Three hours later Tinhara was back in the market, looking at the trinkets and offerings she had seen before. It was getting late, close to the hour of eating by her stomach’s estimation. Qilomo was gone from his spot on the street. Tinhara watched spellbound, stopping in her tracks, as the clouds in the sky turned from their usual white to a deep, blood red. It was a bad omen, one she had seen only once before, right before she lead her army into battle the first time against her own kind.
Tinhara looked around. Others saw it too, and some were packing up their stores. Then Tinhara realized that the sky was getting darker, even though the sun was still in the sky. It took her aback until she remembered that magic made the skies of Galmaq go dark each night, and bright each morning. She felt an urgent need to get to Aqumlluk, to find Qilomo and again be comforted by the company of her own. The air seemed to be closing in on her quickly, and she wanted to get inside. She picked up the pace, hurrying down the street, until finally found the street she wanted. She turned right, and was at Aqumlluk in no time. Tinhara sighed and brushed past the skin that hung from the entranceway.
She stood inside, peering into a darkness that was broken by the light of many candles. Inside, it was crowded. There were people from all over, and the hum of different voices, different accents, climbed up the walls and echoed off the ceiling. While she was looking for Qilomo, a server approached her. “This way,” he bowed as he led Tinhara toward the back of the room. It was crowded, and Tinhara struggled to follow the thin man as he wove an expert path around tables and their patrons. In frustration, she removed her squints, knowing that Cyr’s powers were keeping them brown. She continued to look for Qilomo, but it seemed that he had not arrived.
The server showed Tinhara to a small table, and waited for her to sit. “We have tomcod with saffron or grilled seal with berries. The tawnluk is available roasted or raw. There is mountain milk for dessert. We serve grog by the cup and grog by the bottle. What would you like?” the server intoned. He obviously said the same thing day in, day out, to visitors like Tinhara.
“I am waiting for someone,” Tinhara said. The server snorted and rolled his eyes. She reached quickly into her money pouch and held out five ran for him. A drink would probably only cost four. “Of course,” she smiled, “I would like something to drink.” The waiter’s demeanour changed. He took the money, bowed, and left. Suddenly before her was the man from the market. Tinhara smiled. “I thought you might not meet me.”
“Forgive my lateness. There was trouble outside,” replied Qilomo. “I…” Qilomo paused in the middle of sitting down, his eyes locked on Tinhara’s. “What is this? Your eyes!”
“Please, sit, Qilomo” she enjoined as she moved the second chair toward him. “It is a disease I caught while in Visby. My eyes are really blue, they have turned brown but will return to normal again,” she whispered. Qilomo sat down slowly.
“I have heard of no such disease,” he said warily.
“I think it is something from Karech. Something someone brought with them, like the Rings. But do not trouble yourself over my eyes. I am from Kashunaq. I speak our language.” This final statement reassured him, since no foreigners had ever mastered it. “What kind of trouble was outside?” she asked, changing the subject.
“There are rough crowds gathering. A sin trade is happening tonight, here at Aqumlluk. The Hooded Man is said to be coming. There is rumour of a red woman among the taksins who will be auctioned during the sin trade. And with the red clouds in the sky today, well, rumours have started,” Qilomo said.
Tinhara straightened in her chair. “A red woman?” she asked. “A woman with red skin, or…?”
Qilomo shrugged. “The market was buzzing about it today. ‘The Red Woman’. That’s all I heard.” Tinhara shook her head a little, and leaned closer to Qilomo so she would not be overheard.
“Did you see a red woman?” she asked. Qilomo shook his head. Tinhara saw the server, past Qilomo’s shoulder, coming with her grog. “How much for the best home cooking here?” she asked Qilomo.
“Thirty ran, maybe thirty-five,” he responded. “For two,” he added quietly.
The server arrived as Tinhara reached for her money pouch again. She quickly counted forty ran onto the table. The server smiled, bowed again, and took the money. “Ask the cook for something special, from Kashunaq,” she whispered as she tapped Qilomo on the shoulder. The waiter scurried off to the kitchen.
