A drunken man at the bar behind her turned toward Tinhara, and the hair on her arms stood on end. He looked at her missing fingers, her broad shoulders and the pale colour of her skin, and sneer crawled across his face. Tinhara turned toward him, one foot on the floor, ready to pounce.
“Mind your manners,” Kieron warned. “She may be from Kashunaq, but she’s welcome here. As is everyone. You, if you don’t like what you see, stop looking,” he warned as he placed his meaty hand on the drunk’s head and turned his wrist sharply. The man’s head snapped around to the front, toward Kieron and away from Tinhara.
She could feel Cyr staring at the back of her head, and she suddenly felt flush. “Kiss Hecath,” Tinhara said to the drunk: it was the best curse she could come up with. She turned back and looked at Cyr, but the old woman’s eyes were directed toward the wall, not Tinhara’s face, which was a good thing, since she was ready for a fight with anyone. Kieron gave Tinhara a drink.
By the time she ordered her fourth grog, she was feeling much better than she had been. She had taken a few moments to quietly relive some of the excitement of hearing the prophecy. She was happier now, and did not want to fight and spoil the moment. She suddenly remembered that the old woman was still beside her, chattering away. Something about fire and light and five thousand. Tinhara turned to the man on her right, sniffed at him and shook her head. “I don’t suppose he will give up his seat to you,” she laughed as she turned to speak with Cyr. Tinhara looked for somewhere else to sit with the old woman. One small table in the corner was available, the patrons having left some time while she was daydreaming. She raised her empty cup and gestured toward the table. Grateful for the chance to sit, Cyr left the bar and sat down in one of the rickety seats at the tiny table.
Tinhara ordered another grog. “Cheers!” she shouted as she held her tankard up high. “May all the mystics be at your side,” she offered as she made a slovenly bow toward the old woman. She stumbled and all but collapsed into the second seat at the table. Tinhara raised her glass again, waiting until Cyr held up her empty hand and slapped the tankard in a toast.
Tinhara blinked at her, and smiled, yawned and then blocked Cyr’s voice from her mind. “You talk a lot old woman,” she murmured to herself. “All this chatter of lights and thousands and the myth of Hecath and Qan. Are you certain you were not run out of your home by your children angry with your constant prattle?” She was not one for small talk and had quickly grown bored of Cyr. Tinhara was born a nomad, raised an orphan and grew into adulthood as a leader separated from her men. Listening to others talk was still a foreign activity. She drank while Cyr rambled, humming to herself, and keeping herself entertained by watching the pictu scamper across the floor. It always amazed her that such small animals could exist in the cold. Tinhara mused as one crouched on the floor near where she had first sat at the bar, and began to drink from a puddle. They liked their grog too, and it made her frown.
She noticed a bundle on the floor, near the pictu. Realizing she had left her clothes in that pile, Tinhara lurched from her chair and stumbled back to the bar. She gathered up her meagre belongings. They were wet, stinking because they had been sitting in a puddle of grog. She snatched up the pictu by the tail and it began to squeal. So too did the drunk beside her when she swung it toward him. “I hate those beasts,” he said as he shrank back. Tinhara ignored him. She smiled and watched as it danced around, trying to get a foothold. She snorted and looked at Kieron.
“You’ve been ripping me off,” she slurred. “There must be a hole in my tankard! Look at all this beautiful grog that was wasted on a pictu!” She dropped the creature and her clothes and reached drunkenly for her knife. She missed, and fell to the floor. Kieron leaned over the bar.
“Relax, I’ll give you half of a grog, on the house. Bring your cup over and let me replace it.” Tinhara smiled lazily from the floor and struggled onto her feet. She swayed as she picked up her clothing again and lumbered back to her table. She grabbed the bone tumbler, already drained, and brought it back to Kieron. He gave her different one, half full. Smiling, Tinhara grabbed the drink and the bar at the same time. She needed something to help her stand up when she raised the grog toward Kieron. She turned back to the drinker who had been beside her at the bar, the one who had taken exception to her presence, the one who made her hair stand on end, and punched him in the face. He fell off the stool, shocked by the power of the blow. With a small laugh, Tinhara staggered back to the table.
