It was a full day’s journey to Qagit and Tinhara knew they would have to spend the night in the open. Driving Huel, she continued on a north-easterly route, leading Lefe across the barren snowfields toward the ice road and the town.
They travelled slowly; Lefe’s dogs weren’t able to match Huel’s pace. It would take more than a day, but that was fine with Tinhara. They were well out of Galmaq, and with the festivals happening to celebrate Father Sun’s pending slumber, there were countless sled tracks to cover theirs.
After many hours, Tinhara decided it was time to stop the sled. She walked around to the front and crouched down. “Stay inside the caqun for now,” she told Hadyn. “It’s warm. Lefe and I will build a roof. Rest now, if you can,” she said. Tinhara grabbed her snow saw from the sled and walked a few dozen feet away. Sorely aware of how tired she was, she began to dig. “Lefe, come over here. Wait while I cut, and then you can lift.”
Tinhara shoved her saw into the hard snow and began to carve out a large hollow. She hacked away, snow spitting its protest into her face. The sun retreated quickly. “It won’t be long before day leaves the country completely,” she said to Lefe as she sawed. “It will make it harder to travel in the months of night, but it will be harder for the Guards, too.” She continued to dig and cut while Lefe grunted and lifted the huge snow blocks into place. Finally, the roof was completed and she crawled inside to pack it down. It was important that the snow and ice be very tightly packed, or their combined body heat would melt the fortress and it would collapse on top of them. Inside, she could hear Hadyn stir, and speak softly to Lefe. Although she could not hear the words themselves, she enjoyed the rhythm of the woman’s voice.
Tinhara crawled out and saw that Hadyn and Lefe had already unhitched the dogs and were working on Huel. “Lefe, no!” By the time she got there, Huel was free of his restraints and was sauntering away, and there was no way she could stop the bear. She cursed at Lefe and punched him hard in the chest. He was crestfallen.
“Lefe bad?” he asked.
“Lefe bad!” Tinhara shouted as she kicked him in the leg.
“Lefe made a mistake, that’s all,” Hadyn said in his defence.
“Lefe’s mistake could cost us our lives.”
“Why? We still have his dogs,” Hadyn countered.
Tinhara curled her hands into fists and turned away, furious that they had taken it upon themselves to release Huel, to even touch her bear. “Dogs are almost useless to me. They are no faster than the dogs the Guards have,” she said as she searched her sled, inside and around the caqun, and found things she needed. “I can’t believe you were stupid enough to let Huel just walk away.”
“Did you tell us not to?”
“That’s not the point. I…”
“That is the point,” Hadyn said as she crossed her arms. “I can’t read your mind. How was I to know?”
“Here,” she gestured to the Burning Woman. “Hang onto this.” Hadyn grabbed the skins she was offered, glad for the warmth but still angry at the situation. “I’ll make you an otuk, to keep you warm.” Hadyn sighed and nodded and followed her rescuer back to the snow hollow. She motioned with her hand, and Hadyn crawled in. She was next, followed by Lefe.
“Now you sit down,” Tinhara instructed. Hadyn sat, arranging her skins so that as much as possible was underneath her, raising her off the snow. “See, you learn fast,” she said as she nodded toward the skins. “But I need two of them, to make your otuk.”
“Otuk. What is that?”
“It’s an overlayer, something you wear to keep you warm and dry. It cuts the wind. That’s important, “ she said. Taking the skins, she held one up to Hadyn and eyed it. She then sat back, pulled out the small stone knife she had taken from her sled, and began to cut the skins to size.
“I watched you with the guards, they knew you,” Hadyn said. Tinhara tensed. She knew where this was leading, but waited for the question. “You said you were in the King’s Guards once?”
Tinhara worked quietly on the otuk for a moment and then, in a low voice, told her story. “I was taken to the King’s orphanage when I was young. I was raised there, trained in combat all day, every day. All orphans become soldiers, or die trying. When the King died, we were rounded up by his son.” Her voice seemed strange to her own ears, as if someone else, far away, was telling the story.
“All the leaders gathered together at the palace. Tanki, a mystic, Cyr’s cousin as I have recently discovered, pulled me aside. Me. He gave me a weapon, a sword, and told me he had a vision that I was to lead the army for the new King. I was to rise up, take control of the military and, as the King’s right hand, I would become known throughout Qan. An orphan, whose name would be on everyone’s lips. I listened to every word. It would take time, but, I was told, I would be a grand and feared warrior. I was ready to serve the prince in his quest to become King. It was better than being a common soldier. I thought I was chosen for my skill, my strength. It turns out, I was chosen for my cold heart.
