“Tinhara? Tinhara?” She could hear the voice through the fog of sleep, and drew a deep breath to help her wake up. A long strand of hair tickled her nose and she turned her head to try and get away from it.
“Yes?” she responded. She stretched her neck a little, but the caqun wasn’t big enough to let her unfold her arms and legs.
“I need to get out, to pee,” Hadyn said. Tinhara grunted and struggled to give her the room she needed to get out.
“Make sure you go far away,” she called. Hadyn popped her head back into the caqun after successfully getting out.
Tinhara started to get out of the warm caqun, inhaling in the musky smell one more time before taking in the fresh cold air from outside. “Leave the area. Twenty or thirty paces. Otherwise the animals will start marking their territory and we will have nothing but yellow snow.”
“You’re joking.” Hadyn said with a frown. Tinhara laughed.
“No,” she said. She blinked at Hadyn: was she sleepy, or did this woman not understand such a basic concept. “When you pee you mark your territory. Do you really want to get into a territorial fight with a bear?”
“Noooo,” Hadyn said as she jumped off the sled and headed away.
Tinhara finally exited, stretched her arms and walked around the front of the sled to wake Lefe. She cupped her hands around her mouth and yelled out his name, her voice echoing off the snowbanks and icesheets around them. He startled awake and sat up, snow cascading off him. “I’m releasing Huel so he can walk around,” she announced to Lefe. “Don’t let your dogs loose.” The giant yawned and blinked and nodded, sending a small avalanche down his back. She walked over to the pole and wrapped her arms around the bear, scraping her face slightly against the leather muzzle. She unhitched him, leaving the muzzle intact to remind him to stay close or risk starving to death. Huel shook and leaned back, then forward, to loosen his limbs. He huffed a bit and started to walk away, his great white head swaying with each step.
“Bye bye,” Lefe said as Huel walked past. He stood up and rubbed his stomach. “Hungry,” he said.
“Do you have any food?” Tinhara asked.
“Food hunt?” he asked.
“No, no, I just thought you might have some of your own food. Do you have food in your sled?”
Lefe nodded and walked over to his sled. He reached down into a pouch and pulled out two frozen ducks. “Hunt before,” he said as he held them aloft. “Grab,” he said as he snatched the air with his hands.
“What did he grab?” Hadyn asked as she came back.
“The ducks,” Tinhara answered as she gestured with her chin.
“Out of the air?” Hadyn asked.
“Grab!” Lefe shouted as he reached out for an invisible target.
“Yes, grabbed them out of the air. You are remarkable,” Tinhara said as she walked over and patted him on the back. “Remarkable,” she repeated. Lefe smiled and handed her a bird. She walked over to the other side of the caqun and began to look for a knife.
Huel came loping over the snow, straight for Tinhara. She heard his footsteps and looked up, raising her hands defensively. “Huel! Hoh! Stop! HOH!” she shouted. Huel barrelled into Tinhara, sending her and the duck flying through the air. She landed in the snow with a loud thump, and groaned. Huel swatted at the bird and continued running away. Tinhara laughed.
“He just attacked our breakfast!” Hadyn shouted as she ran after him for a few steps.
“He’s just playing,” she said as she sat up. “Ha ha! He just, just comes running right for you. Knocks you flying. He’s a brute that way, doesn’t mean to hurt you or anything, just, I guess it’s pretty funny.” She reached up for Hadyn to lend her a hand. Instead of rising, though, Tinhara yanked hard, pulling Hadyn down into the snow beside her. She scrambled to her knees and quickly shoved snow into Hadyn’s face. “Got you!” she shouted as she jumped up and ran back to the sled. qqq
“That wasn’t fair! I was trying to help you, to do you a good turn,” Hadyn protested as she spat snow and wiped it from her face. Lefe shouted gleefully and joined in, picking Tinhara up and spinning her in circles over his head.