“Do you know what you just did?” warned Cyr. Tinhara could smell the mystic’s fear, watched as her cheeks turned red and her eyes watered. Tinhara looked hard at her, staring deeply into her eyes as she sat down. It all began to come together in Tinhara’s grog-soaked brain. Cyr had recognized the drunk at the bar, but he had not recognized her. She wondered if she had been set up for real, or if this was a test. Tinhara smiled, and handed the cup to Cyr. She would play it for real.
“Shut up and hang onto my drink. Don’t let a drop spill,” she hissed with a grin. She listened carefully. Straining, squinting her eyes, she could hear a noise above the conversations of the other patrons. At first she heard nothing but the rustle of clothes, the laboured breath of a patron until… Ting! The rare sound of a metal blade exiting its metal sheath. Tinhara sneered. It was a telltale sound coming from an out-of-place weapon. Not like the bone knife she had. It made no sound coming out of its leather sheath. No sound as her fingers spun it deftly around in her hand, no sound as it left her palm and flew through the air. A bone dagger made no sound at all, until it hit its target. Tinhara listened as it ripped into the man’s flesh and scraped the bone. She listened as he shouted and cursed, and she listened as he collapsed on the floor. She stopped squinting at the shocked mystic and turned to see how her aim had been.
“Tinhara! What in the name of Qan are you doing?” shouted Kieron as he ran from behind his bar to grab the injured drinker. The drinkers stammered and shouted, many stood up and a few even ran for the door. Tinhara burst out laughing: they heard her name, and ran in fear.
“He was going to kill me,” Tinhara offered, staring at the dying man, watching as he coughed blood. “He was an assassin, or someone,” she said as she turned darkly toward Cyr.
“You’re drunk and paranoid!” chastised the mystic.
“I may be drunk, but he wasn’t,” Tinhara said matter-of-factly. “He wasn’t really drunk. He didn’t smell like grog. He’d been pouring his drinks onto the floor. That’s why my clothes are soaked in grog. That’s what that pictu was drinking. The tankard didn’t have a hole in it.” Tinhara paused and looked at Kieron. She grabbed her drink from Cyr, raised it to Kieron, and then drank. “But thanks for the free drink!” she shouted as she wiped her mouth. She turned back to Cyr.
“I saw your face, I knew you recognized someone behind me, that man.”
Cyr shook her head. I don’t know him, I only recognized him as a shapeshifter.”
“One in your cousin’s employ?”
Kieron grabbed the badly bleeding man under the arms and began to drag him out of the bar. Tinhara leaped after him and retrieved her dagger from his chest. She followed Kieron out of the Tluq and cleaned the knife off in the snow. “How am I supposed to explain this to the guards?” Kieron growled angrily.
Tinhara shrugged. “Not my problem. Leave him for the dogs. Leave him for Huel,” she mumbled as she wandered back to the Tluq. At the door, she turned back to Kieron. “I want his boots. And hat and gloves for the old woman,” she said. Kieron narrowed his eyes and curled his lip.
He shook his head. “If you want to strip the man, you do it. I will not. I do not see him, never saw him. He was not in my groggery, must have been attacked just outside the door, on his way in.”
Tinhara struggled with his boots and finally plopped herself down in the snow in front of him to get a better grip. Kieron looked around quickly and then bent over to search his clothing. He grabbed a small amount of money, his metal sheath, and a pouch of food. “The man would die soon, whether from blood loss or cold, it matters not to me,” Kieron said. “He doesn’t need his food or money,” he explained. Tinhara did not care, she was still struggling drunkenly with his right boot.
Her head drooped forward slightly. Her eyes were half-closed. Tinhara inhaled deeply, and exhaled noisily. “Damned old mystic,” she mumbled to herself. The boot popped off at that moment and Tinhara held it up triumphantly. Kieron was glaring at her.
“You brought a mystic into my groggery?” he hissed. Tinhara’s only response was to belch and hold the boot up to her own foot to measure the size. It was too small. Her head nodded side to side; she was too drunk to keep it still, too drunk to keep a sustained conversation or even a sustained thought. She quickly became distracted by other ideas that echoed off the recesses of her brain.
“How long have you been standing there?” she asked as Cyr suddenly came into her consciousness.
“Long enough to see you make a buffoon of yourself,” she replied.
“Do you want his hat and gloves? Since you don’t have any?”
Cyr shook her head. “No, I don’t steal from the dead.”
