Immediately below them, rocks protruded from glacial slits. On either side, the arms of ice seemed to flow gently around the crevice and melded where they met at the bottom. Each arm was puckered with small wrinkles of undulating snow that formed delicate triangular thatches. Just beyond the end of the glacier were splotches of colour. Here and there, defiant patches of green branches stood out against the white until, as the trees became stronger and the snow became weaker, a vast evergreen forest could be seen. Among the evergreens were ghost trees; thin, pale remnants of the trees that could not thrive in the cold and wind of winter. Those few ghosts were gathered around a frozen lake, waiting to be reborn.
“My home is that way,” Hadyn said as she pointed south.
Tinhara nodded absentmindedly; she was fixed on the green of the trees. These were not the same as the trees of Qan. Most of these trees were heavy with snow, their boughs bent almost to the ground under the weight. But there were some free of snow, standing taller than the others, and very sparse. These ones grew wild, permanently bent to flow with the westward wind, their branched fingers reaching out toward another destiny.
Rising up from the trees, Tinhara saw smoke curling its way skyward. “What’s there?” she asked as she pointed.
“It looks like Trekle. They are not friendly, but not against us, either,” Hadyn said.
Tinhara began to descend toward Trekle. “Is this a safe village?” she asked. Hadyn nodded and followed down after her, stepping carefully in the same footprints. But she lost her footing and slipped, tumbling into Tinhara and sending them both rolling down the glacier. They laughed and, since no harm was done, they simply got up and brushed themselves off.
Tinhara heard a noise, a cracking noise, coming from the trees near them. “What was that?” she asked.
“What?” Hadyn said as she looked around. “Did you see something?”
“Wuhhhh. I heard something, listen.” They waited but heard nothing. Tinhara turned to her left. “I am certain I heard something,” she said.
“Probably just someone from Trekle, hunting perhaps.”
Tinhara pursed her lips and looked all around. She spotted some fresh tracks in the snow and pointed at them. “There, tracks.” She headed over, concentrating to hear the tiniest of sounds, but she heard nothing other than the two of them. She found the tracks and looked down at them. They were almost human; the right shape and size, but they revealed long sharp claws where the toes should have been. They led away from the road, into the forest. Tinhara crouched down and removed her gauntlet so she could touch one of the tracks.
“What animal caused these tracks?” she asked herself aloud. Hadyn shook her head. She looked again. It was a two-legged animal. “A person,” Tinhara announced. Looking around, Tinhara surveyed the footprints again. The person had been running, very quickly, and very quietly. “Someone is stalking us, someone with long claws,” she said as she stood up. Hadyn said nothing. Tinhara sat down in the snow. She pulled out the broken ramblers and the pieces of rope they had used to tie the toothed grips to their hands and feet. She began to tie one piece of rambler to the end of her walking stick, binding it on by wrapping the rope tightly around the shaft. The other piece of rambler went on the other end of the stick, creating a double-headed weapon. She rested it beside her while she worked on the second weapon.
“Can I try it?” Hadyn asked as she hefted it into the air.
“You had better. You need to get used to it, feel how it moves in your hands, how hard you have to swing it. Don’t hit me. Don’t hit anything; you will have to practice just swinging it.” she said. She gripped one end in her teeth and pulled the other end with both hands, making sure it was as secure as possible.
Hadyn practised her swings. “Hah!” she shouted as she swung the club down on a pretend assailant. “Hah! Thought you got me, didn’t you. Hah! Hoh! Ah!”
Tinhara laughed quietly to herself. “You’ve never been in a fight, have you?” she asked.
“I’ve been in plenty of fights. Hah!” Hadyn said as she swung the club at Tinhara, stopping just short of her head. “I have twelve brothers and sisters. Mostly brothers. I have probably been in more fights than you.”
Tinhara laughed out loud. “Let me ask that again. How many fights have you been in where you killed someone?”
Now it was Hadyn who laughed. “None, of course! How many have… oh yes. I guess you have killed a few people,” she said. “How many people have you killed?” she asked.
Tinhara finished her weapon and stood up, testing its balance and pull as she swung it around her head. “A few,” she replied.
“A few? I know of three, or four. Yes, four men you have killed just while you have been with me.”
Tinhara swung the club again and grunted. “I don’t think I’ve killed four men while we have been together,” she said. She thought it was five or six.
Hadyn stood defiantly, her hands on her hips, the club resting in the crook of her arm. “The man with the hood who bought me, a guard and two magicians. That’s four. How many others have you killed?”
“Many. I was in the King’s Guards, I told you. Let’s go. We will go to Trekle,” she said as she walked back to the road. Hadyn skipped after her.
“My father is a soldier. Oh yes, I told you. He killed lots of people during the war. And my two oldest brothers, Calin and Fredricht, killed a man one night who sneaked into our house. He was trying to steal our food and father was away. They beat him badly, and he died. It was horrible,” Hadyn said as she fell in step with Tinhara. They walked a little faster than before, Tinhara with one ear to the story, the other ear listening for the mysterious sounds. “He was bloody and he cried. He begged for mercy, he said he was hungry. But Calin and Fredricht were mad that night. They even stopped and rested once, and then beat him again. Finally he stopped pleading and they still beat him. Even after he stopped breathing, they just kept going, like they were possessed by an evil spirit.”