“Lefe! Lefe! By the Gods, stop! I’m going to puke! Lefe!” she pleaded. He stopped spinning but held her aloft, grinning while she shook her head. “It’s worse than grog,” she murmured. Hadyn stood there brushing the snow from her clothes.
“Do what?” Lefe asked Hadyn. She smiled sweetly and sauntered over to the giant. She walked right up to him and looked up.
“Now then, Tinhara, it seems that I have the upper hand. Lefe will do whatever I want, won’t you? So, who got who? Whose turn is it to laugh?”
“Turn!” Lefe shouted as he spun around again. Hadyn bobbed and rushed out of the way so she wouldn’t get hit.
“Lefe! Nooo, please, by the Gods I’m getting sick. Ohh, Hadyn. Hadyn, please help. Make him stop,” she begged.
Hadyn held her hands up and said “Lefe? Lefe stop spinning, stop turning. Put her down over there in the snow.” He smiled and faked a turn, causing Tinhara to yelp. “Leeefe,” she sang out to him, “put her down in the snow over there, she’s not looking so good.”
Tinhara lay in the snow on her back, groaning and alternately holding her head and her stomach. Huel stopped to sniff her on his way back, but continued his stroll over to the campsite. Hadyn scrambled for the duck that had been dropped. “No you don’t, this is our breakfast, not yours,” she chided as she tapped Huel gently on the head. Tinhara remained pale faced and silent. Hadyn brushed off the duck and held it up to consider the damage. “We can still pick off the meat. Oh get up, it can’t be that bad.”
Tinhara slowly raised herself on her elbows and eventually to her knees. She swallowed a few times as Hadyn headed toward her; throwing up on her own boots wouldn’t be good. She looked up, raising her head further and further up so she could keep watching Hadyn’s face as the woman walked nearer and nearer. Finally she stood in front of Tinhara and reached a hand down to brush a bit of ice out of her hair. Tinhara reached up and wrapped her arms around Hadyn’s waist and buried her face in sealskin. She remained like that only for a moment.
“Eat?” Lefe asked as he strode over to the women.
“Eat,” Tinhara replied as she struggled to her feet. She took a look at the duck in Hadyn’s hand and felt a little queasy. “You eat, I’m not so hungry right now.”
An hour later they were ready to start the day’s journey. It would bring them to the edge of the Land of the Gods, and perhaps beyond. Her senses had returned to her and her stomach was behaving.
“I was just thinking. Can you come back here? With people looking for you?” Hadyn asked.
“They have been hunting me for years, Hadyn. Now they are hunting you. When I come back, I’ll be as safe as I ever was.” Hadyn looked down at her boots and nodded a few times. Tinhara walked over to her and shoved her playfully with her shoulder. “Want to drive the sled?” she asked. She stared for a moment at Hadyn’s downturned face, and elbowed her.
Hadyn raised her head. “Yes, I’d like to learn,” she said. “I’ve driven sleds with dogs, but never a bear,” she said.
Tinhara nodded and picked up the reins. “Come here. Stand here. Put your feet on the runners. No no, both feet on one runner. I’ll stand on the other one,” she said as got into position. Lefe walked over and watched the events, standing with his hands on his hips as if he were judging the lesson. “Now, take the reins in your hand, that’s right. Hold them… right, yes. You said you’ve done some sledding? Okay, ‘fit’ will make him start, or make him run faster. ‘Hoh’ will stop him. You give him a verbal command to stop, and then step on this. This is the brake,” she said as she toed the brake that hung between the two runners. “You must stand on this firmly, or Huel will stop and the sled won’t. Okay? Grab tight hold of the reins, flick them and tell Huel to start.”
Hadyn grabbed the reins tightly, wrapping them around her hands. “No, don’t do that. If you need to jump off quickly, you can’t do it if the reins tie you up. Just put them over your hands, like this. Remember that he isn’t pulling you, he’s pulling the sled. These reins are attached to his muzzle, and they are to steer him. Pull right to go right, pull left to go left. Try it,” Tinhara said as she clutched the frame of the sled for safety. Lefe started to chuckle under his breath.