Tinhara frowned, her eyes fogged over. The grog was really starting to take effect. She paused for a moment and replayed the last few minutes in her mind. “What do you mean, buffoon?”
“Look at the havoc you created. You killed a man, the Guards will be here in a moment, I am sure,” Cyr said with disdain.
“There will be no Guards until morning, they never come out here. You said yourself he was a shapeshifter.”
“I didn’t say he was evil.”
“He was evil. Why else would he have a knife?”
“Why do you have a knife?”
Tinhara smiled. “Because I am evil.” It was a simple answer. A noise from behind caught Tinhara’s attention, and she turned to see Kieron approaching. He had disappeared, stepped inside to hide the items he had stolen, and was now returning.
“Seven grogs is 14 ran,” Kieron announced.
“I’m not ready to go,” Tinhara said.
“Yes you are, we have a closing time now. New orders from the King; the groggery has to close.” Tinhara nodded. She knew the rule, it wasn’t new. And she knew he wouldn’t let her leave without paying.
“Fourteen.” She pulled out the hiriqta again and held out her hand to him, then withdrew it. She paused for a moment, weighing the crossover coin in her hand. “And some food, yes, food would be good. What have you got?” she asked.
Kieron shook his head. “No food. I’m waiting for supplies. Food does not comes as easily as it once did around here.”
“You just took food from the dead man,” Tinhara reminded him. Kieron huffed and went back inside, returning after a few moments with the pouch and her belongings. He tossed both to Tinhara, and took the coin from her in exchange. Kieron pocketed the hiriqta and dug for change. He handed Tinhara seventy ran.
“Seventy? That gold was worth at least a hundred! You overcharged me for the food. And think of all the extra money that you will make selling the assassin’s items! The metal knife alone is worth fifteen ran!” she spat. Kieron shrugged.
“Then pay me my fourteen ran and go somewhere else for the hundred for your crossover coin,” Kieron snapped.
Tinhara breathed deeply and sighed, “I suppose it’s what I owe you for the inconvenience.” She shivered and realized she was not properly dressed. She slipped her shirt on, and then put on the otuk.
“Do you want the boots?” she asked Cyr. She was almost civil about it. Cyr shook her head.
Tinhara took all of her belongings and headed to the sled. Kieron went back inside without another word, and as the door shut, she heard Cyr shout after her.
Tinhara slipped on the ice and nearly lost her balance. “I don’t need this,” Tinhara told herself. Her head ached, and her legs were unsteady. The snow around her was still red with the assassin’s blood, but his body was nowhere in sight. A wild trail of footprints led off behind the groggery.
Tinhara whistled for Huel, but her call was swallowed by the cold. She didn’t feel good, and her stomach heaved. Tinhara dropped everything she had in her hands and walked a few steps away. She bent over, holding onto the side of the Tluq for balance. She vomited, the brown grog mixing with the drying red-brown blood. Steam rose up but disappeared quickly as the puke froze in the snow. She could hear footsteps behind her, and knew it was Kieron. The footsteps ceased just behind her; he was waiting for her to finish.
Tinhara eventually finished, and tried to spit out the vinegary bile that still clung to the inside of her mouth. Kieron shook his head. “Some things change,” he mused, “and some things don’t. You must take the old woman with you,” he said. Tinhara shook her head. She was breathless from puking, and wasn’t ready to talk yet. She lost her balance, slammed against the wall and slipped to the ground.
“Come back inside and get her,” Kieron said. His voice carried no anger, no disgust, nothing. He made no judgement of her. And this was why Tinhara spent her money here whenever she had any.
“I don’t even know her,” she protested.
“It doesn’t matter. You can’t bring an old woman into my groggery and expect me to see her safely on her way,” he said. He turned his attention from Tinhara and looked around.
“What are you talking about?” Tinhara asked. “Old women are revered, honoured. They walk safely in Qan.”
Kieron shook his head. “You have been gone a while. Most of the women from Kashunaq have been taken into the sin trade. Even the old ones,” he said slowly. “There is a thriving trade across the border in Karech. Kashunaq women have a special reputation for their wildness, and I have heard, end up with the cruellest owners. But now they have had a taste of Kashunaq flesh, no woman is safe. Take the old woman, and be careful. She shouted out your name, word will spread of your arrival,” he cautioned as he walked back inside. Tinhara looked at herself; she wasn’t too drunk to realize she had thrown up on her boots, that they were stained with vomit.