“It seems so easy to buy respect here,” she grumbled good-heartedly to Qilomo. She looked around again. Fifty steps in front of her, beyond all of the tables, she spied a small stage. To the right was the exit, to the left, the kitchen. There were only two tables behind her, and only one of those was in use. Tinhara turned her attention to the small oil candle on her table. She watched the flame sputter slightly in the same breeze that had tickled her, and she watched as it changed direction and danced away from the wick. There was a door behind her that was causing the flame to flicker in one direction when it opened, and another direction when it closed. Tinhara held her hands over the flame. She was not cold by any means, but there was something comforting about the small candle.
While waiting for the server to return, Tinhara and Qilomo talked of the families in Kashunaq; who remained, who died, who left.
Finally, the server appeared with their meal: a thick seal steak with berries, four large pieces of seal flipper and two saffron tomcod wraps on the side, served on a large stone platter. Tinhara smiled and nodded as the food was placed in front of her. She quickly poured the grog she had been neglecting into the round-bottom cup and drank deeply. She handed the tumbler over to Qilomo and turned her attention to the warmth and smell of the food.
Tinhara raised her hands so that they hovered over the plate, where they were eventually joined by Qilomo’s. In unison, they began to pray over the food. “Hecath and Qan, bless these creatures who gave their lives. They join our energies and become one with us.”
“To the comforts of home and heart,” Tinhara intoned, repeating an age-old prayer. Qilomo repeated the words too: they were always the last thing you said before you began, and just after you finished your meal. Tinhara picked up a flipper, peeled back the skin, and bit into it. Liquid trickled out of the chunk of food, and she held it over her plate, covering the tomcod with it. She wiped her hands on her pants and then, using her fingers, she raised a piece of the luxurious fish to her lips, and began to eat. It was flaking easily, almost melting in her mouth. The tangy flavour of berries, with a hint of spice, caressed her tongue. She smiled and almost closed her eyes. She savoured every bite, softly humming to herself. She looked occasionally at Qilomo, and Qilomo looked occasionally at her. No words would pass until all of the food was eaten and their final food oath made.
After they finished the food, they sat, drank, and talked. The old man talked of Kashunaq before the purge, not realizing he was talking to the woman who had led the slaughter. He seemed to harbour no resentment, only sadness. It was, he said, like hating a bear for killing your sled dogs. “It is the bear’s nature,” he said with a reserved sigh. Qilomo asked, and Tinhara agreed, that Tinhara would return one day and take Qilomo back to Kashunaq to be with the land again. She was startled when a loud clanging noise came from the other side of the room. “The sin auction is about to begin,” Qilomo said. “I don’t like such things, and shall leave you now. But come by my home tonight, you may sleep on the floor and you will be well-rested for your journey tomorrow.”
Tinhara blinked. “What journey?” she asked. She had been careful not to tell Qilomo about her recently revealed destiny.
Qilomo frowned. “You said you were only in Galmaq for the day,” he answered.
“Yes, yes, right,” Tinhara laughed as she swayed a little in her chair. “Thank you for your invitation. I will find your house this evening. The plain white house by the fishmongers. I remember,” she said as she tapped the side of her head.
“The grog is lightening your head. But don’t let your thoughts become too loose,” warned Qilomo, “this is not always a safe town.” With a slight bow and a sacred oath, Qilomo left Tinhara sitting alone at her table, with only the small candle to keep her company. Tinhara nodded to herself as she replayed Cyr’s prophecy. Save the Burning Woman, and take her home. Redemption can be yours. Tinhara propped up her tumbler and turned her attention to the stage.
The auction was just getting underway. Tinhara scanned the room, sizing up the customers who were now clamouring around the stage. In the far left was a Hooded Man; one of the King’s sacred followers, sent to buy the Burning Woman that Tinhara was to save. Beside him was a huge man, a giant, broad and thick. He scratched his heavy beard without stopping, and Tinhara was sure she could see the fleas from across the dark room. Most of the other customers were traders and sinners. Tinhara watched the first taksin take the stage. He was tall, blond, and lean: obviously from the southern lands of Arpine. He would do poorly in the harsh, cold climate of Qan, but could thrive here in the protected warmth of Galmaq, were he allowed to live freely. Tinhara looked at his face, his eyes. He was frightened, as he should have been. Ever since the King had joined with the Karech, sexual atrocities were an every day occurrence. As a King’s Guard, she had stood guarding his door while men and women screamed from within his chambers. The victims, if they survived, would eventually be cast out when they became too full of disease, too old or too ugly.