“It gets like that sometimes,” Tinhara said softly. She held up her hand to silence Hadyn before she had a chance to reply. The hair on the back of her neck stood on end, and she wheeled around. She saw a person standing about forty feet away. He had wavy white hair and his face was painted blue. He had metal claws on his hands and feet, and he stood with his hands out, ready to pounce.
“Bright blessings,” Tinhara shouted to greet him. He said nothing, and she repeated the greeting.
“He has war paint on,” Hadyn whispered. “They never wear blue paint, except when they are at war. Do you really think…?” she trailed off, knowing the answer already.
“Who are you at war with?” Tinhara shouted to the man. He grinned, his yellowed teeth set out sharply against his blue skin.
“You!” he shouted as he ran toward them. Hadyn screeched and ran away, but Tinhara stood her ground, gripping her club tightly. He yelled as he ran, arms flailing wildly as he gained speed. He seemed young and foolhardy, not at all a warrior or soldier. Any boy who attacks an armed opponent with no anticipation of defence was going to die. He ran right at Tinhara and she swung her club around, catching him squarely in the chest. The teeth of the rambler sank deeply and he squealed in pain. She kept a tight grip as he dropped to the ground, causing his flesh to rip away. Shreds of it hung, bloody and raw, on the end of the club while he writhed and clutched his chest. His blood began to seep into the snow while Tinhara stood over him, ready to strike again if he tried to get up.
Hadyn returned, gasping at the sight. The young man lay whimpering on the ground, Tinhara standing above him shaking out the pieces of flesh from the rambler.
“Do not kill him,” Hadyn said as she held her hand up toward Tinhara. “Why did you attack us?” she asked him. He started crying and said nothing in response. “Why would he attack us?”
Tinhara shrugged. “He said he is at war. Sometimes, you think everyone is the enemy.”
The young man spit, sending a bloody glob of phlegm onto her leg. She sneered but did not move to wipe it off. “It would be a great honour to carry your head back to Trekle,” he snarled.
Tinhara laughed and stepped back from him. He was not going to get up again, ever. “A great honour to cut off my head? Me? I don’t think so,” she said with a smile. “There is no honour in killing me,” she said. “You don’t even know who I am. I have done nothing…”
“I know who you are,” he interrupted. “You are the enemy. A blue eyed freak and a red-haired woman. The Karech have formed an alliance with us, and we know who you are.” Tinhara stopped smiling and looked quickly at Hadyn, then back at him. He coughed blood and spit it out, but did not have the strength to hit Tinhara with it. “A great honour will go to whomever kills the enemy, or dies trying. But it does matter, the others will hunt you down, like an animal. They will get you.”
Tinhara sighed and looked around. There were no others to help him. “You will not be the first man I kill,” she said. The boy sobbed feebly, but said nothing. She looked down at the young man from Trekle. She watched as the blood dripped out of his chest and she thought of the delight Huel would have in licking his blood off the snow.
“Why must you kill him?”
“He is dying. I can let him die slowly, let him drown in his own blood. Or I can kill him quickly. It is your choice,”
“No, it is not a choice for me to make. I cannot watch,” Hadyn whispered. Tinhara turned to look at Hadyn, who was suddenly still very much a child. Tinhara turned away from her horrified stare.
“Walk that way, to the treeline. I’ll join you there soon.” Hadyn obeyed Tinhara and ran to the trees. Tinhara waited for her companion to be far enough away that, she estimated, the deathblow would not be heard. She tightened her stomach muscles and tried to send a burst of light from her mouth, but nothing happened. She tried a few more times, but her power was gone.
“Curses,” she murmured to herself. Without her ancestors to provide the magic, she would be much more vulnerable than she realized. She was still getting used to the idea of this power, and had not used it much, but it proved itself effective and she was furious that she had lost it.
“Coward,” the boy spat out. “The Karech said you are a coward, a traitor to your own people. You murdered them as cold-bloodedly as you are about to murder me.”
She looked once at the young man and sneered. “You are the one who said you are at war with me. Have you ever been at war? Do you want war? I’ll show you war!” she snarled. She lifted her club and brought it down quickly on his head. His blood sprayed up and out of the top of his head and he died. She wiped her clothes and weapon off in the snow, making sure she could see no traces of blood. Tinhara jogged through the snow to join Hadyn, who was now walking slowly.
“My power does not work,” Tinhara told her. “I have no magic left.” She felt forlorn, alone without the ancestors. They walked on in silence, each wrapped up in their own concerns. The snow was deep in places and the journey slowed considerably. They came to a sharp drop as the mountain gave way to flatter land. Far below them, they could see the land smooth out again and remain level. Once they walked down the incline, Hadyn said it would be more than a day before the next town since Trekle was no longer an option. Tinhara paused for a moment to consider the best route down, and they headed down the west shoulder.
