Tinhara gazed at the fire, throwing on the occasional piece of dung when the flame got too low for her liking. She listened to the two of them talk, smiling and watching her prize.
“Why should I have to hide? I have done nothing wrong,” Hadyn protested.
Tinhara smirked. “You’re a taksin! A runaway taksin. They’ll beat you as an example to the others. You’re nothing to them.”
“If I am nothing, why did you risk your life for me?” she asked. Tinhara waved her hand, dismissing the question.
“You have to leave, the sooner…” Qilomo stopped in mid-sentence. “Wait! Your eyes!” he shouted as he stood up. He hustled over to Tinhara and held her face in his leathery fingers.
Tinhara smiled broadly: she had found the right woman, and her eyes were obviously blue again, just as Cyr had promised. “Being with someone from home has cured me,” she grinned. “I must take her home. Can you keep her for a while? Just a few hours, until I can return with my sled and belongings?” she asked. Qilomo poked at a loose thread in his sleeve and slowly nodded, just once, as if it would be too much commitment to nod more. “Blessed be! Hadyn, stay with Qilomo. I will be back in a few hours. I will take you home,” she said.
“Do you think you can do that?” he asked.
“Yes, they aren’t looking for me,” Tinhara said with a smile. “Nothing as harmless as a woman,” she said with a wink.
“I’d be grateful,” Hadyn said. Tinhara’s grin widened across her face into a smile.
Outside, the crowds were still milling about, although they were thinner than before. Tinhara lurched past people, tripping over their feet and stumbling over uneven stones. Guards walked in pairs, knocking over anyone who wasn’t quick enough to get out of the way. They kicked over a market stand and shouted at a small group of onlookers. Tinhara bent over slightly, and kept her head down. In times like this, guards always targeted the blue-eyed people. She heard the hard-soled boots clatter against the stone and cobble walkways as the uniformed men marched.
“You there!” came a thunderous voice from behind her. Tinhara stopped in her tracks, a silent curse crossing her lips. “You! Turn around!” he commanded.
She turned slowly around, her head still bowed, and her eyes open only a slit. A strong hand, wrapped in a tough leather gauntlet, grabbed her chin and yanked her head up. Her blue eyes shone in the light of the orbs. “Eyes of ice and a heart of snow. Take her,” commanded one of other the guards. She pulled her face free and turned to flee, but immediately fell in a drunken heap. A couple of foot soldiers grabbed her and lifted her off the ground. She twisted and turned, but they held her fast.
“I’ve done nothing wrong!”
“Silence. Were you born here?” barked the man. The design of his uniform clearly showed his rank above the others. She stared up into his hateful eyes, and she turned away again.
“No, sir. I am from Kashunaq… a traveller who arrived only today… will you have pity?”
“Quiet! One other thing you shall tell me. Were you at Aqumlluk for the taksin auction?” he demanded. “You shake your head, speechless as a seal. But I saw you there. That makes you a liar.” He pulled his lips back in a terrible grin and moved so that his nose touched hers. “You will be kept. Take her away!” He backhanded Tinhara and blood flew from her mouth. “Tie the dog so she can’t escape!” he shouted in a voice full with disdain. He wiped the blood from the back of his gauntlet onto her shirt. “Lock her up, and then find me. We have others to look for. Tomorrow, we shall know all she knows.”
Tinhara’s wrists were tied behind her back with sinewy, damp leather cords, and she wished now she hadn’t had so much to drink. She was led off down the street, across another, and another. She knew Galmaq well enough to know where she was going: to the cells. She stumbled down some steps. They halted at a large thick wooden door. The large bone stake was removed from the lock, and the door opened. She was pushed down more stairs into the dank, foetid vault. She stumbled and fell near a small rise in the stone floor, twisting just in time to land on her shoulder instead of her face. She jammed her hip on the uneven rock and cursed. The guards retreated, carefully bolting the door again.
