Finally Tinhara was alone outside; the fire was dying but the sky began to light up. Thunder rolled in from far away, and she estimated that she would have only a few more minutes of relative peace before the storm arrived. She looked around: the courtyard as a disaster, a small token to Tristan’s fury. She leaned her head against the plank and closed her eyes. There is the terror and then there is the life between terrors. She was in the terror now.
The first few raindrops felt cold and refreshing on her skin. A few more and she turned her face upward, mouth open, to catch the water. The rain got heavier and she still drank the rainwater, still enjoyed its cooling touch against her inflamed wounds. The fires went out, hissing and sputtering into a cloud of smoke. Even the smoke was washed away as the storm rattled over the area. The sky lit up and the thunder crashed and Tinhara stood naked and bleeding on the platform, bound to the cross, shivering in the freezing rain. She hung her head down to keep the rain out of her nose and mouth as the clouds emptied themselves onto her. Raindrops pounded onto her skin, cleansing some wounds and reopening others. She began to shake uncontrollably in the rain, and she laughed: the cold might kill her before Tristan has a chance. Her teeth chattered so hard that she wondered if they would break off. She wondered if the Burning Woman was about to die in the rain. Never could she have imagined the events of the last few months, of murder and theft and love and a family’s revenge. It would be a riddle to her until her death, a gruesome, unanswerable riddle and, to the end, she must see it out, live it to the final moments when her body gave up hope and her soul went to Nasquelek.
The rain continued to pour down, as unrelenting as Tristan’s hate. Her exhaustion made her hear voices in the storm; each time she heard a rumbling word or two she would look around but see no one, hear no other words until she stopped listening for them. And then they would come again, laughing in her ears and taunting her. She snorted and spat and rocked her head back and forth. She hung limply on the cross for hours as the storm came and went. The last few drops of rain tapped on the platform and then all was silent.
Giz’s soft chatter broke the silence. He fluttered up and landed on the cross above her head. He was soaking wet, and when he shook a fine spray of water flew off him. Tinhara opened her eyes and looked up. “ Loctoq,” she whispered. Giz bared his teeth in return and crawled down onto her head. He gripped her scalp gingerly and made his way, via her ear, onto her shoulder. He snuggled against her neck and clicked a few times.
Tinhara nuzzled him back by pressing the side of her face against his wet fur. She turned her head and nudged him with her nose. Smiling, she said “Why do you keep returning, little one? You would do well finding someone else to feed and care for you. I am almost dead.” Giz reached up and put his tiny paw on her forehead, grinned and then clicked. He withdrew his hand and waited, then held both hands up in the air and clicked.
Frowning, Tinhara stared at him. He held his hands up again, shrugging, and chattered at her. “What do you want from me? I can’t give you anything.” Giz clicked and chattered and poked her lips. He touched his own and chattered. She shook her head. “I don’t know what you are saying. I understand bears like Huel, not little garboils like you,” she said.
Giz repeated the action, touching her lips then his, and bit down repeatedly, clacking his teeth. Tinhara laughed softly. He kept her amused, kept her mind off the cold and pain, and she enjoyed his company. Anything was better than thinking of dying. “Are you hungry? Is that it? Go down there and find your own food,” she said as she gestured with her head. “My hands are tied. Otherwise, Giz, I would find you food and I would find some clothes and I would dry you off and keep you warm. But right now, little one, I cannot help you at all.”
Giz stuck his finger in his ear and bobbed his head. “If you free me from the cross, I will take you away and take good care of you,” she offered. He clicked at her again.
“Last time I saw you, I asked for some water and you gave me a juicy plant,” she said. She looked around but could see little in the darkness. All of the torches and fires had long since drowned, and the sky was still too cloudy to let the moon and stars light the area. “My nose is itchy, scratch it,” she said as she thrust her face toward the garboil. He grimaced and scratched her nose. Tinhara closed her eyes as he gently moved to her cheek and her newly shorn head. She remembered.
“Giz,” she called out, “Giz, get the razor.” He chattered at her, raising his eyebrows and baring his teeth. “Get the sharp metal thing behind me, on the platform. Go, get the razor,” she pleaded. Giz let out a quiet squeak and flew up over her head. She strained but could not see him, and could not hear him over her own chattering teeth. Then she heard a dragging noise, metal scraping along wood. Giz appeared near her foot dragging the razor with his tail. It was so heavy for him that he had to use his hands and feet to dig into the wood and drag himself and the razor to the front.