The door of the Tluq opened, and Kieron brought out Cyr by the arm. He waited for a moment, and then simply turned away. He left Cyr with Tinhara, and closed the Tluq’s door. She heard it latch from the inside.
“I don’t know if it’s safe here, “ Cyr said. Tinhara slowly raised her eyes to look at Cyr and spat.
“You shouted my name,” she said. Gripping the wall of the Tluq, Tinhara got to her feet. “I am worried about that missing assassin right now.” Tinhara was seeing double, and was addressing the wrong old woman. Tinhara swayed as she looked at Cyr. When had Huel returned? She laughed as Huel licked up the blood and vomit in the snow. She staggered over to him and clutched his fur. “Good boy!” she said as she shoved her face into his thick, black coat. “Did you have a good meal? Something nice and juicy?” she whispered. Tinhara spun around quickly when Cyr cleared her throat. She’d forgotten about the mystic already.
Tinhara blinked a few times, slowly. She was blind drunk, stuck with a snow seer, and she really had to pee. She cleared her throat, held up one finger, and then walked around to the back of the Tluq.
Tinhara almost stumbled over the assassin’s body at the back of the hut. “Thought you could get me?” she asked as she kicked the body in the ribs. He had been stripped of his clothes by Kieron, and everyone else who had found him, and was lying there in the open. A treat for the animals, Tinhara mused. “Your bones will be picked clean before the guards made their next rounds, and scattered around by Kieron if he had any sense.” Tinhara walked a few steps away, and undid her pants. As carefully as she could, she peed in a snowbank. She covered it with snow, and tottered back slowly to Cyr. Her head was pounding, and she was getting chills. This isn’t good, she thought. The phantom fingers on her left hand began to throb, and she rubbed her remaining fingers against her thigh.
Cyr was sitting in the sled, waiting. Tinhara untied the sled and hauled it around to face the other direction. She grunted at Huel, and he walked around to his spot at the front of the sled. Slowly, clumsily, Tinhara hooked him into his harness and snapped on the muzzle. She picked up the clothing she had dropped, and sat heavily on the back of the sled. She struggled, but finally removed her boots and put on the assassin’s. She slipped her gauntlets back on, stood up and grabbed the reins.
“You’re an accomplished drunk,” Cyr said.
“I spend a lot of time this way,” she said with a laugh. “You had a few drinks in there, old woman. Why aren’t you feeling it?”
It was Cyr’s turn to laugh. “I think you drank all of them for me. I will find somewhere safe for you tonight, to protect you until you are sober. Somewhere not far from here.”
Tinhara burped. She didn’t care that the old woman was suddenly acting motherly. “Easy for me. Which way?” she asked.
Cyr responded with a soft, “Forward.” Tinhara slapped the reins and Huel walked forward, following the directions he had been given.
“You are brave, and perhaps a little mad. I remember Tanki bragging that you were without fear, and without conscience. He was very proud that he found you, pulled you into his prophecy. And I can see why. If anyone can rescue the Burning Woman, it is you,” Cyr said.
Tinhara snorted. “I will.” She tried to picture this Burning Woman, but in a land of ice, she could not picture a fire large enough to consume an entire person.
“Stop here,” Cyr said. “I have a good feeling about this spot. It is safe for you here.” Tinhara fell off her sled backwards as it came to a halt. Her vision became tinged with blue.
“An ancestor is buried close by,” she mumbled as she dug her hands into the snow.
Cyr reached out and cupped Tinhara’s face. She turned Tinhara’s face toward her own, and smiled. “You will be a bank of snow until you awaken,” she said. Sleep embraced the drunken warrior and nightmares took control of her mind.
Tinhara bolted awake. Her heart was racing, pounding in her ears. She kicked at the skins that covered her, struggled out of the caqun and stood up. She panted, sweat rolling dangerously down her face. Tinhara’s hands shook as she wiped the almost freezing perspiration from her face: she lost a few eyelashes with it. She blinked a few times and looked, trying to get her bearings. It was daylight. She was in a field. And a black dog was asleep beside the sled. She began to remember parts of last night.