Person upon person was auctioned off. The blond boy went for 350 ran. The next taksin, a stout woman, was bought for 230 ran. By the fifth taksin, Tinhara was starting to get edgy. She stirred in her chair, anxious to see the embodiment of the prophecy. A noise behind her caught her ear. She started to turn when a shiver ran up her spine, and she looked around the room again. Before she could focus her attention on the words of the auctioneer, there came a rumbling from the audience, working its way through her mind. Then a guttural chant began to coax her ears, tuning her into its call. She looked slowly toward the stage, hypnotised by the gentle sound of a foreign tongue. A brilliant flash of orange caught her eye. She saw the Burning Woman, and her body reacted.
This taksin was tall like most of her Arpinian compatriots, but she had thick, long, wavy red hair. She wore a brilliant orange robe that glittered and shone in the candlelight in the room: it was so bright it looked like the flames of a fire. Tinhara was sure that this was the Burning Woman of the prophecy. The tension rose as people leaned forward to get a better look. The hair on her arms stood on end when she took in the beauty that was before her. Tinhara had to restrain herself so she would not join the scramble toward the stage; she saw her destiny before her, terrified and shaking. She could not take her eyes off the Burning Woman.
“An enchantress,” boomed the auctioneer’s voice, “from the land of Arpine. Six feet tall, and her hair is real,” he assured everyone. “A prize for any man or woman, a taksin fit for the King,” he said as he bowed toward the Hooded Man. “But her beauty is only one of her talents,” he said with a leer. Tinhara licked her lips, and her body shivered slightly. She was only vaguely aware of her own desires. The audience members howled, and the auctioneer held up both hands. He smiled and rubbed his belly. A couple of shouts went up from the audience. Bidding would be keen, and the auctioneer knew how to entice them. Tinhara was afraid to move; she felt suddenly fragile among the animals that surrounded her. Without realizing it, she had moved forward, closer to the stage.
The auctioneer’s eyes twinkled as he said, “And best of all, she has the voice of a goddess. Sing, child. Sing for the audience.” He handed her a small skin drum. The Burning Woman grasped it by the edge and began to tap nervously on it. The auctioneer put his hand on the taksin’s shoulder and whispered in her ear. Whatever he said made her blanch and tremble.
Tinhara looked at her with an anticipation that was familiar, but sickening. She wanted this woman as much as the men did, and she knew what she would do to get her. The taksin parted her full lips and began to sing. She chanted and enchanted the entire audience. Tinhara watched as her voice spread throughout the room. The Burning Woman’s voice yearned for freedom, and so it flew from her lips. She pounded harder on her drum, and harder again until it overwhelmed. Tinhara’s lips parted, her breath grew short. The taksin’s breasts heaved with each deep breath she took as she seduced everyone with her song. Tinhara stared, yearning to discover this woman’s secrets, discover her body, touch her deep soul. Everyone fell silent and disappeared from Tinhara’s view. The luscious memory of the last note melded with the pleasure of the next. She strained to hear every syllable as the Burning Woman’s voice got softer.
The air had taken on a thick quality; thick with rich smells, with musk and heat and desire. The chanting, which had reduced itself to murmur, started to get louder. Sweat beaded down the woman’s face, trickled across her throat and down her chest. It glistened in the low candlelight.
The drumbeat was soft again, and the sound wormed itself into Tinhara’s brain. She had no choice but to hear. It filled her ears and began to make her heart pound to the same rhythm. Her blood pulsed to the beat of the Burning Woman. Her jaw went slack and she stood, transfixed, with the others. It wasn’t until a few minutes later, when the singing had ceased and the audience had began screaming and clapping, that the spell was broken for Tinhara.
She cleared her throat, looked away, and looked back again. The Burning Woman was still there, still beautiful, still needing to be rescued. The bidding began and jumped quickly from 100 ran to 200 ran. The auctioneer called out 300, 350, 400, 450, and the Hooded Man nodded his head to bid higher than all the others did. Tinhara knew he would win, for this woman was someone a King would need. She smiled; it was this woman she was destined to save. Her heart pounded, sending the blood rushing to her ears, making her fingers tingle, her heart ache. She only vaguely watched as the auction became even more heated. Instead, Tinhara’s thoughts were on how to rescue the woman: perhaps tossing a few candles to start a fire, or a few chairs to start a riot. She dismissed the ideas, because making a scene here in the groggery would not work: it was too crowded, and the exits were partially blocked.