She sat alone now in the dark devising a scheme to free herself. She wondered if Hadyn would be discovered, if Qilomo would be able, willing, to hide the Burning Woman. Her heart sank. Tinhara sat like this for a long while, cramped and restless. Her hands and shoulders ached from the strain of being tied. She squirmed and struggled, writhing on the cold stone floor as she worked her hands under her bum and then beyond her legs.
Finally she pulled her legs through and had her hands in front of her. She sighed with relief as her shoulder crackled back into place. She tilted her head from side to side to stretch her neck muscles and tried not to think of what the Guards would do to her. As the grog wore off, Tinhara felt a burning in her wrists: the binding was tightening as the leather dried. It was cutting into her skin, slowly and sharply. She tried licking the leather, to moisten it with her own spit, but it didn’t work so she began to gnaw at the bindings. Many times she had chewed through tough hides and bones, and she knew if she worked hard enough, she could bite through this leather. Minutes expanded, making her more concerned that she might not escape in time. Each bite rubbed the coarse, harsh leather against her aching skin, tearing away at her wrists. But each drop of blood helped to dampen the leather, making it more pliable and more forgiving. She continued to gnaw, and her face now covered in her own blood. Finally, she broke the leather bindings and clawed at her wrists with aching fingers.
Moaning under her breath, Tinhara wondered how long she had been in the dungeon. Was it an hour? Two? It couldn’t be morning, or they’d have come for her. Perhaps it had not been that long — they had brought in no other prisoners. Her arms ached, her bloody wrists throbbed, and her swollen hands were numb. Fortunately, the wounds were superficial and soon stopped bleeding. The stale air took on the slightly coppery smell of her blood. Her wrists were too weak to let her strangle someone, her hands too numb to crush anyone’s throat. She looked around but could discern nothing in the blackness. She cursed aloud and groped around in the dark, crawling on her knees and elbows, hands outstretched, searching the floor and the walls. She felt every inch, the cold stone helping to ease her aching hands even as the rough rock scrapped away the skin on her fingertips. Foot by foot she searched, plucking and clawing at each stone until, at last she felt what she wanted.
Tinhara felt one of the stones move slightly under pressure. She scrambled around, facing the stone in the wall, and, with both hands, began to wiggle the stone. Back and forth, up and down, she tried to force the rock out of its crevice. She thought of nothing other than this stone: she ignored the pain, ignored the knot in her stomach and the sweat that stung her eyes as it trickled down her face. Eventually it came free. She kissed the stone, and held it to her face. It was cool, comforting. It would be her salvation. She worked her way back to the large rock that had earlier bruised her hip. Her fingers trembled as they stroked the curves and contours of the rock, and she finally found her spot. With great care, she caressed the small stone, feeling its grain. She’d spent years breaking bones and stones into sharp hunting tools. Tinhara knew, even in darkness, how to find the likely weak point that, when struck at the correct angle, would yield a weapon sharp enough to cut a man’s throat. Carefully, Tinhara lined up the stone and the rock, checking and double-checking. She had only one chance, and did not want to risk a bad break. Raising the stone only slightly above the rock, Tinhara made one false start. She liked neither the angle of the motion nor the lack of strength in her arms. She cleared her throat and shook her head, spraying her sweat off her brow. She raised the stone again, almost level with her face, prayed, and brought it down quickly.
She heard a piece of stone break off. Breathless, she felt that which she still had in her hand: it was sharp and clean. Eagerly she scrambled about on the floor, searching out the shard she had just created. She found it and ran her thumb delicately along the edge. It was pointed and angled perfectly, and would serve as an excellent knife.
“Hah!” she shouted in triumph.
Never before had Tinhara waited so impatiently, so longingly, for time to pass. She had no idea if it was dawn, dusk or the next day. Her eyelids grew heavy and her breathing grew deep. Tinhara curled up on the floor, her knife cupped in her hands, and drifted into a fitful sleep. Echoing footsteps nearby woke her up, and she bolted upright. She could hear the door unlock, and she quickly put her hands behind her back and faced the sound. The doorway filled with the unnatural light of an orb and she shut her eyes. It was too bright for her to open them. She could hear the guard walking down the stairs and she tried to open her eyes. They stung and closed in protest, and when she forced them, they opened but saw nothing except the light.