Stumbling around, Tinhara looked for things that would tell her about yesterday. She retraced her steps, and she could see sled tracks on all sides of her. It was almost as if they had run over her, like she had been a snow bank. Someone told her she was snow.
She shook herself and let out a grunt. “I hate dreams,” she said. She paused for a long moment, and whispered “Cyr.” She remembered more of the events of the night before; she rescued an old woman, drank, and got into a fight. The dog stood up, shook, and wagged its tail. “Huel?” she asked. The dog barked.
She remembered the prophecy and the magic now, the old woman and the assassin. She scrubbed her face with her hands and looked around. She squinted as the sun glinted off the snow. She was in the territory of Galmaq. Tinhara patted her cheeks to clear her thoughts. She sat on the edge of her sled as more pieces of the night started to come back to her. Tinhara scratched her head violently, and let out a frustrated yowl. She frowned. “Where did I get these boots?” She reached down and pulled her foot up so she could take a closer look. She ran her hands over the soft, thick leather. She inspected the tight stitching, the substantial sole. These boots were meant for stalking. The leather had been well oiled, so they would never creak. They were beautiful, but they weren’t hers. “The assassin?” she wondered aloud. The assassin had obviously been a good one, judging by his boots, but not good enough. She laughed to herself. “I don’t suppose you will tell me what happened?” she laughed as she turned to Huel. He huffed and blinked, but said nothing. “Of course, if you did say something, I’d know I was still dreaming. Or not…” She coughed, and spat the distasteful phlegm from her mouth. She cleared her throat a few more times. With a sigh, she turned her attention to the sled and Huel. She ran her hands over his body. No cuts, no bites, nothing broken. That was a good sign. She crouched down in front of him and scratched behind his ears. Huel half-closed his eyes, and he huffed a little more. She could tell it was still Huel underneath the disguise.
Tinhara stood up, stretched, and shoved Huel to the front of the sled. He was much easier to push around as a dog.
With Huel in place, Tinhara clambered onto the sled and clicked her tongue. With a slight flick of the reins, Huel started off. She steered him around, heading for the Tluq. The frosty air stung her, clearing her head and refreshing her.
Within a few minutes, she was at the Tluq. She slowed Huel, but did not stop him completely. When Tinhara saw the blood in the snow, she decided better of it. “The guards would have been alerted by now. I hope that Kieron is not in too much trouble. He might be in a foul mood.” She hurried Huel onward toward Galmaq proper. While travelling, Tinhara fumbled in her pouches and pockets, and finally found her squints. She pulled back her hood and wrapped the webbing around the back of her head. With a few adjustments, the bone squints were properly in front of her eyes. At this slower pace, it took 20 minutes until Tinhara was at the edge of Galmaq itself. Karech magic always made her nervous, and there was more here than anywhere in Qan.
Tinhara stopped Huel and opened her otuk to check her money pouch. She had enough to board Huel, and not have to take him into the unpleasantness of Galmaq. She headed toward one of the stables that ringed the magically warm city. She found one that looked clean and greeted the owner with a shout. “Hecath and Qan love you.”
“And you, friend,” came a reply from behind the building. A blond-haired man walked around the side of the building, wiping his hands on a stiff leather apron. He was still warm from being near the edge of Galmaq, and steam floated off his body as he walked over to Tinhara. She dismounted and shook his broad, rough hand. “Your wares and animal will be well cared for.”
Tinhara smiled and nodded, and organized her belongings on the sled. Tinhara wrapped almost everything into a single skin and shoved it deep into the caqun as the stable owner unhitched Huel and led him to a large stable. She kept her sealskin shirt, and a few pouches containing money, odds and ends, and weapons. “Fresh meat every other day. Clean snow for him to sleep on and drink from, replaced every third day. How long will you be in Galmaq?” he asked.
Tinhara shrugged. “Not long. I’m looking for supplies. Probably only a day, maybe two.”
“Short stays are welcome. Has your dog eaten today?” he asked. Tinhara shook her head. “I’ll be sure he eats well tonight,” he assured her as he hooked the latch on the stable door. With a couple of grunts, he hauled the sled into a small holding block beside Huel’s stable. “Charge is five ran for a full day and night, three ran for a partial.”
Tinhara reached for money pouch. “I guess this is a hard job,” she said as she dug through her pouch.