Suddenly, Tinhara found herself staring into the eyes of the taksin. Over the heads of the customers, she saw the terror and confusion of a young woman up for auction, but deeper than that, she decided, she saw the other half of her soul. She must have this woman. The warrior within her came out. Tinhara knew it was time to leave. If there were to be any problems at Aqumlluk, she must be long gone. She could not fulfil the prophecy if she were locked in the cells. Tinhara turned to slipped out the back passage, and felt the taksin’s pleading eyes on the back of her head. She turned quickly, mouthed the word, “Courage,” and disappeared into the passage.
Outside of Aqumlluk, Tinhara got her bearings. Across the canal and a 10-minute walk south was where she had met Qilomo. Further south still, perhaps another 15 minutes beyond that, was the street with fishmongers. It meant there would be a lot of time running in the open streets, and even more time if she decided to skulk the side streets under cover of darkness. And this was in the hope that she was right about the fishmongers’ street. Finding the house with white walls should be easy: few houses were the colour of the banished snow. Tinhara turned to the north and scanned the area. There were only a few men out now, travelling from one bar to another. They staggered every few steps, drunkenly hanging onto each other for support. A few shadows moved here and there: thieves waiting for their prey to wander past. To the south, Tinhara thought she could see the street she wanted to take. She decided to take an indirect route to Qilomo’s home, and quickly ran around the area, making sure she knew the route. Eventually, Tinhara retired to the shadows near Aqumlluk to wait for the Burning Woman’s arrival.
She sat in the dark edges and pulled out her squints. She held the eye protectors against the heel of her right boot, and measured and re-measured. Finally certain, she wedged part of the squints into a split in the rock road, and kicked it hard, breaking it neatly in two pieces. She fetched one piece from against the wall of a nearby shop, and yanked the other out of the crevice. Sitting back, leaning against the cool stone wall, she searched her pockets and found her sewing needle and some sinew; both were requirements in the bitter cold where a hole in your otuk could lead quickly to your death. Tinhara removed her boot, arranged the piece of bone carefully, and began to sew it onto the outside. It was, she decided, one of the better close combat killing techniques she had learned. She concentrated more on her surroundings than on her task while she listened for the Hooded Man and the taksin, and frequently jabbed herself with her needle. She worked quickly, pushing the needle through the thick skin of the boot, around the bone, and back through the skin. Once done she pulled on the bone to make sure it would not come off. She ran her thumb along the edge: it was thick and smooth and round and perfect. Tinhara put her boot back on, arranged herself, and waited.
She saw a flash of orange walk by her, and she stalked them from the edge of shadow. The Hooded Man and the Burning Woman walked quietly north, headed for the King’s castle. Tinhara stepped softly from the darkness to watch them. The Hooded Man was travelling at a leisurely pace: he had no fear of attackers, since none dared challenge a sacred man such as he. Such an action would make the attacker a fugitive from the King’s Guards. It would bring the King’s wrath upon Galmaq, and would result in horrible tortures for the captured criminal. She grinned. She was already high on the list of people he wanted. Tinhara surveyed the street, spying the dark crevices she would step into as she followed them. He had his taksin by the arm, a tight grip, although she had nowhere to run. Moving swiftly in the gloom that festered just outside of the light of the glowing orbs, Tinhara made her way past the Hooded Man. She was sure she had caught his attention, but that simply made her less threatening. No one was ever prepared for a frontal attack by such a visible assailant, not from a woman. And certainly not from a drunken woman who dared wander the streets of Galmaq alone and at night. Tinhara strode past him, her identity still protected by the obscurity of the shadows. Almost two minutes ahead of him, she slowed and doubled-over. She began to wheeze and cough, retching violently into the canal of water in the centre of the street. Tinhara clutched at her stomach as she pretended to choke, now almost on her knees. From the corner of her eye, she watched as they approached.