Hadyn took a deep breath, and shouted “Hoh!” to get Huel running. He chuffed and turned his head to look at her. Tinhara and Lefe both burst out laughing. “Oh yeah,” Hadyn said. She took another deep breath and shouted “Fit!” Huel bounded off with such acceleration that Hadyn fell off the sled. Tinhara laughed again and reached for the reins. She called out to Huel, pulled back on the reins, and stepped on the brake. She turned around, still laughing, to see Hadyn sitting in the snow. Hadyn grabbed a handful of snow and threw it back down in a rage.
“Come on!” Tinhara said as she waved to Hadyn. Hadyn stood up and ran to the sled. “Try again, he was just playing. I told you, you have to watch that kind of thing,” she said. “Lefe, get on your sled, I think we’re going this time!”
Hadyn grabbed the reins and steadied herself on the runner. “How can you possibly trust this animal to get going when he needs to?” she asked. “Fit!” she shouted and the sled started again, slower this time.
“He works when he needs to,” Tinhara said in his defence.
Hadyn drove the sled silently for almost an hour, taking hand commands from her companion to steer this way or that. The icy flat land, despite its occasional vertical relief, only compounded a sense of directionlessness that seemed to confuse Hadyn. The snowbanks were random, silent pieces that spoke a language few understood anymore. “How do you know where to go?” Hadyn asked.
“I know the land,” Tinhara replied, and then fell silent again. She’d been through the Burial Grounds a few years ago, and there were more bodies now. Many more.
“Here!” shouted Lefe as waved his hand. Hadyn stepped lightly on the brake and commanded Huel to stop. Tinhara pressed her foot down heavier and the sled came to a halt. “Go,” he said as he pointed south-west. It would take them to the outskirts of the Land of the Gods, rather than through the middle of the lands, where Tinhara had been planning.
“Why should we go that way?” she asked. “We’re more likely to run into someone.”
“Gods say,” Lefe replied. Tinhara nodded: if he had contact with the Gods, she would not argue.
“Let’s go that way then,” she said as she took the reins. They all headed off, this time with Lefe in the lead. With Hadyn beside her, she decided to chance a conversation. Tinhara felt awkward at first, asking questions that seemed suddenly wooden. Being on the sled seemed so different from when they had sat together earlier that day. She was so rarely in the company of others that her ability to talk for long periods of time was tested. It was dangerous to pry into someone’s past, so she was never quite sure what to say. But the trip seemed to have the opposite effect on Hadyn. Now, she spoke more freely. Hadyn talked of her childhood, her dreams and her games. It reminded Tinhara that she was, after all she had been through, still just a young woman. Her father, she explained, was a military man, and her family was large and healthy and wealthy. They lived just outside a small village called Bertik, tending the crops and raising small birds and katl to eat. She was certain, she told Tinhara, that her brothers would be out looking for her still, and that her mother had probably grown deathly thin with worry. Perhaps her father was released from service and had joined in the search.
Hadyn also talked about the night the sin traders came to the village. No one had known they were there, and a few people were snatched in the raid. She had been out that evening, walking by herself, contemplating an argument she’d had with her father, although she would not reveal what they had argued about. She had been by the bank of the river, tossing stones into the water and watching the ripples form and disappear. “I threw in a large stone, very large, and it made a great splash. The ripples seemed to go on forever, and when they cleared,” she said, “there was another face in the water. A dark man, with a beard, was standing over my shoulder. He grabbed me before I could scream. He was a brute. He put his hand over my mouth. It was such a big hand he covered my nose too, and I could barely breathe. He stank of some strange, flowery smell. An oil perhaps. He threw me to the ground and climbed on top of me. I thought…” Hadyn paused here and looked directly at Tinhara. “I thought he would kill me. But one of the other sin traders found us, and they threw me into a cage on wheels, with four others. We picked up more people along the way.”