In the courtyard, the prince announced that he was taking the crown. He said his sister had killed his father, and that the crown was rightfully his. I remember, I remember that I could hear people gasp. The princess was well liked. And then they came, the magicians from Karech. It was the first time I had seen them. And the prince, the new King, invited them into the courtyard, said they were his guests, here to help Qan regain its former glory. Tanki approached the King, spoke with him, and then the King looked at us, the orphans, and pointed at me. I stepped forward, right up to him, and he whispered in my ear. He said the mystic told him my destiny was with him. ‘You are destined to lead my army, and so you shall,’ he said. I remember every moment as if it were yesterday. As he spoke to me, the orphans passed spears, swords and kiricks amongst themselves. I don’t know where they got them, for we certainly had not arrived with them. Looking back, I think it was Karech magic. I knew what was happening, and I was astounded. Do you know what it is like to have your whole world open up like that?
The King ordered me to kill his father’s Hooded Man, and the leaders loyal to his father. The Hooded Man is a confidant, a keeper of secrets for the King and his family. I walked back to my group, told them that the King ordered us to attack and kill all the military leaders loyal to the princess and to his father. No one did anything until I walked up to the Hooded Man and sliced him open. Ssssst. I could tell by the look on his face that he never expected it. But the sounds of his guts spilling onto the stone floor… The others also attacked, and the slaughter began.”
Tinhara paused, lost in the memory of bloodshed, her heart pounding as she relived each blow, each attack, each death. She shook her head slightly and cleared her throat. Hadyn stared at her, frightened and dumbfounded. Tinhara cleared her throat. “I led hundreds of campaigns against my own people. I thought I was saving Qan. The mystic told me it was my destiny. I did not think at the time that anyone had a choice but to follow prophecy, follow destiny. Instead of saving my people, I destroyed them.”
She fell silent for a long while, concentrating on sewing the otuk. It was the longest story she had told in years. She knew Hadyn despised her, and her hands trembled. This woman was the other half of her soul, and now Tinhara had terrified her. She didn’t care. By wit or by force, she would keep this woman.
“You led an army that killed hundreds of people? You were second in command, below only the King?” Hadyn finally asked. Tinhara knew by the sound in her voice that she had not believed the story.
“No, I was really just a soldier,” Tinhara lied. “I just wanted to tell a story,” she shrugged and continued to sew. She could hear Hadyn sigh with relief.
“Food hungry,” Lefe said.
“In my sled you’ll find some meat,” Tinhara said.
Hadyn waited for Lefe to leave the shelter before saying, “Is he a monster?” Tinhara laughed a little as she cut away the last of the excess skin and held the edges of the otuk together.
“He’s big and smart. Smart enough to have his own sled, his own dogs, and his own life out here,” she answered.
“But, he’s not really very smart. I mean, not like you and me.”
“Could you survive out here alone like he has?” Hadyn hung her head down, suddenly finding interest in her hands. Tinhara smiled a bit and said, “There are two kinds of smart. There’s the smart that keeps you alive, and the smart that will get you killed. He’s got the kind that keeps him alive.” She paused, and said, “I’ve got the kind that will get me killed.” Hadyn’s eyes flashed briefly.
“So, why did you come to my rescue? Not that I don’t appreciate it. I do. Believe me, I do. It’s just that, I just don’t understand. I don’t understand anything that’s happened to me.” Lefe crawled back into the shelter, a piece of raw qamux in his hand. He began to gnaw on the end.
“Why did I help you?” Tinhara asked, though mostly it was to herself. “It’s a long story,” she said. She pulled a piece of decorative bone out the bundle of items she’d retrieved from the sled. She took off the top and withdrew a small, fine bone needle, and handed the box and lid to Hadyn. “Beautiful, isn’t it? It was my mother’s,” she said. “She carved it by hand. That face, the little one there? Yes, that one. That’s me. Then my father and my mother. All of us are on the needle carrier,” she said proudly as she pulled the beginning of a thread of woven fur from a small pouch. She carefully threaded the needle and began sewing the skins together to form an otuk. She wanted to avoid telling Hadyn the truth, since she had just lied.
Hadyn handed the needle carrier back to her, and asked again, “Why did you help me?”
“You are beautiful,” she said. It was true, just not the truth.