She stood and turned toward him, hand extended as if to beg. He pushed her aside and strode on, but she caught up to him, mumbling, hand outstretched again. And again he pushed her.
“Go, woman! I have no money for you!” he shouted. His face turned red, and Tinhara pressed on. He shouted again, stopping in his tracks. “Do you know I am the Hooded Man? How dare you accost me!” Tinhara laughed, she couldn’t help herself. And that, the sound of her laughter, seemed to infuriate him. He reached out, straight-armed, and grabbed her by the throat. She could feel his fingers tightening around her neck. There was no thought in her mind, just pure, lethal action. Her finely tuned muscles had a memory of their own, each nerve flaring, each tendon contracting, without conscious command. Tinhara reacted. She swung her arm around, hitting him squarely on the outside of the elbow. She smiled as she heard the bone snap, as he yelped, as his fingers loosened and his arm gave way. She moved quickly, and shoved his broken arm behind him. He bent forward, and only grunted when her knee slammed into his face. She stepped around him, gripping him by the back, raising her leg straight out, angling it slightly, and bringing it back with a pendulous swing. She caught his feet, and they followed her commanding leg, slipping out from underneath him and sending him to the ground face first. As with all untrained fighters, he made the mistake of turning over to see his attacker. She didn’t need to look down as she raised and lowered her leg again in a great arching swing, bringing the bone on her heel squarely onto the bridge of the Hooded Man’s nose. He gurgled, and went limp, and for a moment, a brief moment, Tinhara stood motionless.
“Oh!” gasped the taksin.
Tinhara snapped out of her trance upon hearing the Burning Woman, and she knew it was time to run. She grabbed the taksin by the wrist and began to flee. The Burning Woman pulled her hand away, spinning Tinhara around. The Hooded Man lay bleeding into the canal: the cartilage in his nose had taken the path of least resistance, and, unable to withstand the killing heel she had created, it had instead sunk deeply into his brain. The blood on his crushed face bubbled as he gasped for air.
The Burning Woman stood transfixed by the blood glowing in the light of the orbs. She seemed to recognize Tinhara from the groggery, but remained still, breathing rapidly, shaking slightly. Tinhara gestured wildly, beckoning this fiery vision to follow her. Around them, men of the night began to move closer, and Tinhara knew it was only a matter of a few minutes before she was captured for a reward. Frantically, Tinhara clutched at the Burning Woman, and yanked her forward as they fled.
They headed back toward Aqumlluk for only a few dozen steps before turning and proceeding down an unlit street. The taksin was more reluctant now, slowing Tinhara’s flight on purpose. Tinhara applied more force, dragging her as they ran past closed market stalls. They turned south again and ran parallel with the main road of Galmaq. The Burning Woman was running faster now, but blindly. She was beginning to panic, and Tinhara could hear the dread beginning to rise with her breath. She knew the woman was likely to scream, so she turned her head toward her and spoke.
“If you can understand me, I am saving your life. If you can’t understand me,” she puffed as they ran, “then you have to trust me. And I have to trust you.” She heard the taksin take a large breath, and turned to clamp her hand over the woman’s mouth before she had a chance to scream. They now stood still, surrounded only by dark houses and even darker shadows. “Wuhhhh,” she whispered to quiet the woman. “Wuhhhh. Quiet. Soft, wuhhhh.” She lowered her voice as much as she could and, breathlessly, she slowly took her hand away from the woman’s mouth. “Wuhhhh,” she repeated. She nodded and held her lips together with her fingers, signifying the need for silence. Tinhara listened to the night. Almost 10 minutes had gone by since the attack, and still no alarm had sounded. She was thankful for the thieves who would pick the Hooded Man clean. It might throw the Guards off the track.
A shout in the distance told Tinhara that the deed had just been discovered. The alarm was raised, and the Karech magicians would soon light up all of Galmaq with their orbs. The Burning Woman’s dress was too bright, and would be too easily seen. Tinhara grabbed at it, to rip it from the woman. Frightened, the taksin screeched and bolted from Tinhara, who ran after her. She caught her quickly, before the woman’s long legs carried her beyond her reach. Tinhara tackled her to the ground and ripped at her clothing, tearing off strips and tossing them aside. The woman struggled and scratched, and stopped her assault only when Tinhara punched her hard in the face. She lay stupefied on the ground while Tinhara continued violently unclothing her. Finally, with the Burning Woman disrobed, Tinhara took off her own sealskin shirt and leather vest, and dug a hat out of her pockets. She paused for a moment to consider this woman who lay naked beneath her. She took the woman’s bruising face gingerly and shook it to rouse her. The Burning Woman opened her eyes, and said nothing. She made no move to scream, or to free herself from Tinhara’s control.