“Yes, it is. I wax paws, repair sleds, whatever needs to be done. Do you need any work done?” he asked as he took eight ran from Tinhara.
“No, everything should be fine. Payment for the rest of today, and tomorrow,” she said as she handed him the money. “Tell me, friend. I was last here a few years ago, and I remember the city itself being smaller. Is it my imagination?”
“I’ve been running a stable for five years, and I’ve seen the heat ring double in size. I think it’s getting bigger, faster. Just a few months ago, I was not on the edge of Galmaq. Now, I’ll have to move my stables further out, just so the animals won’t overheat. It won’t be long before we hit the walls.” Tinhara nodded slowly, but said nothing. “If there’s anything I can do, be sure to ask,” he said as he bowed curtly. “If you’ll excuse me, it’s cold out here without skins,” he explained as he walked behind the building again and into the comfort zone.
Tinhara turned toward the city of Galmaq. Each step she took made her warmer. The snow was almost completely gone when she was five steps of the barrier. There was no snow at all on the other side of the magic circle around the city, and it filled Tinhara with distrust. The Karech magicians had put Galmaq under a spell of warmth so they could live there. Green grass hills replaced snow banks and trees littered the land. In three steps, Tinhara had to remove her sealskin shirt. In two steps, she could feel the warmth working its way under her leather vest to her cloth shirt. She took a deep breath, and crossed the invisible line.
Despite the beauty of Galmaq, Tinhara always felt uncomfortable here. The verdant lands looked unusual, out of place, foreign. It was through the power of magic, and it was not only the magic that made her nervous, but also the inclination. She never understood why anyone would want to live in such a warm place. The air was still; there were no storms, no breezes at all. Without the wailing or even whispering of the wind, it was too dead for Tinhara. She shook herself free of these dreary thoughts, and headed toward the market. She wended her way along the familiar streets, following the centre canal that provided the free-flowing water everything depended upon. She walked quickly, as she always did. It was not long before she caught up with a troop of blond-haired, strong smelling people with baskets of meat and other foods on their backs. Tinhara’s nostrils flared as the scents trickled into her nose. There were other people using the road, but these lean outcasts kept to the right, moving onward in a slow, steady pace. In front of the troop, Tinhara noticed a large, thick man striking boldly along the road, his shiny brown skin glimmering in the sunlight. She thought she recognized him, and turned off the main road onto a side street.
Here, Tinhara found a smaller market, for fresh plants and fish. Arumarrluk hung from posts, and tempted her. She stopped to check the quality of the dried fish, and called the stall owner over to her. “Bright blessings,” she greeted him. “What type of seal oil has this been preserved with?” she asked.
The stall owner smiled. “Bright blessings. This is made with only the finest, freshest oil,” he responded. Tinhara smiled and bowed, and went on her way. If he was not prepared to tell her, it was not worth asking again. At each stall, Tinhara gave the same greeting, and asked the same question. None gave her the answer she wanted, so she headed back to the main road.
Tinhara looked around, trying to spot the kind of stall she was looking for. It was difficult to see everything with the squints on, but she was not the only one wearing them. The sun was bright and warm, and many people seemed to require eye protection. Tinhara continued to look for some place that would have Arumarrluk that had been rubbed with Kashunaq seal oil. She was homesick, and wanted to taste something familiar. She wandered through the marketplace, eyeing beautiful robes, brightly-coloured trinkets and an interesting array of traded goods. There was a lot of metal here, bent and pounded into various shapes. Some were decorative, and obviously some were weapons. Finally, Tinhara spied a small figure, sitting with a small table in front of him. The gnarly old man looked like he was from Kashunaq: short with black hair, hooded blue eyes, and a small flat nose. Tinhara walked over.
“Bright blessings,” she said as she crouched down. The man nodded, and murmured, and looked down. “Locto,” Tinhara said softly. He looked up with smiling ice eyes, and grinned.
“Locto,” he responded under his breath in the same forbidden language. “You’re from home?” he asked. Tinhara nodded. No one from Kashunaq called it Kashunaq; it was, simply, home. “Have you been back recently?” he asked.
Tinhara sat beside the man, noticing how very thin he was. “Yes, I was home last year,” she replied. “You are from home? How did you get here?” she asked. She had lied about being home last year. In fact, she had not been home for many years; she was too ashamed. But she wanted to hear anything she could about home and its people.