“Yes! Good boy, good Giz. Can you bring it up to my hand, up here?” she asked as she waggled her fingers. She was desperate for him to fly and although he tried, he could not get off the ground. “Crawl up, Giz, crawl up.”
He pulled his lips back and widened his eyes, and bobbed up and down. He clutched onto Tinhara’s foot and dug his claws into her skin. Each handhold, each foothold, hit a wound and sent a small shock of pain into her, but she gritted her teeth and encouraged him. They were only dashes of pain, barely registering in her nervous system. He slowly crawled up her ankle, along her calf and up her thigh. He rested on her hip, the razor dangling precariously by his tail, swinging slightly closer, then further away from her leg. He looked around nervously and continued up her hip. A noise from somewhere in the distance startled him and he flicked his tail, sending the razor skipping across her thigh, nicking her. She motioned with her head to urge him on, all the time wiggling her fingers to show him where the end of his journey would be. Inch by inch he crawled over her shoulder and along her arm, finally reaching her hand. With both hands and his tail he lifted the razor into her fingers and she was so anxious she almost dropped it.
Tinhara gripped the handle firmly and worked it slowly around her fingers so that its blade was against the side of her palm, facing the leather binding. Carefully she moved her hand up and down, cutting the thick wet leather with the razor, but it was too close and she stabbed her wrist a few times before rethinking her plan. She knew she would have to tend to her cut wrist as quickly as possible after her escape or risk bleeding to death, but she continued on with forced, high-pressure slices that ate their way through her bond. The razor made one last cut and the leather split open, releasing her from its grip. She sighed and carefully lowered her arm. Giz crawled back onto her shoulder, gripping her ear and silently watching the proceedings. Tinhara looked at her wrist and checked the wound; serious, but not as bad as she feared. It could wait.
She tried to lean over to cut the other arm free but the strap around her waist stopped her, so she turned her attention to it instead. Reaching around to her side, she found the spot where the leather left her side and stretched out to join the cross. She leaned forward to put strain on the leather and began cutting. This time she cut from both sides, making sure at the end that she cut only from the inside out. It gave way and she fell slightly forward. Regaining her balance, she looked around. The house was still quiet and the night was dark. There were still a few hours of night left; enough time for her to flee and put some distance between this torturous house and her. Courage.
Her right arm was next, followed by both feet. Once the final bond was cut she tried to stand but could not. She knelt on the platform, panting from exertion. Tinhara laid down on the platform, curling herself into a small ball, and waited. She gave herself a thousand breaths before trying again and this time she was able to stand. Her legs wobbled under each deliberate step as she made her way silently to the stairs. Instead of trying to walk down the long flight, she sat down and dragged herself, one by one, down the stairs. Giz flew down to the bottom step and waited patiently for her. She paused again at the bottom to regain a bit of strength and then crawled into the courtyard. Searching around she found a piece of meat, soaked through by the rain and covered with mud. She wiped off a bit of the dirt and bit into it, chewing voraciously and after eating almost all of it, she began to plan her escape.
One thing she needed was a shirt to stop her shivering. That she would only find in the house. Also in the house would be Hadyn, and that was the other thing she needed. If she found Hadyn first, she reasoned, then Hadyn could provide the clothes. After that, she would find one of those long legged beasts, a horse, and ride away. They seemed easy enough to control and gentle enough that they would not turn and attack her if she showed weakness. Tinhara looked at the house; it was quiet and dark and she wondered if she had the strength to find Tristan and kill him. When she stood up her legs buckled underneath her; killing him would have to wait.
She crawled through the mud toward the house and rested for a moment under the first of the small windows. Giz fluttered up to the windowsill and began to lick his fur clean of the mud he’d picked up from Tinhara. She folded the razor over, thinking for a moment how ingenious it was to have a tool that folded safely into its own handle. She reached up and lifted herself even with the edge of the window, peering into a dark room. Straining her eyes, she could make out a large table and some chairs; a dining room, empty and cavernous. She returned to the ground and crawled again. Her knees, although bruised, were probably the least injured body part she had, and she would take full advantage. The second room revealed a few sleeping people. From their sizes, they looked like the younger children, and she moved on. In the third window she saw adults sleeping and she paused, squinted her eyes and tried to make out whose red hair she thought she saw.