“Put these on,” Tinhara said as she stood up and shoved the extra clothes toward the taksin. She motioned a few times for the woman to take the clothes from her. They were wasting precious time, and Tinhara’s impatience was growing. Shaken, the woman put on the vest and wrapped the shirt around her waist. Tinhara gathered the woman’s hair in her hands and tucked it into the hat she forced on her head. It was the only way to cover the taksin’s flaming red hair. Tinhara looked around. The orbs had not yet lit up the back streets, but she could see that they glowed brightly on the main street. She took a deep breath and stepped back, offering her hand to the Burning Woman so she could stand up. As soon as she stood, Tinhara was truly struck by her height. She was too tall for a Qanian, and would stand out in the crowds that were surely gathering. She could hear the shouts and calls from the main street, and knew it would not be long before the people living in the nearby houses started to awaken and come out to see everything.
Tinhara grabbed the Burning Woman’s shoulder and pulled down, forcing her to hunch over like an old woman. They left the area quickly, fleeing from the telltale orange rags that now littered the street. Turning eastward, they headed back toward the main street. They slowed down a bit, and kept pace with the other people who were now coming out of rooms and homes to investigate. Tinhara could see that the guards were rushing northward toward where she had left the Hooded Man. Cautiously, Tinhara and the Burning Woman headed out toward the main road, working their way through the crowds, until they were finally on the other side. They headed south again, for only a few steps, and then walked quickly down another side street. This was the fishmonger’s street, and Tinhara was now keeping an eye out for the white house. The pair travelled against the flow of people, Tinhara’s hand on the taksin’s shoulder, forcing her to stay low.
“What is it?” asked someone who was headed to the main street.
Tinhara shrugged. “Something in the north end. I have seen guards running. Perhaps it was the prophecy of the Red Clouds,” she said.
“Yes, I saw the clouds earlier! By Hecath that cannot be!” shouted the man as he ran off to join the others. The more rumour there was on the streets, the less likely the guards were to get helpful information on any suspicious people. Tinhara knew a lot of tricks.
After almost 10 minutes of searching and lying to people who were rushing about, Tinhara finally came upon a home with white walls. They quietly walked in.
“Locto,” she said softly. She wasn’t sure if Qilomo was asleep, or even home.
“Locto,” came the sleepy answer from the bed in the corner.
“Can you help me?” Tinhara responded.
Qilomo stirred slightly in bed, not raising his head. “Of course. Help yourself to anything I have,” he murmured. Tinhara motioned to the Burning Woman to be quiet. She guided her to a small chair, and motioned again for silence. Tinhara listened, cocking her head from side to side. She heard little of the outside commotion through the thick rock walls of Qilomo’s home.
“I have someone,” Tinhara said to Qilomo.
“Good for you. Just be quick about it, and keep the noise down,” came the response.
“No, that’s not it,” Tinhara said, exasperated. “I have someone I should not.” There was no response. “Qilomo?”
“I don’t care who you have, just let me sleep,” he grumbled hoarsely.
“I have a taksin!” she blurted.
Qilomo bolted upright and rubbed his eyes. “Ugh, I can barely see. I told you what I think of the sin trade. How dare you?” His voice shook with indignation. He put his feet on the floor and, with a struggle, stood up. His knee popped when he put his full weight on it and he let out a small groan. He shook his finger at Tinhara as he approached her. “You have no right to bring a taksin into my home, no right to commit your sins under my roof!”