She recounted the trip across the mountains and into Qan with the other taksins, of singing to them to calm them and of the one who tried to escape. He was made an example of, beaten and murdered before their very eyes, and no one else tried to run away. They crossed the Hessen River and, she explained with horror, were allowed to cross the passage between Qan and Arpine with the permission of the border guards. Hadyn could not wait to get home and tell her father. He would put a stop to it.
“Hoh!” Tinhara shouted as she pulled back on the reins to stop Huel. Hadyn stepped off the sled and stretched her arms. She put her hands on the small of her back and bent slightly backwards. Tinhara drummed her fingers on the sled for a moment, then stepped down. She looked quickly around the area and was content to stay.
The next morning Tinhara was the first one awake. She listened to the wind howl outside the caqun, and knew that a storm was brewing. She also listened to Hadyn breathe, a soft contrast to the sounds of the cold outside. She knew she could not get out of the caqun without waking Hadyn, so she simply lay there, running her fingers lightly through Hadyn’s hair.
“We’re going south today,” Tinhara told Hadyn as they ate a small breakfast of qamux. “We should be at the Lake of Sorrows before night. The sun is almost gone now, and we will have to ride in the dusk.”
“Lake,” Lefe said as he nodded and snapped open an old leg bone. He started to suck out the marrow, smacking his lips as he swallowed.
“That doesn’t sound very comforting,” Hadyn said.
“What? Lake of Sorrows? It’s a special place, where mourners go to shed their tears. There’s some kind of heat, natural heat, in the area.” She waited for Hadyn, but no nod of understanding was forthcoming, so she explained. “You see, if you cry out here, your tears freeze to your face. They are blood tears, because they rip your skin when you peel them off. I guess you don’t have them in Arpine?” Tinhara asked. Hadyn shook her head, and Tinhara continued. “Lake of Sorrows never freezes completely. Not like Qan River, which remains solid all the time. There are other waters that are frozen but there’s running water too. Like the northern ocean. You can’t travel over it.”
Hadyn looked south. “I don’t see any lakes. At home, they are a beautiful blue colour, and the sound of the water rushing down the Hessen River is…” A sadness came over her and revealed itself profoundly in her face.
Tinhara cautioned her. “Don’t cry anywhere but the Lake of Sorrows. You’ll be scarred, perhaps badly scarred.”
“Maybe,” Hadyn said as she looked down at her boots, “maybe if I was badly scarred, the sin traders would never have picked me up. Maybe my father never would have offered me to a stranger like a piece of katl. Maybe I’d be home with my family, eating dinner and sitting by the fire.” She breathed in deeply but erratically, and Tinhara put her arm around the young woman’s shoulders.
“You can travel today inside the caqun.” She squeezed her tightly. Hadyn clenched her jaw and nodded.
“I won’t cry,” she said. “I vowed when they took me that I would never cry.” She crawled onto the sled and into the caqun, paying no attention to Tinhara as she readied Huel for the journey.
“Lefe? Are you ready?” she asked.
Lefe nodded. “Sad?” he asked. Tinhara looked at the bulging caqun and nodded. She chewed slightly on her tongue, considering Hadyn’s sadness.
“Yes, but I’m not sure why. I guess she wants to see her family. She talked of them and got sad.” she said in a whisper. She grabbed Lefe’s hand and led him back to his own sled. “Lefe, can you contact the Gods? Can you ask them a question for me?”
He shrugged. “Try,” he replied.
“Ask them,” she said as she turned toward Hadyn, “ask them if this is going the way it’s supposed to. Ask them if I’m doing the prophecy thing the right way this time. It just doesn’t seem right,” she said. Lefe blinked a few times and shrugged. “Okay, okay, ask if, if Hadyn will make it to her home, if. Ask if Hadyn will be happy again.” Tinhara struggled to get the words out, feeling frustrated and angry at the thought of losing Hadyn, but knowing that staying here with her would curse Hadyn to a lifetime of danger and flight.