The man cast his eyes to the ground, and, with a quivering voice softly replied, “My son brought me to Galmaq. The Reeve convinced him that this was a land of opportunity, of wealth and riches. He died of the Rings, and I have not been able to leave. I am almost 50 years old, the journey is too hard for me alone.” Tinhara put her arm around the man, and gave him a slight hug. She cleared her throat; she knew what it was like to be away from family.
“Home has not changed since the war ended,” Tinhara said. The man looked up and smiled. Tinhara touched his cheek and said “By the frozen earth, I swear, the ice homes still stand and the snow does not melt.”
He smiled, and rocked a bit. “I am Qilomo, of Darrence and Kirlah,” he said, announcing his parent’s names. Tinhara knew it was of no consequence if she did not give her name. It usually meant you were ashamed of your family, not yourself. “It always worries me, that the magicians will extend their work beyond Galmaq, to home. I have heard that Visby may be next. I know that many people enjoy the green grass, and the running water in the centre of town, but…” he trailed off.
Tinhara nodded. “But it’s so unnatural,” she finished. The two strangers, bonded over their homeland, laughed together. “Are your wraps like home?” she asked.
“As much as they can be,” replied Qilomo. “Have one,” he said as he grabbed one and passed it to Tinhara. Tinhara raised it to her nose and inhaled deeply. The sharp smell of dried fish tickled her nose, the thin layer of seal oil tempted her. Her eyes began to cloud over, and she almost cried. She sunk her teeth into the wrap and its fish filling and took a big bite. The oil was creamy in her mouth; the bones of the fish crunched easily between her teeth. Greedily, Tinhara ate the entire Arumarrluk with barely a breath. Finally satisfied, she smiled and bowed her head to the man.
“That was the best I have had since home,” she said. Qilomo smiled, and offered Tinhara another. “Will you be here tomorrow?” she asked.
“Yes, tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. Always here. Will you be in Galmaq for a while?” he asked.
Tinhara shook her head. “No. I’ve come to pick up supplies, and I will be leaving in a day or two. I don’t like Galmaq,” she confided. Again they laughed.
“Go to Aqumlluk. It’s a good eating house, with fine grog and spirits. Some of the servers there have pity on our kind. They are gentle, and can add a little something extra to your food. To make it seem more like home,” he advised. Tinhara nodded. Tinhara reached into her money pouch and withdrew ten ran. “No, no,” replied the man as he shook his hands. “People from home always eat for free,” he said.
Tinhara grinned. “But this is the one time I can easily pay. Share in my fortune, as I have shared in your hospitality. Please, join me tonight at Aqumlluk. It would be my honour,” she said as the dropped the ran into Qilomo’s lap.
“Bless you, I will meet you there tonight. “Loctoq,” he said as Tinhara stood to leave. “If you need anything in the meantime, or a place to stay, come to me. I am in the plain looking hut, the white one, on the street with the fishmongers,” he said. “You will know which one it is if you think of home.”
Tinhara thanked the man and walked away. She continued on her way, walking through the market at her leisure. Little aside from the size had changed since her days with the King’s Guards. She knew all the streets, although some were now longer, and she even recognized some of the sellers, although she dared not talk to them. She thought of Qilomo, Aqumlluk and food. She rolled the word over and over on her tongue. “Aqumlluk. Aqumlluk. Aqummmmlluk. Aaaaaaqummmmmlluk.” It brought visions of fire to her mind. “Aqumlluk-lluk-lluk. Fire, fire,” she murmured as she wandered the streets. When she saw a man pull his young son away from her, she realized she’d been musing aloud. She smiled at the boy, bowed slightly, and continued on.
The importance of the day carried her forward with long, easy strides. She followed the rutted and pitted road as it ran softly twisting paths. Puffs of breath escaped from between her slightly opened lips. Galmaq was almost a day’s journey in width and breadth by steady foot. It was warm, much warmer than the frozen outer lands, and Tinhara was sweating. She felt dirty, grimy: she was not used to sweating. Tinhara looked around her, trying to discern how far she had travelled, and how soon she should return. She was still on the main road, the centre canal still heading northward toward the edge of Galmaq. She turned on her heels and walked in the other direction, against the flow of water, back to the centre of town.