“No, it isn’t like that,” she said as she gestured with her hands in the hope of calming Qilomo. “I stole her. She was bought by, by the fat man with the beard. Do you remember him? He walked out of there with her, and I, I hit him on the head and stole the taksin. I saved her and I’m taking her to her home.” She shot a quick warning glance at the Burning Woman who remained silent in her chair, watching. “I, uh, thought about what we talked about at Aqumlluk, and you were right, it is a sin. I’d never do such a thing. But look at her,” she said as she walked toward the woman, her hand extended. Her fingers stretched out as she ran her hand along the outline of the Burning Woman’s face. Tinhara never quite touched her pale skin, even when her fingers quivered slightly as she drew her hand around her strong jaw line. She swallowed hard. The taksin kept her eyes downcast.
“The fat man will come after you. You need to get her away, you said you’d take her back to her homeland?” Qilomo said as he cracked a smile. “You make my heart proud.” Tinhara sighed and felt her shoulders straighten slightly with the praise. He walked over to the fire pit in the middle of the floor. “Grab some dung and bring it here to the fire,” he told her as he pointed to a pile that sat in the corner of his one room home. “I want more light to see what you’ve risked your life for,” he said. She grabbed two large handfuls and threw them on the fire. A small flame flickered and danced, and slowly the room began to fill with weak light and strong odours.
“Why did you choose this one?” Qilomo asked as he hobbled over and stretched his arms toward the taksin. He wiggled his fingers, encouraging the woman to come to him, and, obediently, the taksin rose from her chair and walked toward the little man. He held up his hand to Tinhara. “Never mind. I see why.”
“She has a nice voice,” Tinhara said as she took the grogskin from the wall. She held it up in the air and asked “Do you mind?” She watched as Qilomo took the taksin’s hands, ignoring her request. She pulled out the bone stopper and took a long drink, her head angled to the side so she could keep an eye on her prize.
“She is beautiful. And so tall!” he exclaimed. The Burning Woman was almost two feet taller than Qilomo, a giant in comparison. He reached up but could not grab the hat from the taksin’s head. He motioned for the woman to remove it, and so she did. Qilomo gasped. “Her hair is remarkable. I’ve never seen anyone with hair the colour of…”
“Fire!” Tinhara piped in between swigs.
“Fire,” he agreed with a nod. “This is the Red Woman everyone was talking about,” he said as he wiped tears from his tired eyes. “Tall, but lacking grace. She is probably not more than 19 years of age. She sings?” he asked over her shoulder.
“Yes, but it is late now. We shouldn’t disturb your neighbours,” Tinhara said as she walked over toward the fire to join them.
“The walls are thick, no one would hear anything.”
“You don’t want to, do you?” she asked the woman as she shook her head. The taksin responded by shaking her head in kind.
“I don’t think she has ever been away from home before. Look, she sees nothing familiar around here. She turns up her nose at the smell of burning dung instead of finding it comforting. Her eyes are round.” He put his gnarled, twisted fingers on her stomach and pulled at her skin. “She has no fat or muscle on her body; just bones in a bag. She would not last long in Qan.” He grabbed her arms and lifted them above his head, then poked at her thigh. “Her arms are too long, her legs are too skinny. She is fetching, though, in a foreign kind of way. I can see why she was captured for the auction. What do you think?” He turned to Tinhara for a confirmation of her estimation.
She put her hand to her mouth and pulled gently on her bottom lip as she looked the taksin over again. Her muscles tightened and she quivered. “I think you have the eye of a sin trader,” she said with a drunken slur. She knew immediately that she’d offended the little man. She held up an apologetic hand and made a slight bow, casting her eyes down. Change the subject, she thought. “Do you have clothes for her?”
“For a giant like this? One of her legs is bigger than me,” he laughed. “I’ll ask my neighbour. He is a big man, maybe he will have clothes for her. Do you talk?” he asked the Burning Woman. She turned toward Tinhara and stared, but gave no answer. Qilomo also turned to Tinhara, and she shrugged, causing a bit of grog to escape from her lips and trickle down her chin. She handed the grogskin to Qilomo and smiled as he took a drink.
“I heard her sing. I don’t know what language it was, though. It was very sweet,” she said as she closed her eyes, letting her body remember. She cleared her throat. “I don’t think she speaks our language.”
“I thought Qanian was a common language,” Qilomo said as he tugged on the Burning Woman’s hands. She bent slightly and moved her face closer to Qilomo’s. “Talk?” he asked.