“Try,” Lefe said as he closed his eyes and tilted his head back. Tinhara stared at him, trying to figure out if he was talking to the Gods or not, if he was asking the right question, if the Gods was answering. She shifted from one foot to the other, head forward as if she could hear Lefe’s thoughts. Finally he titled his head down again and shook his head. “No Gods,” he said.
“You mean they are not there?” she asked. He shook his head hard, his hair flying wildly around him. “Aren’t they always there?” she whispered. “Aren’t you always touched by the Gods?”
“No,” he answered as he shook his head again. “Alone sometimes,” he said as he tapped his forehead. Tinhara cursed and huffed and stormed back to the sled. She grabbed a grogskin and took a drink. She held it up and considered how much she had left. If she traded wisely with the people of the mountain, she’d have enough to last a number of days without any problem. She stroked the fur on the grogskin slowly. Tinhara took another drink and shoved the grogskin back onto the sled.
“Fit!” Tinhara shouted as she snapped the reins. Huel started smoothly, running slowly so Lefe could keep up. They travelled for hours, until they were finally out of the Burial Grounds. Tinhara could see Lake of Sorrows emerging on the horizon. She called out to Hadyn, above the sound of the sled and the bear and the barking dogs, and pointed to the lake. Hadyn squirmed in the caqun, trying to get a better view without completely exiting its comfort. The sky was cloudless and dull, and further away, barely discernible, Tinhara saw a blackening. It was small at first, but as the sled travelled onward, the specks grew into a spot, and the spot grew into a mass, and the mass into a mountain.
Tinhara lit a dung fire, blowing on the flames to encourage their growth. She gutted the small seal Lefe had caught by the lake, putting the entrails into the snow to freeze. She slipped a piece of its body onto a thin stone platter and put the whole thing onto the fire. Hadyn joined her by the fire, watching the seal cook slowly on the flame. Tinhara looked around her and saw something fleeting in the land. It was a moment when land and colour intensified, when the light shimmered and the snow sparkled in kind, it was a moment when she was at peace.
The trio talked and shared stories through dinner and well into the night. Tinhara drank heavily, trying to lighten her mood and her tongue. “You have beautiful hair,” she said as she watched Hadyn begin to braid her red hair. “You should leave it long and flowing,” she said.
Hadyn smiled. “It’s easier to keep clean if I braid it. I don’t think there’s a hot bath in my near future.” Tinhara grunted in agreement, mesmerised by Hadyn’s dextrous fingers. She watched as Hadyn separated her hair into three cords and began weaving them together the way she wove strips of leather to make a strong rope.
“Hair nice,” Lefe said as he held out his own twisted, oily locks.
“Lefe, when we get to my home, I’ll make sure my mother washes your hair. She’s always been very good at taking care of long hair. I remember one time I was playing with some friends in the field. They had just laid down the manure and we didn’t realize. We were just kids, it didn’t matter to us. We ran through the field, jumping on each other and pushing each other into the mud and manure. By the time I got home, my hair was caked in muck. I remember crying because my brother said that mother would have to cut it all off. But she didn’t. She spent two hours scrubbing and washing and brushing my hair. Two hours! But it looked wonderful when she was done. I’m sure she could do something for you.” Lefe nodded and grinned and twirled his hair around his fingers, mimicking Hadyn. Her hair shone even as the sun died and the pale moon rose in the sky. Hadyn’s story only served to remind Tinhara of all she never had, never would have. She took another long drink.
Through the foggy haze of grog, Tinhara saw Hadyn’s lips moving, but she could hear nothing. She smiled and snapped her head back as it fell toward her chest. She licked her lips and watched Hadyn stand up and look around. Everything seemed to move in silent slow motion.
Tinhara closed her eyes again, but opened them one last time before slipping into sleep. Hadyn pulled on her arm, shouting, screaming at her, but she could make no sense of the words. She looked around. Hadyn was talking with Lefe, waving her arms wildly in a strange dance. Instinctively, she put on her gauntlets and pulled up her hood. Even when she was this drunk, she knew she needed to be well protected for a sleep outside the caqun. She shrugged off Hadyn, who proceeded to fade from her field of vision.