They were a third of the way down the side of the mountain when Tinhara heard a rumbling sound behind her and turned. High above were a number of people, all with the same white hair and blue skin of the boy she had just killed. They were walking across the hillside in a straight line. A strange, low chant was cascading down the mountainside. Tinhara saw the fracture the Trekles had created in the snow, and her heart leapt.
“Run!” she shouted. Hadyn began to run to the right while she ran straight down the hill. She stumbled and fell, and as she gained her feet again, she saw them all jump into the air, landing at the same time. It caused the snow to give way, and travel down the mountain after them. Tinhara was flipped over backwards and travelled head first. Her club went flying and the snow stripped away her gauntlets. Head over heels, she rolled down the hill, snow getting under her eyelids and into her nose. It plugged her mouth and when she spit it out, it would just fill her up again. It became a trial just to breathe, her lungs screamed for air and then everything was silent. She spit out the snow and tried to open her eyes. It was painful, but they slowly opened. Then she heard a crushing noise as the mountain settled, and could feel a great pressure while the snow solidified around her.
She had travelled down the rest of the mountain and was trapped beneath the snow. She could not tell which way she should begin to dig because everything seemed dark and light. Tinhara coughed out another bit of snow that had travelled down her throat and sucked in the air: there wasn’t much of it in the hollow that had formed around her. She could feel the snow in her clothes, and knew it would not be long before she began to shiver. She pulled her arms and legs close to her and winced when she realized her shoulder had been injured again. Think, she insisted to herself. She looked around and saw a small sliver of light behind her. She squirmed around, taking precious minutes because of the tight area, before she was finally facing the light ray. She began to claw her way out, ripping at the snow that was now so tightly packed it was almost as hard as rock.
As she dug her fingers began to bleed. One fingernail was ripped off, but she finally dug a hole out. A little stick-like finger poked into the hole. She shrank back for a moment, until she realized that it was pulling snow away, trying to help her out. She worked madly, digging like a dog, scratching and slashing away until it was big enough to squirm out of. She wriggled herself through the small hole, groaning in agony as she stretched her injured shoulder. Finally out in the sunlight she gasped and shook herself free of the snow that still stuck to her. Tinhara looked around and saw nothing but the side of the mountain. She did not see whoever had been there to help her, she saw no footprints in the twisted and turned snow.
“Hadyn!” she shouted. “Hadyn?” She scrambled over the snow, shouting and yelling but hearing nothing from her companion. She knew she did not have much time. It was the same when a snow house collapsed; speed was of the essence because survivors had only a few minutes before their air was used up. “Hadyn!” she screamed again, as loudly as she could. The only sound that came back to her was her own voice. And a small squeak. Tinhara looked toward the sound, high in the air, and saw a small winged animal flying toward her. It was the thing she had tried to hunt on the other side of the river.
It fluttered around her head. She ducked from it and sprang away. The creature landed on the ground nearby. The little beast stood on two legs, its leathery wings spread out slightly as it clenched and unclenched its clawed hands. The creature stood only a few inches high, and when Tinhara blinked and leaned forward to get a better view, she realized it had an almost human face. Square jawed, with a jutting brow, it reminded her of Lefe. The creature flew up again, toward her, and she moved out of its way. It tried one more time, landing on her shoulder. Its skin was covered in a light, short fur, its feet were padded and covered with a slightly thicker fur. It blinked a couple of times while she stared at it. She wondered how it tasted.
She stared at it as it flicked its long tail and then flew back to the area where it had landed. It walked around again in a little circle, chirping and squeaking. It scratched at the snow, making only tiny marks.
“Of course,” Tinhara whispered. She darted over to where the animal was scratching and began to dig. “Hadyn?” she pleaded, desperate in the hope that this creature was telling her where she lay buried. She scraped and dug, her hands already numb from the snow and pain. She saw a piece of red hair sticking up from the snow. She shouted Hadyn’s name over and over again as she worked. Tinhara looked up once at the mountain side, wanting to be sure that those who had started this slide were not coming down to them. She saw no one, and turned her attention again to Hadyn. She uncovered her face first; it was pale and cold, her lips were blue and her eyes were frozen shut.
“Wuhhhh, don’t move. Breathe, I will dig you out. You can breathe now,” she said as she rubbed Hadyn’s face to bring the flow of blood back. A small moan escaped from Hadyn’s lips, and Tinhara kissed them. She worked furiously and finally uncovered Hadyn. She carefully swung her companion’s arm around her own shoulder and realized that her wrist had been broken. She brushed off as much snow as possible and rubbed Hadyn’s body to warm her up.
“Bless you,” Hadyn murmured as she regained her senses. She struggled to sit up, wincing when she put pressure on her broken wrist. “I think it’s broken,” she announced.
Tinhara laughed with relief. “Yes, it is broken, but I think that is all. Does anything else hurt?”
“Everything else hurts!” Hadyn spat back. She looked back to where they had been, hundreds of feet above, and gasped. “We travelled that distance? It seemed to take only a moment.”
“It did,” Tinhara said as she walked around and crouched on the other side. She put her arm around Hadyn’s back and helped her to her feet. The little creature flew up and landed on Tinhara’s shoulder.