Giz landed quietly on her shoulder and made his way quickly down her arm to the window ledge. He flew into the room, Tinhara grabbing uselessly at the air after him. She dared not call him as he fluttered around the room. He landed on a piece of furniture in the corner and then took flight again, landing on one of the sleepers. Tinhara ducked slightly and then raised her head just enough to allow her to see over the sill. The figure awoke with a start, sending Giz into the air in an edgy getaway. Tinhara watched as the shadow turned and looked around in the dark. This could be Hadyn, with her long, thick hair, or it could be one of her sisters, or her twin. It was impossible to tell in the dark. Giz flew back to the figure, landing at the foot of the bed. She reached out and stroked his head; it had to be Hadyn. It took all of Tinhara’s strength not to call out to Hadyn, but she feared rousing the others. Instead, she clicked her tongue quietly and Giz came over to her, the figure watching his movements.
Hadyn raised her hand to her mouth to cover her gasp. She quickly got out of bed and scrambled over to the window. She reached out and gently took Tinhara’s face in her hands, her mouth open, tears in her eyes. Tinhara held her finger up to her lips to signal silence. She pointed to herself and ran her hand along her arm and chest. Hadyn nodded and left the window, returning a moment later with a large shirt. Gratefully, Tinhara took it and put it on. Although it was much larger than she needed it was warm and dry and comforting. Tinhara nodded and raised her eyebrows, then motioned downward with her head. Hadyn shook her head and pointed outside, beyond Tinhara, at a large wooden house.
She bent down, her lips next to Tinhara’s ear, and whispered, “Go to the horse barn. I will bring everything you need there. Give me some time, father has locked me in and the window is too small for me to climb out. But wait there and I will find a way.” She withdrew her head and left Tinhara. The sky had begun to clear and the stars provided her with a bit of light.
Tinhara leaned against the cold stone wall and looked at the barn. It was a large wooden structure, perhaps as large as the house. It was across the yard, beyond the dreadful building she had been placed in, past the cage she’d been dragged out of. She swallowed and began to roll up her sleeves. She did not want to drag the fine white shirt through the mud; it smelled like Hadyn and she wanted nothing to taint it. Giz landed on her head and crawled down to her shoulder, leaving muddy footprints on the shirt. Tinhara gave him a half-smile and began to crawl toward the horse barn. She made it only a third of the way before the pain in her knees became unbearable. She was not used to crawling on the hard earth and her knees were not tough enough to make the journey. She stood and walked a few steps, collapsed, and crawled a few more. Eventually she reached the horse barn and found the door. Opening it, Tinhara turned around behind her but saw nothing; there was no sign of Hadyn at all. She entered the barn and closed the door.
It smelled of horses, dung and hay. In the darkness, she could discern faint light, moonlight coming in through the cracks between the wooden planks. She lurched over to a small pile of hay and sat down, letting it envelop her in its sweet, musty softness. It crackled under her weight, rustling each time she moved. The horses stirred slightly in their stalls. Tinhara laid her head back and rested, wondering if she should use the dung to start a fire and burn the Mekka house to the ground. She decided against it almost as soon as it entered her mind: there were young children who, despite their petty cruelties toward her, did not deserve to die. There was a time when…
A door of the barn creaked and Tinhara bolted awake. She had not intended to fall asleep and her heart pounded with fear. She backed up, covering herself in hay, waiting for the visitor, afraid that Hadyn had been discovered and that Tristan would walk through the door. She sighed and let her shoulders relax when Hadyn crept in and shut the door behind her. She moved and uncovered herself.
“Tinhara!” Hadyn said breathlessly. She dropped the bundle of clothes she had and rushed over to Tinhara, who was still struggling to stand properly. She lifted her fully off the ground and spun her a little, hugging her and kissing her cheek.
“Please put me down,” Tinhara groaned, “my wounds are aching.”
“I’m so sorry,” Hadyn said as she put Tinhara gingerly on the ground. Hadyn smiled, a broad, toothy smile that showed all of the joy she was feeling. Tinhara blinked slowly and smiled as best she could in return.
“Look what you have done to my shirt!” Hadyn exclaimed. Tinhara looked down. The once pristine shirt was covered in blood, hay, mud and dung.
“I’m sorry,” she said as she tried to wipe off some of the filth.
“I am teasing about the shirt. Pants, I have pants for you,” Hadyn said as she whirled around and retrieved the bundle she had dropped. “I’m sorry it took me so long, I had to wake Karn and get his help to escape.”
“He knows?” Tinhara gasped. She was completely still, not taking the clothes that Hadyn held out for her.