Hadyn nodded. “That’s why most people do things for me,” she said.
“You’re tired. Sleep. Curl up and sleep,” Tinhara suggested.
“This is all very new to me,” Hadyn said. “I’m… thrown off by everything. I don’t even know which way is up.” Tinhara frowned and pointed skyward, and Hadyn laughed loudly. “I know which way is really up, it’s just a saying where I come from. Oh, how did I get myself into this mess?” She began to cry and Tinhara scooted over to put her arm around the taksin.
“Wuhhhh. Go to sleep. Put your head on my lap and go to sleep.” She stroked Hadyn’s head, running her fingers through her thick red hair. She hummed to herself until Lefe also began to hum, but too loudly. She quieted him with a finger to her lips, and put her hand on Hadyn’s head. She carefully stroked the sleeping woman’s face. “How could I have punched this beautiful face?” she wondered softly. She tried to trace the taksin’s face with her fingers, but her rough hands scratched Hadyn’s smooth skin and woke her up. “Back to sleep,” Tinhara whispered. Hadyn shifted her weight off her lap, allowing her to work quickly on the otuk. She too was tired; it had been a long and exhausting few days. The physical work was inconsequential, but her emotions were powerful and draining. As she sewed, she watched the Burning Woman, her Burning Woman sleep. She would need proper boots to prevent her feet from turning black and falling off, and something would have to be done about her hair. It was simply too obvious. Although, she reasoned, it was probably the one thing that saved her life. If she’d been commanded to save an earth woman, she would not have known whom to save: there were simply too many women with brown hair. Or if the prophecy had been to rescue the fat woman, or the woman with the scar, or some other thing, then she’d have failed. It was the hair, that brilliant, strange fire-coloured hair that Tinhara saw through the veil of grog, through the comfort of a big meal. And so she sat and worked on the otuk, deciding the assassin’s boots were too small, wondering how to steal the boots Hadyn would need, wondering how to bring her home. Aside from a name, she knew nothing of this woman, and this woman knew more than enough about her.
She sighed and continued working away, her tough fingers forcing the sinew through the fur as she sewed up the otuk. She pulled the threads with her teeth, and chewed through them to finish the garment. It was getting late. Lefe had already fallen asleep with the qamux in his hand, and she was exhausted. She knew it was time to sleep, so she laid the finished otuk over Hadyn, and curled up next to her, covering them both with the few pieces of skin left.
Tinhara bolted upright from her sleep, thinking she heard a sound. “What is it?” Hadyn whispered as she looked around. Lefe was still snoring.
“It’s time to go, that’s all.” Tinhara said as she scrambled out of the hut and stood up in the bright snow. She needed the stinging wind to clear away the cobwebs of her nightmare. She stomped and stormed in the snow, kicking chunks of ice out of her way.
Hadyn eventually appeared at the mouth of the shelter, dazed and uncertain. “Put your otuk on, it will keep you warm,” Tinhara said. “We need to get to Qagit quickly, and buy you some boots. Without something decent on your feet, they’ll soon rot and fall off. And I don’t want to deliver you to your family that way,” she said with a grin. She began to dig through the sled for an extra pair of squints.
“My feet will fall off?” Hadyn asked with more than a hint of disbelief in her voice. Tinhara laughed as she watched her climb out of the shelter.
“Lefe!” she screamed, “Get up!” She watched Lefe’s dogs uncurl themselves and shake off the night’s snow. “You don’t know the cold very well, do you? It happens when one part of you gets too cold. If your whole body becomes too cold, you die. But if it’s only one part, your feet, or your hands, then they turn white, then blue, then black. And then they fall off,” Tinhara explained in a very matter of fact way. She could see that Hadyn didn’t believe her. “Just hope it doesn’t happen. Get in the sled.” Lefe roused himself and joined the pair, returning the qamux he had slept with.
“Thanks,” he said with a nod. He greeted his dogs and they began barking and yapping. Tinhara almost convulsed at the simpering little animals.
“Those cursed things are so noisy. Not like Huel, he’s quiet. It allows me to hear the world. Get in the sled.”
“Explain to me why I am getting in the sled, when your beast hasn’t come back?” Hadyn said haughtily. Tinhara turned her head slightly away, to hide the disgust she could feel coming over her face: she hated mornings, and she hated missing the obvious. She let out a low, throaty growl. She turned and saw Lefe harnessing his dogs, and she smiled.