Her heart began to beat wildly: she would have to attack on sound alone. She turned her head this way and that, hoping that she could catch some important piece of information. When she could hear his breath she leapt up, dagger in hand, ready to slit his throat. It was a split second later that she realized the man was a giant. He was the giant from the taksin auction.
“No!” he shouted as he grabbed her hand. He pressed down, driving her blade into her own hand. Tinhara yelped and swung her other hand around. Her blow glanced off his massive bicep. She felt herself being lifted off the ground by her arm and she cursed him. Suddenly, she was dropped to the floor. She curled into a ball, cupping one arm in the other, waiting for the beatings to begin.
“That why?” he asked. Tinhara blinked and looked up. By her estimate, the behemoth was twice her height and bigger than Huel. He was a giant musk ox of a man, his unkempt hair trailing over his humped shoulders like a blanket, his chin hidden by a scraggly beard clumsily braided with seal grease. His massive chest heaved up and down as he glared down at her. “That why?” he said as he held up her tiny blade in his fingers. She rolled her eyes: the blade was no bigger than his smallest finger and would have done no damage even if she’d been able to hit a vein. He raised his foot and put it against Tinhara’s head. “That why?”
“To escape,” she replied as she stared at the sole of his boot. It was barely scuffed from the stone roads of Galmaq.
“What?” he asked.
“Wuhhhh!” he roared at her. He took his foot away from her head and slowly lowered it, nodding. Tinhara scanned his face, but she did not know him or his tribe. “Yes,” he said. He bent down and picked her up off the floor. Even though his mouth remained open most of the time, he smacked his lips a few times before speaking, as if he was unfamiliar with the act. She realized that a God had touched him.
“Door open,” he said as he pointed to the door.
“Yes, it’s open,” Tinhara said.
He nodded, his head barely moving on the mass of muscles. “Help.” He concentrated again to the voice inside his head. “Help go.”
Tinhara cocked her head slightly. “Let’s go then.”
“Help go,” he repeated as he headed toward the door. She scrambled after him, hiding in his immense shadow. He paused for a moment, nodded and headed south, and she had to run to keep up with his gait. “Help Cyr.”
“Did Cyr send you to help me?” she asked. He didn’t answer. She followed him, looking behind her nervously. She had hundreds of questions, but dared ask no others. He stepped beside a house, grabbing Tinhara with his meaty hand and whipping her into the shadows. A moment later a pair of guards walked past. She again looked at her new helper, but was unable to see all of him at once. If she looked up to his face, she couldn’t see beyond his knees. If she looked at his hands hanging loosely at his sides, hooked slightly in a curl, she couldn’t see his face.
“Go,” he said as he bounded down the street and careened to the right. Tinhara tried to run after him, but her short legs were no match for him and she soon lost sight of him.
“Where in the Gods did he go?” she mumbled to herself. “You can’t just lose a giant, for Hecath’s sake!” And she was right. He appeared suddenly before her, blinking at her slowly. His head tilted one way and then the next. “Who are you?” she hissed.
“Lefe,” he said with a broad grin. He tapped his barrel chest and said, “Lefe.” He picked her up, threw her over his shoulder, and began to run. Every step jolted through his body and into her, slamming her time and again into his rock hard muscles. Her stomach was beginning to ache from the bouncing when she was suddenly hit with an icy cold blast. They’d passed through the barrier and were on the outside of Galmaq. After a few minutes of flapping like a rag, he stopped and returned her to earth. She felt relief as the snow crunched under her feet. He had covered the distance as fast as Huel ever could have.