Tinhara awoke to Huel pawing at her face. She was covered in snow and when she tried to brush him away, she got an angry growl in the face. She opened her eyes but could see nothing. She blinked a few times and panicked a bit. She sat up slowly. Her shoulder popped and her back cracked as she lifted herself onto the sled. She sniffed a bit and rubbed her nose, and then started to crawl into the caqun. Huel charged and swiped at Tinhara, catching her back. She grunted and slammed face first into the bone floor of the sled. Her head was still spinning from all the grog. She could feel the warm blood trickle out of her nose and over her mouth.
“Curse you Huel! What did you do that for?” she shouted as she sat up and raised her hand to her face. “You stupid animal! You cursed, stupid animal!” Huel growled back at her and stood up. She scrambled away from him to the other side of the sled. He wasn’t playing. Tinhara stood, dazed, trying to work through the pain to figure out what was wrong. He walked on two legs toward Tinhara, and came down with his front paws right in front of her as she reached the end of his tether.
“What’s wrong with you?” she screamed as she raised her hands to protect her face. “Hadyn! Lefe!” she shouted.
Her echoing voice seared deep into her soul. “Hadyn?” Tinhara looked around, left and right. “Hadyn?” she repeated. “Lefe? Hadyn?” Then she saw the other sled tracks in the snow. She scurried over to them, still wiping blood from her face as she went. Two, no, three sleds. Dog tracks. She spread out her hands, surveying the scene, moving her hands the way she thought the sleds had arrived. Two from the north. There was a struggle where the snow had been kicked and trampled. Lefe’s huge footprints laid testament to his attempt to fight off the attackers. Blood. Hadyn had tried to run, and Tinhara followed her frantic footsteps in the snow. Here! They grabbed Hadyn here and turned north again. The two sleds had headed out,. Lefe’s giant footsteps were on top of the sled marks: he had pursued them, not gone before them.
“Hecath has cursed me!” she screamed. “Tinhara you’re a cursed drunken fool!” She slammed her fist against her head a few times. The last time, she clipped her nose and shouted out in pain. She had let them steal Hadyn from her and her aching heart beat her to the ground. She collapsed into a snow bank and began to pound at it mercilessly. “How could I have been so stupid? By the Gods what was I thinking?” she shouted at herself. Huel’s roar behind her snapped her out of her rebukes and she scrambled to her feet. He was waiting for her at the front of the sled. She quickly washed her face in snow, gritting her teeth as she worked on her nose. She dashed toward Huel, throwing her gauntlets onto the sled, and began to harness him as quickly as she could. She wished she had not muzzled and staked him, so he could have saved Hadyn. Huel started without any encouragement, and she dove onto the sled as it raced past.
Huel ran faster than Tinhara could ever recall him doing. She gained control of the reins, although Huel seemed to have no problem following the track of the dog sleds. As they raced along, she readied herself by pulling up her hood, putting on her gauntlets and making sure her weapons were handy. After a half an hour at breakneck speed, Tinhara thought she could make out the sleds of the magicians. She’d catch up to them in less than an hour. Instead of steering, she used the time first to rage against herself and then to plan the attack. She’d have to remove Huel’s muzzle so he could attack the dogs. They would stand no chance against him if he was unharnessed and unmuzzled, but he would stand no chance against them if he were. She wiped away the tears that were starting to form and let go of the reins. She grabbed her knife from its sheath but almost stabbed herself when the sled careened over a snow bank. Tinhara crawled toward the front of the sled. She looked up and could make out the people before her. They had stopped. She couldn’t see either Hadyn or Lefe, but could make out four others standing near the three sleds.