“I said get in the sled. I meant Lefe’s. Lefe? You’ve got to pull the sled until my bear arrives,” she commanded. Hadyn looked at her, perplexed.
“You don’t expect him to pull this sled, do you?”
“Of course I do. He will pull and I’ll drive his dogs. It’s the only way.”
“And what am I supposed to do?”
Tinhara bowed and said, “Your majesty can ride with Lefe. Whenever Huel doesn’t come back in time, I have to pull it myself. If I can move this big sled then Lefe should have no problems.” She heard the giant walk up behind her and she turned and smiled at him. “Lefe, put the straps over your shoulders and pull, okay?” He headed to the front of the sled without a word, settling the argument.
With a grunt from Lefe, the sled leapt forward, almost running Hadyn over. Yelping, she grabbed the edge and jumped on. She looked back at Tinhara as they headed off.
“You coming?” she yelled.
“Not yet,” Tinhara responded back quietly. She put on the squints, adjusting them carefully so that they covered her eyes properly. She walked over to the dog team and stood there, hands on her hips, staring at them through slits; they were whimpering and whining. She scanned the area one more time, hoping to see Huel, but he wasn’t around. “Just you and me, dogs,” she said as she climbed onto the massive sled and released the brake.
Set here in the northern part of the country and founded long ago by a weary wanderer, Qagit had lingered. It was a small and solitary place, but this was the ending of Itlukaviq, the time of festivals, and there were hundreds of people in the area. Everyone from outlying areas would gather in the closest town to celebrate before the winter was upon them. The troop arrived at the town’s edge and joined other sledders who had gathered. “Keep your hood up,” Tinhara reminded Hadyn. “We’re still close to Galmaq, and we were delayed in getting here. The word may already have spread. And crouch again, you’re too tall.” She mused at Hadyn’s demeanour: a noble woman, hunched and bent, her arms tucked into her sides.
“Don’t you think that Lefe will stick out more than I?”
“Sure, but he’s supposed to. You are the one who is on the run,” Tinhara said. Generations of families stood around, gathered near this sled or that, laughing, gossiping, playing, squabbling, fighting, and trading. “Lefe, where are you going? Stay close, in case we have to leave in a hurry.
“What are they celebrating?” Hadyn asked as they milled about with the others.
“Life. Come here,” Tinhara said as she grabbed Hadyn’s arm and headed toward the crowd, leaving Lefe behind. All around them was an energetic buzz as people met for the last time before the return of the days of full sun. The crunch of snow underfoot was almost drowned out by the conversations. It reminded Tinhara of her childhood, when she and her family would gather together in some town or another, whiling away the hours in the company of strangers who would become a temporary family. And here she was again, with a taksin and a giant whom she knew no better than strangers. There was a glimmer of hope, deep inside, that they would become her family.
It was noisy here, but a different kind of noise than Lefe’s howling dogs provided. There were children’s voices shouting during their games, women catching up on the latest news and men bragging of their deeds; this was the din of humanity in a familiar tongue.
Lefe joined in the play with the children, his rumbling laughter almost shaking the ice rock below them. They jumped against him and bounded off again as if energized by his mere touch. They screamed, screeched, clambered onto his great arms, waiting for their turn to be twirled in the wind, and tossed into a snow bank. One clever boy stood on his friend’s shoulders, rising up to challenge Lefe, and both screamed with terrified delight as he lifted them off the ground and tossed them into the air.
Tinhara spied a small sled and sat down on its edge, motioning Hadyn to do the same. “What do you think?” she asked as she removed her gauntlets and pointed. There, dangling on a leather strap, was a pair of large boots. Tinhara reached down and grabbed Hadyn’s foot, holding it up against the sole of one boot. “About the right size for you I think,” she said.
“I have boots,” Hadyn objected.
Tinhara laughed. “Those won’t do. They are not meant for snow, not meant for where we have to go.” Tinhara looked around and quickly slipped her knife out of its pouch and slit the strap.
“What are you doing? I’m not stealing someone’s boots!” Hadyn hissed.
Tinhara rolled her eyes. “No, I am. Take your boots off now. Now,” she said as she jabbed Hadyn with her elbow. She crouched down in front of Hadyn and began pulling the taksin’s boots off.
“But this isn’t right,” Hadyn said. She refused to help Tinhara, although she did not kick or pull her legs away.