The sun was shining, and the sky was a lighter shade than when she went in, but she still had no idea how long it had been. Quickly, with steam still rising off her body, Tinhara ran for Huel’s stable. When she arrived, he grunted and snorted a greeting, and she struggled to unlock the door. Lefe’s massive hand pulled on the door and the lock snapped. She dove onto Huel, burying her face deep in his fur. She ran her fingers through his thick white bear coat, leaving flecks of dried blood behind. She nuzzled him for a few moments, and he chuffed back at her. Finally she stood up, and, hands on hips, watched as Lefe and Huel grunted and snorted and worked out their own rankings. Quickly, Tinhara opened the other stable door and grabbed her otuk. She was bitterly cold now, and needed something to warm her. Carefully, she slid her arms into it and shrugged it onto her back, lacing up the front as quickly as her injured hands allowed.
“Lefe, bring the sled out,” she said as she gathered up the harness and muzzle. Grabbing the end of the sled, he hauled it backward with a single hand. Huel lumbered out of his pen and over to Tinhara. Meticulously, she put on his harness, and hooked him to the sled. “How much do you weigh?” she asked Lefe. He leaned slightly toward her and narrowed his eyes into slits.
His eyes flickered and he said, “Run I.”
“Good, I don’t think Huel could pull the sled if you were on it. Does Cyr have a plan?” She was not sure that Cyr had sent the giant, but she was hoping that the mystic was watching and guiding. She gripped the muzzle and pulled gently to lead Huel forward. Eagerly, he licked the blood off her curled fingers, and followed her coaxing. She looked at Lefe, but he was staring at Huel.
“Nice,” he said as he ran his fingers through Huel’s fur. A sharp chuff from Huel made him snap his hand back. Tinhara knew she would not be getting a lot of answers from Lefe.
“Listen, thanks for your help back there. Sorry I tried to stab you,” she said as she pulled her hood over her head.
“Qilomo go,” he said.
“Go? Go where? Cyr, if you’re in this, this man, can you please just tell me in more than two words at a time?” Lefe laughed and clapped his hands, startling both Tinhara and Huel with the sound. “Great, she’s laughing at me,” she said. “Where has Qilomo gone?”
“North run,” he boomed. “Go go!”
She grabbed the reins and shouted, “Fit!” Huel lurched forward and strained slightly under the weight of the sled. Lefe pushed the sled and Huel took off. It wasn’t long before they were on the open snow. She headed north, around the warmth barrier, toward the north end of the city. From there, she would track down Qilomo and take Hadyn away. She hoped that by staying on the edges of Galmaq proper, she could make her way around without being stopped. She looked behind her once to see Lefe running in her sled tracks, keeping ten paces behind. Tinhara shook her head in awe at the great man with the simple mind.
She tried stretching her aching shoulders, hoping to ease the muscles back into life. After a while, she heard Lefe yell to stop, so she stepped on the brake and brought Huel to a standstill. Lefe was quickly at her side, panting and huffing.
“Inside go,” he said as he pointed to the city. Tinhara staked the sled into the ground, took off her otuk and headed again into the magic. There were no guards in the area, but from the looks of the homes and streets, she knew they had already been through. She walked quickly, though not so fast as to attract attention. Then she realized that the man behind her would attract all the attention regardless of what she did. He shoved her this way and that, down one street and up the next in no apparent order. He stopped.
Tentatively she called out “Locto?” There was no answer. She walked a bit further “Locto?” she said, a little louder. She waited for an answer, puzzling about the situation.
Softly, from somewhere near her, Tinhara heard a faint, “Locto,” greeting her.
“Where are you, friend?” she said boldly. She looked around and saw nothing, nowhere anyone could hide. “Where are you?” she repeated.
“Beneath you,” the answer came. Startled, Tinhara jumped back, her heart pounding. There, below her, was a long, uneven piece of rock. She frowned, staring at it, daring it to talk again. And it did. “Help me move this,” Qilomo said from his early grave. Lefe reached down and found a small crevice. He dug his fingers into the space that was too small to hold them and lifted up the huge rock. Qilomo’s hand reached out of the earth toward the sky. With a grunt, Lefe heaved the stone to the side and Hadyn and the old man scrambled up from a long, narrow hole in the earth.