The Karech magicians’ long robes billowed wildly out behind them as the wind whirled around in a frenzy. Where was Hadyn? she wondered. It would be four against one. If it was four guards against her, she might stand a chance, but two of her prey were magicians, and she knew she wouldn’t survive the attack. She inched her way along the fast moving sled and sat at the front, gripping Huel’s harness. She puzzled for a moment, and then decided to simply try to cut the muzzle off Huel. If it worked, he’d be free with one quick flick of the wrist. If it didn’t, she’d slip past him and be crushed by the sled. She waited until she was almost upon the magicians. She could see them turning and watching her ride. One of them pointed and threw his head back. His sinister laughter caught the wind and echoed in her ears.
She saw his face when the hood fell from his head. His skin was white, whiter than the snow that surrounded them. But his eyes and mouth were black holes, like a fleshless skull. Skeletons, Hadyn had called them.
“Hecath, help me now. Help me do this thing, let me fix this,” she prayed. Tinhara gripped the knife in her left hand so she could cut the muzzle. She wound her muscles up tightly and then sprang. She slashed at the leather around Huel’s mouth and could feel the blade slit through it neatly. She lurched back onto the sled, panting, happy that she hadn’t sliced Huel’s throat or killed herself. She plucked a sharp skinning knife from a pocket and braced herself, a blade in each hand. She waited a moment longer and then quickly slashed down with both hands, cutting Huel completely free from the harness. Her sled began to slow and Huel sped up. Huel charged, his legs pacing, left side, right side, as he bound over to the dogs. He attacked the rear dog on the first sled, ripping into the animal with his huge paw. Blood and fur flew as the other dogs turned to defend themselves, twisting their lines as they fought off the bear. The guard and the magician tumbled into the snow as one sled jerked around wildly. The dogs fought viciously, but Tinhara knew Huel could hold his own.
Her own sled came to a slow stop and she hopped off, running toward the other sled. The guard leaned back on the sled and laughed at her. She could see Hadyn hiding on one of the sleds and Lefe down on the ground. She cursed herself again. She slowed when the second guard grabbed a large sword from a metal sheath on his back and move toward her, blocking her sight of the others as he lumbered through the snow.
One magician slung his arm backwards, toward Huel, and everything stopped. Huel was in the middle of tearing out a dog’s guts; his jaws clenched firmly around the animal’s midsection. And he remained that way, frozen in time. Lefe stood looking up at the guard he had just kicked. No one breathed, no one moved. The Karech magicians had powers she never knew about.
Tinhara drew in a sharp breath and braced herself for an attack. One guard was still moving, the guard coming toward her. He was much larger than she was, and she wouldn’t get a second chance. She tightly gripped the leather cords that formed the handle of the blade. She clenched and unclenched her hand, getting as good a grip as she could get. The Guard’s face twisted with anger as he approached Tinhara. He let out a roar and raised his sword above his head. Tinhara struck. She rammed her blade into his shoulder and wrenched it violently. The Guard screamed in pain, a horrible, animal scream, and he swung wildly at her. Quickly she stepped back, almost tripping over a snowbank. She thrust again, with less control now, and the blade skipped off his forearm. The knife almost fell free of her hand. He swung his sword backhandedly and caught Tinhara’s leg, slicing it open like a piece of qamux. Tinhara stumbled forward, her arms flailing wildly as she tried to gain her balance. Catching her stride she turned one last time and plunged her knife deep into her opponent’s side, left vulnerable again when he hefted his sword. He twisted in agony as she jerked the handle from side to side, trying to pull it out of him. Her hand slipped up the blade, and she sliced her fingers open. The Guard collapsed to the ground and she quickly picked up his sword. It was awkward and heavy, and her hands were slick with blood. She almost dropped it.
The hair on the back of her neck stood on end and she spun quickly about. Her flesh tore as she put pressure on her leg, and she thought for a moment she would pass out. Tinhara still had two magicians to face. She was panting, the sweat on her face freezing in her eyebrows and eyelashes. She swallowed hard and waited.
