woman. Maybe Visby changed her. “Maybe there is hope for me yet,” she chuckled to herself. She had seen many dead bodies, had burned their bones for warmth and had drunk to their misfortune. But the sacred clouds promised she would get more this time. Tinhara stepped lightly toward Cyr as she struggled to stand.
A bitter wind blew, and the old woman’s hair whipped about. Her hood blew down, and revealed a tattoo on her ear. Tinhara frowned and then spit. “I should kill you now mystic!” she shouted out.
“I am a mystic and I am here for you,” said the old woman with a wave of her hand. She was frail, yet had a resilience that had allowed her to grow old; a rarity in this harsh world of starvation, ice and snow despite the benefits wealth and mysticism could bring.
“Help me out?”
“You will not find out if I do not survive the weather.” Tinhara snorted and grabbed Cyr under the arm to help her to her feet.
The storm rose faster and stronger than any animal, pouncing, attacking, and biting. The wind roared over the pair in vicious fury, its claw-like gusts ripping at Tinhara’s cloak, pulling the hood from around her face and exposing her flesh to its fury. It growled in her ears, laughing as it stole the breath from her lips. She lost her grip on the mystic as the snow blinded her and cut off the sound of the rest of the world. Tinhara struggled to remain standing but soon realized its folly. She knelt down in the snow, close to the earth, and began to creep forward. Her clutching hands found nothing, and she moved forward, gaining only inches at a time, clawing at the air and snow around her to find the woman.
“I will not lose you mystic!” Tinhara shouted out, hoping the old woman could hear. “I will not lose the mystic if only to kill her later,” she said to herself. She hated mystics, snow seers, prophets of destiny, liars all! She had been given a prophecy, and now here she was, crawling on hands and knees in a furious storm instead of making history as she had been promised. She stopped for a moment and hung her head, trying to gather strength. “At least it was not an aqlay,” she murmured.
Tinhara continued to crawl again on hands and knees, convinced now that she wanted the mystic just to watch her die, and finally found her hand filled with yielding cold flesh. She clutched Cyr and pulled her close, to shelter her from the uproar. Tinhara screamed for her bear, over and over, hoping the wind might carry her voice to him. Tinhara shouted again for Huel and he responded by butting her in the head with his great snout. She grabbed his fur and easily found the leather harness wrapped around his huge body. Struggling against the hungry ice shards that chewed her skin at every turn, she dragged herself toward the sled, hauling the old woman behind her. It took a momentous struggle as she reached the bone runners and gained a handhold on the edge of the sled. She was too breathless to yell to the old woman, although she felt triumphant against such an overwhelming enemy. She scraped along the sled and found the opening of her caqun.
“You first,” she shouted over the roaring wind to Cyr as she used all of her might to heave the woman into the sled and down into the safety of the caqun. The storm rose to full fury now, and the blizzard howled its protest at the prospect of losing two meals to the protection and warmth of the caqun. Finally, shivering and gasping, Tinhara crawled in and closed the opening above her head. She lay surrounded by the familiar smell and feel of her home her protection, her second skin. She sighed a little with relief, but then felt odd; this comfortable skin now housed a second body. She shrank down, hunkering away from the blizzard that screeched and wailed and demanded to be fed, and closer against the freezing old woman who needed the extra body heat to stay alive. Tinhara felt her own heart beating, the blood coursing through her body, and as long as she felt that, she knew she was alive. Together like this, they waited, wordlessly wrapped around each other, listening for the tempest to exhaust itself. Finally the attack ceased and the storm moved on to better hunting grounds.