“Ah, the same giant has taken us out,” Qilomo said as he looked at Lefe.
“I thought he was going to kill us,” Hadyn gasped. Lefe grinned at her and reached out to her. She shrank back, but he flicked his finger at her hair.
“Nice,” he said.
“He’s not a monster. He’s been touched, that’s all,” Tinhara said in his defence.
“I will not forget your kindness, and your assistance in this… this quest I suddenly find myself on. I will not forget,” Tinhara said to Qilomo.
The old man smiled lopsidedly and put his hand in hers. “Come back for me one day, bring me home too.” Tears welled up in his eyes, and he quickly brushed them away.
Tinhara simply said, “One day, kind friend, one day.”
“What is your name? You still have not told me,” Qilomo said. Tinhara bit her lip and shook her head. “You need not be ashamed of your parents. Do not mention your family, just your name, so that I can tell my family when I see them again who the brave woman was who rescued me from Galmaq.”
Qilomo’s jaw dropped, and he stepped back a bit. “Then what they say about you cannot be true,” he breathed. “You are not the woman they talk of.”
Tinhara held up her finger to her lips to silence him. Clearing her throat, she turned to Hadyn. “Ready? We must run from here. Fast. The guards are everywhere, and they have already caught me once,” she said. “We are following Lefe’s directions.”
“And we are taking guidance from this…” Hadyn began.
“Watch what you say about him. He is guided by the same mystic that lead me to you.”
“Mystic?” Qilomo said.
Tinhara put her arm around the little man’s shoulders. “When I come back to get you, friend, I shall tell you everything. Until then, tell no one. Your life depends on your silence.” Qilomo nodded his head solemnly.
They sped off, away from the circle of warmth surrounding Galmaq, and into the cold outer region.
The trio headed north, following Lefe.
“Dogs,” Lefe said. He steered the women toward a small hut on the outskirts of the city and around the back. His team of dogs was harnessed and ready to go, and they let up a great yelping and barking when they saw him.
“This is well planned,” Tinhara said. “Do not ask me how he has planned this,” she said, answering Hadyn’s unasked question. “Just be glad he is with us, not against us.” They jumped onto his sled and with a shout and a snap the dogs ran. Lefe ran behind, pushing as they went along.
The trio arrived quickly to where Huel was waiting. Hadyn moved slowly, far too slowly, getting on Tinhara’s sled. “Can I ride with Lefe?” she asked, nervously eyeing Huel.
“No.” Tinhara gestured threateningly for Hadyn to get on her sled while she pulled up the stakes. They were moving again.
She could hear the Lefe’s barking dogs close behind them. She pulled back slightly on the reins to slow Huel to a trot and she looked around. Here in the northern part of Galmaq’s outlands, Karech wildlife flourished. Brought over with the magicians, these animals had escaped their bonds and fled, the owners unwilling to spend the time and effort to catch them. Animals clicked and buzzed and sang out. A large black bird cawed loudly and flew away from the carcass of a pictu as the group arrived. She looked at the remains of the pictu, and thought for a moment about how they lived in the snow.
“We will go through the old piracy tunnels,” she announced.
“Tunnels?” Hadyn asked.
Tinhara nodded. “I was once a member of the King’s Guards. We used to patrol the grounds of Galmaq, on the lookout for illegal trade. It was illegal then to have taksin auctions. That was before the King died and his son took over the throne. No on uses the tunnels anymore, because nothing is illegal.” Tinhara licked her lips. “I think that most of these young guards do not even know of their existence.” She scoured the area on foot, looking for an entrance, but could not find one.
“Back on the sled, we need to keep moving,” she said. Hadyn climbed onto the caqun and shivered. “Are you cold?” Tinhara asked.
“Yes, very cold.”
“Crawl right into the caqun, cover your head. Pull the opening closed, you will be warm enough.” Hadyn crawled in and settled herself as Tinhara drove the sled slowly.