“What magic has created you?” she asked it, and was secretly relieved when it did not respond. Instead, it flew up to a tree branch and peered down at her. “I’ve seen nothing like you before,” she said.
Hadyn looked at it. “We call them garboils.” The little creature made a strange barking noise and flew down in front of them. Once on the ground it folded its wings back and crept forward, occasionally using its knuckles to help it walk.
Tinhara stuck her hand out toward the thing, and it slowly walked up to her. It sniffed at her and jumped up, wrapping its clawed toes around her thumb and its tail around her wrist. It had three toes in front and one in the back of its foot. The tail was like a serpentine arm, strong enough to give it the stability it would need if she were to carry it. “Then, garboil, you will come with us. Keep our company,” she said.
“It’s a rodent, a, a beast. I do not think it is a suitable pet,” Hadyn protested as she shook the snow out of her clothes.
“Many would say that a bear does not make a suitable travelling companion, but that did not stop me. This found you in the snow and showed me where to dig. I shall keep it, him perhaps, and I shall think of a name for him.” She paused and looked at the garboil. “Unless you have one of your own?” It remained silent. “Then I shall name him. I wish I had known about those Trekle people. I would have taken a different route, perhaps one with greater tree coverage,” she said. She had never experienced a mountain collapsing on her before, and hoped she never would again. But she was relieved that the avalanche had been caused by the Trekles, and not by the Gods. They showed no displeasure now in her attempt to fulfil the prophecy.
Hadyn walked around a little and nodded. “I’m ready to go, but my wrist hurts very badly. Is there something we can do about it?”
Tinhara shook her head. “I lost my club in the fall, or I could use it to keep your wrist straight. Did you keep yours?” she asked as she bent down to look in the area Hadyn had crawled from.
“No, I don’t know what happened to mine,” was the reply.
“We can use a branch from a tree,” she said as she headed toward the pile of debris that had come down with the snow. She found a branch and stuck it up Hadyn’s sleeve. “When we have time to rest, I will figure something else out. We should leave this area, now.”
As they journeyed, they discussed the implications of the Karech making alliances, and of their pursuit of the women of Hadyn’s home town. Hadyn decided that she would tell the truth to everyone who would listen, to clear Tinhara’s name before it went too far. Tinhara knew that if a young boy attacked in the name of war, it had already gone too far.
Tinhara held the garboil aloft while they walked, but her hands were too cold and she finally put them, and the creature, in her pocket. “How can we tell if the Vagan’s are at war with us?” she asked, speaking of the next tribe of villagers they were likely to encounter.
“They too will have their colours: war paint and special clothing. But they hate the Trekle, so will hate their enemy’s ally. I think we have to ask for help. My hand is aching, and I can tell that you have a problem with your shoulder. You can barely turn and look at me when you talk.”
Tinhara sighed. “You are right. We have had no food for days, we have no weapons and we need dry clothes. Perhaps we can sneak into a home and steal something.” But they found no homes to steal from.
They settled that evening under a tree on the bare ground, gathering green bows to sleep on and under. In the dirt around them, Tinhara set about gathering up as much desiccated animal dung as she could. She put it into her pocket, sifting out the windblown tufts of shed fur, placing that in the pocket with the still unnamed creature. She scraped away until, finally, she found a layer of damp, thin mud and under that, she found what she was looking for: rock. It was this rock that she would chip and shape into sharp blades. If she was lucky, she could use a sturdy branch and a sharp stone to form a spear. She dug up a couple of rocks, testing them against each other and throwing aside those that would not work. She found two that sparked when smacked together and she put those in the pocket with the dung. After almost an hour she headed back to Hadyn, who sat shivering in the evening air.
She pulled the dung out of her pocket and put it in a small pile on the ground. “Warm yourself up and gather some branches to burn,” she said. Hadyn stood up stiffly, grunting, and began to gather branches that had fallen to the ground. Tinhara clacked the stones together, over and over, but could not light the dung. Hadyn returned and dropped the wood before almost collapsing on the ground.
“I’m tired and I’m hungry,” she announced.
“You have been tired and you have been hungry. It will be alright,” Tinhara said as she kept working on the spark. “Gather more wood,” she said.
“But there is a lot here already,” her companion protested.
“If we can start a big fire, and keep it going all night, then we can dry our clothes and be warm. Do you not want to be warm?” she said as she raised her eyebrow. Hadyn huffed and began searching for more wood. By the time she returned, Tinhara had a small fire going and was carefully placing smaller branches on it.
That evening Tinhara let Hadyn have the first sleep while she dried out her own clothing. By sitting very close to the fire, Tinhara was able to remove most of her clothes without becoming too cold. She held each piece up near the fire, occasionally singeing the fur on one piece or another. She spent a good part of the time thinking of a name for the garboil before finally settling on Giz. It was, she decided, a suitably magical name for what was obviously a magical creature. It stayed with her the entire time, either on her shoulder or on the ground near the fire, murmuring and clicking. Once in a while it would fly up suddenly, snatch something from the air, and land again. It would then begin to eat whatever insect it had just caught, smacking its lips and grunting quietly. After quite a few hours all of her clothes were back on, and she revelled in their warmth. She poked Hadyn, who groggily protested the interruption in her sleep.