“I’m a thief, I’m the first one to admit that. If it makes you feel better, I’ll leave a couple of ran, I still have some from Galmaq. We won’t need money where we are going, we’ll need good boots and strong feet.” She held Hadyn’s bare foot in her hand and ran her thumbs along its length, from toe to heel. She realized what she was doing and looked up to see Hadyn smirking at her. “These will fit. Quickly now, put them on. I’ll leave your old ones behind, too” she said. The new boots had laces, but Tinhara was too impatient. She pushed Hadyn’s hand away when she began to tighten the laces. “No time for that, get them on, get moving. Hurry up!” Tinhara said. She dug in her pouch but found no money; it was back on the sled. She looked quickly over her shoulder to see if Hadyn was watching, but the taksin was busy putting on her other boot. She left the old boots on the sled and the two walked quickly away. They criss-crossed amongst people, backtracking, following others.
“Where are we going?”
“We need to hide our tracks, mix them in with everyone else’s. See?” she said as she turned around. “You can’t tell which ones are ours, and which belong to anyone else. Now, let me finish the laces,” she said as she bent down, shoved her gauntlets between her knees, and laced up one boot. “How do they feel?” she said with a smile.
“Good fit,” Hadyn replied as she ran her fingers up the sides of the boots and yanked at the top.
“Good, now we need some food to take with us,” she said as she laced up the second boot. She stared at her own fingers: being around this woman made her tremble. They headed toward a group of people gathered around in a circle. Costumed dancers performed the Tawnluk Dance, the dance of the hunt.
Tinhara watched, shocked at the display. It was fifteen years ago that she had led the King’s first purge against Qanians, had raided the few villages and tried to wipe out her own people. But now, six years after her last campaign, her people were gathering together again, performing sacred dances and keeping their culture alive. It was small, nothing like the festivals of her youth, but it was still happening.
“We’ll find out if there’s any news of your escape,” Tinhara whispered when they walked away from the others. “That will help me know how fast we should be running.”
“Shouldn’t we leave as quickly as possible? Run as fast as possible?” Hadyn asked.
Tinhara scratched her nose. “Not really. It puts a great strain on Huel to run at top speed all the time, and that means we go through our provisions quickly. And that means we’d run out quickly and we would have to take a different route to make sure we passed by areas where there are animals to hunt. And that would take us longer, which would require more provisions. It’s all related,” she said. “He isn’t even here yet, and I don’t know when he will find us.” Hadyn sighed, shook her head a little, and turned away. Tinhara could still hear Lefe’s roaring laughter over the other sounds and she couldn’t help but smile a little.
Casually, Tinhara sauntered over to some adults, waving her hand at nearby children, as if silently greeting her own child. She smiled, gesturing with her head toward the playing children. She stayed on the edges, looking out toward the kids as if they were of more interest than the adults. They were in the middle of the conversation about the weather. Each circle she joined talked of other things, not of the taksin raid at Galmaq. It was a good sign.
Suddenly, someone shouted, “The Guards are on their way!” Everyone stood still, waiting for the confirmation like a herd of tawnluk. Tinhara and Hadyn waited too. The second warning came and everyone ran. They fled past this person and that person, Tinhara keeping hold of Hadyn’s hand. She called out for Lefe, but could not see him,
“They have found us!” Hadyn shouted over the din. Tinhara stopped short, just in time to avoid a collision with a sled, and then started running again.
“No, they are just searching,” she said to reassure Hadyn.
“They now!” Lefe said as they neared him. Tinhara looked back and clearly saw the bright robes of the Karech magicians. “Go! Go!” he shouted as he leapt onto his dogsled. As if by magic, Huel had found them and was strapped in and ready to run. Lefe had made all the preparations and had ready the sleds, forewarned, perhaps, by Cyr.
“Let’s go. Go! Quickly, onto the sled,” she commanded. Hadyn jumped onto the edge and handed Tinhara the reins. Lefe shouted and his dogs took off while he ran behind, pushing his sled for a fast start. She slapped the reins down and yelled “Fit! Fit!” to get Huel moving. She yanked hard on the right lead, turning him in an arc to head south-east, following Lefe’s lead. “Fit!”
Huel raced away, picking up on the urgency in Tinhara’s voice. They bumped along over snowbanks, narrowly missing a man running on foot. “Don’t worry, I’ll get you home,” Tinhara said. Lefe turned around and waved at them, and Tinhara waved back. She was gaining on him.
“Do you, do you really think I’ll be able to get home? I’m not too sure I won’t end up back in the sin trade.” Hadyn fell silent now. Her head dropped down slightly and Tinhara let the conversation end there.