An hour later, after having criss-crossed the area a number of times, she let out a sigh and stopped the sled. She could tell by Hadyn’s rhythmic breathing that she was sleeping. Tinhara dug around for a grogskin and sat down on her sled to drink.
“Drink no,” Lefe said as he pulled his sled around to Tinhara.
She held her fingers to lips, gestured at the caqun and made a sleeping face. She studied the area around them while she drank. She thought she recognized an abandoned building off to the left, a house used to mark a tunnel entrance. The tunnel itself would begin behind the house. Tinhara smiled. If they were lucky, it was still open. The tunnels were large enough to pull entire sleds through, if one was careful.
“Guard,” Lefe said.
“I have to guard her? I know that.” She took another drink.
“Hold there!” shouted a shrill voice from behind. Tinhara turned and saw a pair of guards approaching on foot. She rolled her eyes and watched as they jogged up to them. “What are you doing?” she asked. She recognized the female guard, but could not think of her name.
“Just having a drink,” she said as she held up the grogskin. “Want some?” The woman stepped up to the sled and put her face so close to hers they almost shared the same hood. Now Tinhara remembered how she knew her and she gave a silent curse. It was Tikmuk, a woman she had trained shortly before fleeing the King’s Guards. She had shared almost everything with this woman. Her skills, her bed, her family stories.
“You!” spat the guard. She turned to her partner and paused, hesitating.
“Please,” Tinhara whispered.
“Do you know her?” her partner asked. He looked carefully at her, and then at the bear. His eyes widened. “Tinhara!” he shouted as withdrew a large metal sword, the kind from Karech that soldiers often wore now.
Tinhara sprang to her feet and screamed “Fit!” as she pushed hard on the sled. Huel ran, pulling the sled behind him. She heard Lefe command his dogs and they took off barking. Over her shoulder, she saw Tikmuk and the other guard chasing after them on foot, cursing and screaming. “Fit!” she urged Huel. Wildly she headed Huel for the house, praying she had been right. The sled careened around the corner and into a slight depression. This was it, but it was blocked. Tinhara cursed. “Lefe, help me dig,” she said as she scrambled off the sled and grabbed her snow saw. Lefe came barrelling over and began to dig where she pointed. She could hear Tikmuk yelling, but it would still be a few minutes before she and the other guard arrived.
The ice block that had been laid over the entrance was solidly in place after years of laying untouched. Tinhara ran to her sled and pulled Hadyn out of the caqun. “Stand here,” she shouted as she pushed Hadyn aside. She rifled through her sled easily now that Hadyn was off it and found the ice clasps she was looking for. But her time ran out. “Lefe!” she yelled, “Stop the Guards!” He got to his feet and ran toward the approaching Guards.
Lefe grabbed the Guard’s sword and twisted it easily out of his hand. Tikmuk jumped on his back, but he barely noticed her. Tinhara snatched up some rope she had and began to tie the clasps. She looked again at Lefe: the male guard was down, perhaps dead, and he had Tikmuk in his grasp. She struggled while he hung onto her.
“Do not kill her!” Hadyn cried out. Lefe nodded and held Tikmuk tight, his hand clasped over her mouth to stop her shouts.
Tinhara finished tying the rope to both the clasps and the sled. She slammed the clasps into the ice block and got Huel moving. Slowly, the ice moved and was pulled away, revealing the opening of a piracy tunnel. She smiled.
“Now what do I do with you?” she asked as she looked at Tikmuk. “I have your life under my control, yet again.”
“Don’t kill her,” Hadyn repeated.
“Unhook the clasps and put them back on the sled,” Tinhara told Hadyn. She did as she was told. Tinhara thought for a moment, and shouted out, “Bring the clasps here.” Obediently, Hadyn brought the clasps.
Tikmuk was firmly bound and clasped to the ice block within a few minutes. “More Guards will be by soon, and they will rescue you,” Tinhara said. Tikmuk glowered at her, and then at Hadyn. Tinhara laughed and gave her an unwelcome kiss before readying the sled.
With a waved farewell and a laugh, Tinhara headed the team through the tunnel.