The first magician swung his arm forward, his green robe swaying with the smooth motion as a ball of power spurted from his fingertips. Over here. Tinhara leapt aside, screaming as her wound sent a jolt of pain through her. She stood and turned, breathlessly waiting for the next attack. When one magician laughed, his crooked, broken teeth showed clearly. They were going to play with her before they killed her. That suited Tinhara just fine, since each moment she was alive was another opportunity to stay that way.
The second Karech magician, this one dressed in blue, sent another, smaller ball of power at Tinhara. Over here. She scrambled out of the line of fire, clutching at her leg as a moan escaped from her lips. She heard the thing hit the ground behind her. The attackers waited for a moment, waited for her to catch her breath, before attacking again. This time, the power ball hit the huge metal sword she was carrying, ripping it from her hands. She watched it fly out behind her, twisting and melting as it went. She paused for a moment, wondering if her flesh would melt as easily as the metal had.
The next attack was close to her feet and she jumped, writhing in agony when she landed. She could hear their laughter again.
“Your friend isn’t much sport. But you are fun to kill,” he said in a halting, high-pitched voice. It reminded Tinhara of the buzzing insects that gather on carcasses left above ground in the Land of Sorrows. His fingers began to glow. The ball of light grew in size, from something so small she could barely see it to an orb the size of her head. He bowled it over to her quickly and she stepped out of the way. There was a line of blue ice showing where the ball had melted the top layers of snow. Tinhara raised an eyebrow. She walked deliberately over to the streak of ice and smiled. If they were going to give her the time and opportunity, she’d use it.
She could hear the voice again. Yes, over here! She saw the body frozen under the ice, buried there centuries ago and uncovered now by the Karech magic. It was an ancient body, far more ancient than any she had ever encountered before, and she hoped it would bring to her a strong, ancient power. She listened to the voice, and stepped onto the ice, straddling the body locked there. The two magicians turned to look at each other, and time seemed to stretch itself. Tinhara could feel the tingling in her feet first. She’d never felt it there before, it had always started in her hands when she swayed them over the souls of the dead. But there it was, in her feet, caressing her toes, working its way up her legs. She felt it flow around her wound, numbing her thigh, relieving her pain. She saw the magicians nod and turn toward her again. The tingling crawled up her body in an unstoppable march. Up through her stomach, and across her chest. It spread out from there, moving into her arms and rushing up to her head. The world took on a familiar faint blue hue. She felt like she had wings. The magicians both began to form balls of heat. What seemed like minutes to her had been just a heartbeat or two. Tinhara’s sense of time was stretched to its limit, and when the magicians’ raised their arms to prepare to strike her down, time snapped and rushed back with a vengeance.
She parted her lips to yell. In the blink of an eye the sacred lights of the ancestor travelled from the ice through Tinhara and out from her lips, and struck one of the magicians. His green robes glowed, his eyes bulged and his tongue popped out of his mouth just before he exploded. She was dumbstruck at the sight of the Karech flesh and blood raining down. Her head swivelled slightly and she sent another bolt, slashing through the blue-robed magician and splitting him neatly in two halves.
Silence buzzed all around her as the light bolts she’d created flickered and danced and headed up to the Heavens. The first sound she heard, that she was aware of, was her own breathing. It was laboured and irregular until she purposefully sucked in a deep breath and exhaled. The tingle in her body faded. She opened and closed her mouth, wiggling her tongue. She looked at the gore left behind by her powers, and at the snow in between. She prodded the inside of her mouth with her tongue, running it around the teeth, stretching out her cheeks as if they might contain power residue. Tinhara raised her head when she heard Lefe whoop, but she could not, dared not, move. She watched as he walked over to her.
He gripped her hand in his and tugged her toward the sled. “Hadyn!” she shouted. Lefe let go and she hobbled over to the sleds with him. Huel had killed most of the dogs and their bodies lay tangled in their own harness; some lay whimpering in pain, half-dead, while a few had wisely run off. Huel was in pursuit. What had once been a Guard lay scattered all around. Hadyn cowered near a sled, crouched down, her face buried in her hands.