“Talk?” parroted the woman. Qilomo’s cackling laughter caused the Burning Woman to shrink back a bit. Tinhara laughed and relieved him of the grogskin.
“Talk. Talk. T-alk,” Qilomo said, sounding the word out quite distinctly. He pointed to himself. “Talk.” He held his fingers to his lips, and flapped them in the air, mimicking the flight of sound from his mouth. “Talk. Make sounds, speak. Talk.” He turned to Tinhara. “Maybe she’s been touched by a God.”
“I can talk.”
Qilomo’s knee buckled and the taksin had to grab him before he fell into the fire. Tinhara burst into laughter, spitting out a mouthful of grog. She laughed so hard that tears began to roll down her cheeks, her sides ached and she wrapped her arms around herself as if to contain her insides. She collapsed onto the floor amid gales of laughter.
“Why didn’t you say you could talk?” Tinhara gasped between hysterics.
“You punched me in the face and told me to shut up,” the Burning Woman replied.
“That wasn’t nice,” Qilomo said. “Did you really hit her?” He raised his hand to her face, to search for a bruise or mark, and noticed a small welt near her eye. “What…”
“I had to shut her up,” Tinhara mumbled as she held out both arms. “We were running away and she was about to scream. What was I supposed to do? I asked if you understood me.” Tinhara flopped into the chair, pouting, and put the stopper back in the grogskin. She rested her elbows on her knees and put her head in her hands, dropping the drink to the floor. The room spun slightly and she got a queasy feeling in her stomach. “I didn’t want to, really, I wouldn’t want to ever hurt you. I, I just didn’t know what else to do. You were going to scream.” Her voice got louder with each word, and she became more agitated as she defended her actions.
The taksin huffed. “I get snatched from my home in the middle of the night, and I’m gagged and thrown into a pen with a bunch of strangers. We’re driven for weeks through blinding wind and snow, then I’m sold at an auction to a man whose face I never saw.” The woman stood tall and towered over her. Tinhara didn’t lean her head back, choosing instead to simply raise her eyes. She could only see as high as the taksin’s waist, but that was okay with her. “Then out of the shadows someone leaps up and kills this man and grabs me, and rips my clothes off…”
“You tore her clothes off?” Qilomo piped in.
“She was dressed in orange. Orange! No one wears that colour,” Tinhara protested. Her elbow slipped off her knee and her head snapped forward. She almost fell out of the chair. “Look, I saved her, that should count for something.”
“I’m just trying to explain… Thank you for saving me,” the woman said. Tinhara sniffed and nodded. She scratched her head, then realized the other two were looking at her.
“What?” she asked, looking down at herself quickly. “Is something wrong?” Qilomo just laughed.
“Sit down, girl,” Qilomo said to the taksin as he headed over to the bed. She stood where she was and watched him sit. He patted the bed beside him and chuckled at her reluctance. “Sit, sit. I’m too old for that, I think it would kill me.”
“But what a way to go,” Tinhara said as she wiped a hand across her face. The Burning Woman glared at her.
“She’s drunk, pay no mind to her rambles,” he said as he tapped the fur blanket beside him. The taksin turned to him, looked quickly again at Tinhara, and sat down. Tinhara burped and scratched her head. She kicked the grogskin, wondering how much was left. She wanted more, but it was rude to drink everything your host had. She looked up, realizing they were talking.
“I am Qilomo of Kashunaq,” he said as he held his hand to his chest. Tinhara’s head was again resting in her hand, and all she could do was wave at them when they looked at her. “This woman is also of Kashunaq.”
“I am Hadyn,” was the response as the woman nodded her head. “I really do thank you for rescuing me,” she said to Qilomo.
“She saved you, not me. I knew nothing about it until you arrived here.”
“Hadyn,” Tinhara murmured. “Hadyn. Very musical, don’t you think?” Tinhara suddenly recalled what she had done, and quickly withdrew a knife to cut the blood-soaked bone from her boot. She smiled and tossed the bone into the fire. The King would have her tortured and executed if he discovered that it was she who killed the Hooded Man. She had served the King well, brought him to power, and led a legion of warriors to slaughter anyone who opposed him. But that was long ago. Now, her death would serve to make many people happy, and the King himself would cut her head off to placate his subjects. And get his hands on the beautiful taksin from Arpine.