“Stick your hand in here,” she said as she opened her otuk. It took a bit of urging before Hadyn did so.
“Oh, it’s so warm!” she cried out. Tinhara showed her how to dry her clothes, how to feed the fire when it got low, and how to stay warm. She then curled up near the fire and fell asleep.
Hadyn woke her in a few hours, when the night was at its blackest. The fire was dying but her clothes were dry and she was ready to sleep. Before curling up again, Tinhara laid out a few large branches on the fire and got it roaring. Then she laid down beside Hadyn, mindful of their injuries. She had forgotten about Giz until she laid on him and he mewled in protest. She shifted her clothes around so he could stay in her pocket but was not beneath her, and she fell asleep again.
In the morning, Tinhara awoke to the sounds of crying. She sat up and saw that Hadyn was sobbing in her sleep. She gently shook her awake and discovered that Hadyn’s broken wrist had swollen during the night.
“It hurts so badly,” Hadyn whimpered.
“I know it must. Maybe someone can fix it,” Tinhara said. She had little hope that such a thing would happen, since they were now enemy targets in a land almost as barren of people as Qan. Hadyn insisted that Vagan lay to the east, so they immediately set out on the journey, walking as quickly as they dared. Giz rode on Tinhara’s shoulder, nestling himself into her neck when the wind blew. He wrapped his tail partly around her throat to keep hold of his perch. Hadyn could not help but cry, tears trickling down her face as she walked. After almost three hours, Tinhara saw a small house in the distance.
“We will visit them,” Tinhara said as veered toward the house. “If there are any problems, we are more likely to be able to fight a single family than from an entire village.” They trudged through the snowy field, sometimes sinking up to their knees, struggling to reach the home. It was not long before someone stepped from the house to watch their trek, keeping a sharp eye on these newcomers.
“He is Vagan. He will hate the Trekles, and will help us,” Hadyn said with confidence.
“Haktol!” Hadyn shouted to the man who stood in the doorway. He was a tall, lithe man with grey hair so long it touched his knees. It was pulled back behind his head and tied with leather. His dark skin was lined with thin stripes of war paint that flowed from his nose to his ears. “Haktol,” she greeted him again. “Ich lol chroct Bertik. Iches co add, mawchen de rost. Plou Tu hep?” The striped man nodded and shouted back indistinguishably toward the house as he walked toward them.
“Iches youn tracced gof Trekles.”
“Do you speak my language?” Tinhara asked, frustrated that she did not understand what Hadyn had just said. The leopard man nodded again.
“Yes. You were attacked by the Trekles?” he asked as he reached out and took hold of Hadyn’s arm.
“Yes, they sent the side of the mountain down on us,” she replied. Together they helped Hadyn make the last few steps to the house. Once inside, Hadyn was quickly directed to a large wooden chair, and she grunted with relief as she sat down. The house was small and dark, except for the light of a small fire and that sunlight which filtered through small chinks in the wood. It was cold, and the fire did little to ease that. Two people scurried around them. The woman, the older of the two, helped Tinhara remove her otuk, a painful process with her wounded shoulder. The man went to Hadyn to tend to her wrist.
“I am Taag. These are my wives, Fret and Tili. You may have seen my children, out playing in the field?”
“I saw no one,” Tinhara said. Hadyn suddenly shrieked, and Tinhara jumped.
“I’m sorry,” Fret said as he pulled back, away from Hadyn. “Her wrist has broken, and the bone needs to be set,” he said. Tinhara watched breathlessly as he gently tried to turn Hadyn’s wrist back to a normal position.
“Hadyn Mekka,” Hadyn said softly. Just then, Giz flew up to the rafters of the house and chattered quietly. The two wives gasped, almost in unison, at the sight of the little creature.
“What is this? You were carrying that thing around in your pocket?” shouted Taag as he stood up and backed away from Tinhara.
“I found it. I like it. I thought I would keep him as a pet,” she said defensively.
“Fressor denna kun. Wik to gof lacil, hechef,” Hadyn said with a strange slur. Her head nodded a little to the side, and she was shivering. She was going into shock, and Fret quickly covered her with a blanket.
The wives sat across from one another at a small table, mixing white powder with water, but both kept looking sideways at Tinhara, catching her eye and frowning at Giz.
Tinhara created a story for Taag and his partners, leaving out any mention of killing the boy. While she talked, she watched the wives work. They had mixed the powder with water, and had begun to wrap Hadyn’s wrist. Fret explained that the white mixture would become hard, the way water turns to ice, and it would protect Hadyn’s arm. They fed her brewed herbs to bring down her fever and calm her nerves. Finally, after the wrist was set, Tili headed outside and began to call for the children.
Taag pulled a few small brown leaves from a small pouch and shoved them into a small silver bowl at the end of a silver tube. He walked over to the fire, withdrew a small piece of branch and held the flame to the bowl. He wrapped his lips around the end of the silver tube and sucked in deeply. Her eyes stung a bit as he exhaled smoke and it wafted into her face. He seemed to suck the smoke out of the tube and into his body, and then expel the smoke from his mouth. Taag offered her the tube. She put her lips on the end and sucked on it like she would suck on a piece of bone to draw out marrow. The smoke filled her mouth with a strange, sweet flavour. She chewed on it a bit and then blew it out of her mouth. She handed the tube back to their host.
“Fret, come here,” Taag said as he tapped the arm of his chair. The young man walked over and stood as directed. Taag put his hand on Fret’s back, and asked that he update Hadyn’s condition.
Fret knelt down, level with Taag and Tinhara, his face clouded by concern. “She is feverish. We have given her some fever herbs to cool her insides. She will be fine, if the fever breaks,” he said as he patted Tinhara’s hand. With a quick kiss, Taag dismissed him and he headed back to his place with the children.
They talked more, and smoked more. Tinhara was feeling very light headed by the time the food was ready. They woke Hadyn from her sleep, but she remained groggy and quiet.
The entire family sat in thin wooden chairs around the small wooden table. Taag was at the head of the table, his wives at either side. Tary, a young shy girl, clung to Tili’s side, hiding behind her arm every time Tinhara looked at her. Patr, on the other hand, had been quite bold about his curiosity. “What is this scar from?” Patr asked as he poked at Tinhara’s arm.
“I got that when I fought some men to protect Hadyn,” she said. She eyed the scar that cut across her bicep, and so did Taag. “When you die, the Gods do not judge you by your fame, wealth or standing. They look for scars.”
“Did you have a fight?” he asked.
“Yes, but there is no problem now,” Tinhara said. “We were sitting on our sled,” she began.
“Patr, help Fret with the food,” Taag interrupted as he reached for a plate of steaming meat. “And then sit down.”
“I want to sit beside Tinhara,” Patr announced loudly. He shouted a little louder, and got what he wanted. “Now I can watch how you eat with your funny hands,” Patr said happily as he squirmed in his chair.
“Gegan Goht a gohtr,” Taag pronounced as he held his hands up in the air. Tinhara watched as everyone raised their hands, even Hadyn made a feeble attempt, and she followed their lead.
“May our guest also share in this blessing,” Fret said.
“Of course, of course,” Taag rumbled. “My God is good. He guides this family, and we do not question his wisdom. He provides for us when we are in need.” They lowered their hands at the end of the prayer. Everyone remained quiet at the table, watching Taag as he loaded his plate with steaming piles of meat and plants. Tili, to his left, passed a small pot with a thick brown liquid, which he poured onto his meat. It looked well cooked, and Tinhara wondered if the liquid was meant to replace all of the flavour and juices that had escaped during cooking. The plates were thin pieces of stone, carved so they had a slight lip: obviously meant to stop the liquid from spilling off. There was a sharp metal knife to the right side of the plate, and a flat-bottomed cup to the left. In front of her were heaping platters of meats both dark and white, although she could not tell which animal it came from, and white, green and orange plants. In a large flask was something to drink, and judging by the smell, it was similar to grog. Tinhara licked her lips and looked quickly from the flask to Hadyn. She had promised to give up grog long enough to get Hadyn home. She was looking forward to a drink, and began to convince herself that if she was in the right country, it was close enough to count.
Once Taag took his first bite of food and nodded in approval, hands and arms flew around as people reached for the food. One would take a small portion of whatever was in front of them, then give the food platter to the next person. Tinhara was unsure what she wanted to eat, since there seemed to be so much, and instead accepted Patr’s offer to provide her with the food.
“This is… mumma, how do I say katl?” he asked. But Fret hesitated slightly with a puzzled look on his face.
“Katl,” he replied.
“They don’t have katl in Qan,” Hadyn told him. She was acting sullen and unthankful. Tinhara nudged her slightly and gave her a stern look. Hadyn’s response was to look down at her food for the remainder of the meal.
“Tu lif dant sprak liches tung?” Taag asked.
Hadyn raised her eyes and was about to speak, when Tinhara said, “What did you ask?”
“If you have enough meat,” he said. Hadyn shook her head, her eyes flashing a cautionary note to Tinhara.
“Yes, you are being most generous,” she said as she took a mouthful of stringy dark meat. When she chewed it, it got stuck between her teeth and she had to labour to get it out. Taag leaned over to Tili and said something in a soft voice. She immediately rose from the table.
“Is everything alright?” Tinhara asked as she sat up in her chair. She quickly grabbed the eating knife, a small comfort to her.
“Yes, yes,” Taag said as he gestured with his hands. I have asked her to run to the village and fetch some sweet fruit to finish off dinner,” he said.
“There is no need to travel for us,” Tinhara said as she relaxed a bit and put her knife down.
“But I insist,” Taag said. “She will be back soon,” he said, “and I will not have my guests going without this delicacy.” Tili hurried from the room and out the door: Tinhara could hear her footsteps fading in the snow.
They ate and talked of everyday things, of the weather and the pipe Taag used for smoking, berries and garboils. Tili returned after a short time with a handful of small red berries, and she set about washing them in a small bowl. Once in a while Tinhara had to encourage Hadyn to eat, and was mystified by her reluctance. She much preferred the childish banter of Patr, who had many questions about Qan.
“And you have night all the time?” he asked as his eyes widened.
“For a long time, yes. And it is very cold. Most people sleep for days, sometimes until the sun returns,” Tinhara said with a smile. She stabbed a piece of meat with her knife and raised it up, picking pieces of it off and popping them into her mouth. From the corner of her eye, she saw Tary staring at her, mouth open, wide eyed. She winked, and Tary laughed, picking up her own knife and eating the meat from it with her hands. Fret slapped the knife from her hand and scolded her in their own language. Tary went silently from the room.
The atmosphere reminded Tinhara of her first few days with the King’s Guards. Shortly after her parents died, she had been found and cared for by another family. But they kept her only a few months, finally leaving her with the authorities in Galmaq. There were only two options for orphans: die or be sent to the King’s Guards. Her first day with the Guard had been difficult. She was thrown to the ground and kicked by the Den Mother whose job it was to care for the new arrivals. She was told she would sleep on the floor, against the stone wall of the barracks. Given only a thin blanket and another kick, Tinhara made her way to her corner and curled up, hoping to awaken in a new life. But she woke up to another kick, this one delivered by an older recruit.
“Get up,” he snarled as he raised his foot to kick her again. She scrambled to her feet just in time to avoid his foot. “Roll your blanket so it’s out of the way. Tighter! Now throw it in the corner. To the eating hall, it’s time for breakfast. Get in line!” he screamed when he was only inches from her ear.
Tinhara ran to join the others, and, in line behind a short boy, stood as straight as she could. They marched together, under the orders of the Den Mother; step, step, step. Anyone who broke the rhythm was hit. They headed out of the dank stone room and down a long passageway. There were no windows so the halls were lit with a few torches. The light was so dim she could barely see in front of her. The boy she was walking behind stumbled and fell, and she stopped before she too tripped.
“Move!” the Den Mother shouted as she smacked Tinhara on the head. She jumped over the boy’s legs and caught up to the rest of the line. She turned back to see him, with the same pouting face that Tary had, as he was walked silently from the hall. It was the last time she ever saw him.
The orphans headed into a room with a huge wooden table and heavy wooden chairs. It stank of strange food and fear, and she almost gagged. Sitting in the chair, she waited while everyone passed around the food: she took a bit of meat and passed the plate onward to the next recruit, then filled her cup with a thin broth and passed the broth too. She ate quietly, listening to the buzz of conversation around her. She grabbed the meat, something she could not recognize, and picked at it with her hands, tearing off strips she could easily pop into her mouth. Some of the others laughed at her.
Although no one in Taag’s family laughed out loud, she was suddenly aware of her own eating habits. Tinhara grabbed her cup and drank deeply, draining the contents and letting out a refreshed gasp at the end. Patr giggled and put both hands up to his mouth to stop himself from squealing with laughter. Despite the fact that her habits were much rougher than those of this family, Tinhara took great pleasure in emphasising those difference; it delighted the children and that made it all worthwhile.
Tinhara smiled and glanced beside her at Hadyn, who had now pushed her food away from her, then reached over to touch her face. Hadyn’s skin was hot, and she was beginning to sweat. “I think she has become ill,” Tinhara said as she rose to her feet. She grabbed Hadyn by the shoulders and turned her in her chair. She bent over her, feeling her skin, tracing all the lines in her face. “Do you have anything for her?” she gasped, her voice shaking almost as badly as her hands.
“Fret, Tili, tend to the young woman,” Taag said. The two immediately got up and rushed over to Hadyn, prying her from Tinhara’s hands and leading her into a small back room. Tinhara followed after them and watched as they laid her out on a bed. They quickly undressed her and threw some skins over top of her.
“It is a fever from her injury, it will pass in a few hours, the fever herb will draw it out. We will care for her, bring her water. She will be fine,” Fret announced. Tinhara waited in the doorway: there was not enough space for her to enter the room, but she could not leave. She watched Hadyn’s eyes, her lids heavy and sagging, as they tried to flutter open. Tili placed her hands over them and whispered softly.
Taag pulled up two chairs so they could both watch the proceedings in relative comfort. Patr had disappeared, although his high voice let Tinhara know he was with Tary somewhere nearby.
“It will be a few hours,” Fret repeated. Tinhara ignored him, and continued watching Hadyn. A shudder ran along Hadyn’s body, and Tinhara’s heart lurched. She leaned forward slightly in the chair, ready to move, to hold Hadyn, but Tili blocked her way, for a moment, and when the way was clear, Hadyn was asleep. She watched quietly as her chest rose and fell rhythmically, and she felt her own breathing join with Hadyn’s beat. The wives rubbed Hadyn with pleasant smelling oils and, and poured herbed water into her mouth.
“How long have you known her?” Taag asked. It snapped Tinhara’s focus away from Hadyn, and she was slightly relieved. She could feel her muscles relax as she turned to talk to Taag.
“Not long. She,” Tinhara paused. She had no idea how much to reveal to this man, so she was cautious. “I found her a few days ago, wandering in Qan. She asked me to bring her home,” she said.
“Where did you cross the river?”
“There was a makeshift crossing, like a bridge. We were lucky to find it,” Tinhara replied. She wanted desperately to change the subject, but it took her a moment before she could think of what to talk about. “You have two lovely children. And two beautiful wives. Are you a hunter by trade?”
Taag sighed and sunk back in his chair. “A fisherman. Before the Trekles declared war, I fished the Hessen River. We have sought help from other villages, but still, they bring the mountain down around us, and we cannot win.”
“I am sure you can defeat them, some way,” she said.
“We can never get close enough. When we start up the mountain, they bring it down on our heads.”
Taag reached into a small pouch and grabbed his smoking items again. He lit up the leaves in the bowl; Tinhara noticed they smelled differently than the others. This smell was more familiar, like the smell of burning leather. As they smoked and talked about the Trekles, Taag became more and more animated. He was shouting before long, and had stood up out of his chair. Pacing the room, he talked more and more of the enemy, of their feud and of the revenge he would extract when he became rich.
Tinhara tuned him out, preferring instead to watch the calming scene in the small room. A few hours had passed and, as Fret had promised, Hadyn’s fever had broken. Tinhara sighed audibly as Hadyn stirred and finally sat up, propped with skins and soft pouches. She smiled softly at Tinhara as her caretakers wiped her face with an oiled cloth and tended to her comfort.
“Your fever has passed,” Fret said as he tucked the edge of a skin under Hadyn’s back. “Your wrist will heal, and you will be fine.”
“You will be okay,” Tili said, emphasising each word carefully.
“I am happy that you agree,” Tinhara said. Tili quickly turned her face from Hadyn, and gathered up some of the rags that she had been using. Without looking at Tinhara, she slipped out of the room. Tinhara took the opportunity to step into the room, and she knelt beside the bed. She stroked Hadyn’s forehead and smiled.
“Sorry I got sick,” Hadyn said softly.
“No no,” Tinhara said as she inched herself onto the bed. Hadyn scooted over a bit and Tinhara planted herself more firmly on the bed. “I am just glad to see that you are okay.” She ran her hands down Hadyn’s cheeks, played with her hair and stroked her chin.
“Is something wrong?” Hadyn whispered.
Tinhara grinned and laughed. “No. I am tired, that’s all.”
“You should sleep, then,” Taag said, startling them both. He stood in the doorway, arms resting on either wall. “We will shut the door. It is a good, heavy door, meant to keep the noise of the children out of this room,” he said as he leaned in to grab the handle. “It is already dark, and you need your sleep. Rest. Tomorrow will be a new day,” he said. He coughed and pulled the door shut.
“You’re feeling fine?” Tinhara asked when they were alone.
Hadyn nodded her head and smiled. “It was just the fever. I felt like I was burning up, but I will be fine. I…” she trailed off.
“If there is anything you need, tell me now,” Tinhara said as she leaned closer to Hadyn. “I will get whatever you want.”
“I do not want anything. I, it is just that I am almost home. I had a freedom with you that I do not have at home,” she said. Tinhara perked up. Freedom?
“My life is very disciplined. I have told you about my father. He would never allow me to sleep over at a friend’s, or even go to the village on my own. One of my brothers would always accompany me. Except the night I ran away and was kidnapped. But since I’ve been with you, I have done things I never imagined. I’ve travelled on a sled pulled by a bear, I’ve hidden from guards in the earth, I’ve eaten and drunk things I never even knew existed. I’ve fallen in love.” She stopped here, breathless, watching, but Tinhara made no movement, none at all. Hadyn continued. “I have done more in the last few months with you than I would ever have done here in my whole life. My father already knows who he wants me to marry, and if I don’t do exactly as he tells me, I am certain he will begin the beatings.”
“He has beaten you?” Tinhara growled as she got to her feet.
“No, no. He would never beat me. But now, now I don’t think I can be near him. When you tell me to do something, you do not get angry if I don’t do it. He gets very angry. If I don’t do something, father beats mother badly. I always try to do what he says, but now, Tinhara, I don’t think I can be around him anymore. Do you understand? I have had a chance to speak my mind, to have you actually listen to what I say, to consider it. When I talk to you, I am not talking to my father, or my master, or my ruler. I am talking to a woman who knows what it is like to have freedom, to make up her own mind and take her own risks, and suffer her own consequences. Some of my decisions are poor ones, and so are some of yours. But these will be my decisions, mine alone. I have no other person telling me how to think, what to believe, or who I must spend my whole life with. Right now, more than anything, I want to travel with you, to wander the ice fields again! Maybe one day I can go back to my family, one day, when I’m stronger, when I’m older.” Hadyn crawled out from under the skins and kneeled on the bed, naked. “Tinhara, I need to be with you. Going back now would be like caging an animal. Please.” she reached out an arm.