“He won’t tell. He loves me, he won’t tell. Take the pants, put them on. Quickly.” Hadyn relinquished the pants and dug in her bundle again, producing a pair of boots. “Let me put the boots on your feet. They belong to my mother so they should fit you. Karn helped me find them. Don’t look at me like that. He won’t tell. Trust me.”
“Courage,” Tinhara mumbled through her clenched jaw. The boots went on painfully over her swollen and bruised ankles. Hadyn quickly finished by wrapping the leggings loosely up Tinhara’s calf. She slipped a fur robe around Tinhara’s shoulders, the same one she had worn the night before at the feast. It was heavy and warm and luxurious, and Tinhara ran her hand quickly along the collar.
“I’ll be right back. Put on anything else that will help, I’m going to get a couple of horses,” Hadyn said.
Tinhara inspected the bundle while Hadyn rummaged through the dark barn for equipment. There was a small knife, two more shirts and the string of coins from the headpiece. With the razor, it was a small enough package that it could easily be wrapped up and carried by hand. She began to organize the bundle, listening carefully for any signs that Tristan had discovered the plot. She heard nothing except the soft thump of hooves on the dirt floor. Hadyn walked toward her leading two horses. Both were tall, muscular animals, brown in colour although one had a white streak on its forehead. Tinhara watched as their heavy footprints left deep impressions in the earth.
“They will be able to follow us,” she said as she motioned toward the hoof prints.
“Do not worry, I have thought of that. I will release all the horses from the barn so all the tracks will be mixed together. Get on Tula while I open the other stalls,” Hadyn said. She handed over the reins of the horse with the white forehead, threw the others over a small railing, and walked back into the gloom.
Tinhara looked up at the animal. It seemed peaceful enough, so she began to wonder how to climb onto its back. She saw some loops hanging from the side of the seat and pulled on them a little to see what might happen. Nothing did. Since they were almost chest height, the loops were of no use to her in climbing on. She tried to remember how Tristan and the others had climbed onto their horses: they had grabbed the seats and lifted themselves off the ground. But in her weakened condition she knew she could not do so. She walked behind the horse to see if there was a way up on the other side, but saw only another loop. She was still puzzling when Hadyn returned.
“Get on,” she said as she lifted one foot high into the loop and used it as a step to give herself the height she needed to swing her leg over the back of the seat. She sat down comfortably and waited.
“I can’t reach the loop, and I don’t think I can throw my leg around the horse, it’s too large,” Tinhara said.
Hadyn smiled and got off the horse the same way she got on, using the loop. She walked around and put her hands together almost at knee height. She motioned with them, wordless and impatient.
“What do I do?” Tinhara asked.
“Step into my hand and I’ll lift you high enough so that you can swing your leg over. No, the other foot!” The exercise was excruciating for Tinhara as she put all of her weight on one leg, but she managed to get into the seat. “Let me tie you on, in case you…”
“No,” Tinhara snapped. “I will not be tied again.”
“But you might fall off.”
“I won’t. I’ll hang on. Don’t worry about me, get onto your own horse,” Tinhara said. Hadyn shrugged, grabbed the bundle and climbed back onto her own animal. She watched as Tinhara tried to get a good grip on the reins, but her hands were almost useless now from cuts and bruises and strains they had endured.
Hadyn moved her horse up beside Tinhara and stroked her head, smiling. “I’m sorry,” she said softly. She took the reins from Tinhara and mouthed “Hang on.” Tinhara wrapped the fur robe around her and grabbed onto the front of the saddle as the horse began to move. Hadyn slowly led her horse out of the barn, leaving the door open for the other horses. Turning in her seat, Tinhara could see that the other horses were wandering out the door, mixing their hoof prints just as Hadyn had said they would.
The horses walked slowly out of the yard and down the road. When they were almost out of sight of the house, Hadyn sped her horse up and Tinhara’s horse followed in turn. Every few minutes she would increase the pace, looking back to see if her companion was still in her seat. Tinhara swayed and lurched and finally bent over the front of her saddle, resting as well as she could, but they continued onward.
They travelled for hours. Hadyn did all of the talking. She spent the first hour apologizing, explaining and apologizing again. Tinhara understood her fear of her father; she too feared Tristan. “My mother, my real mother… Papa killed her. I remember when we were about five or six, Papa came home one day in a terrible rage. I do not know why he was so angry, but sometimes he had no reason. When he walked in he was covered in sweat and mud and he was breathing hard. He wiped a piece of mud off his face and let it fall to the floor and mother, mother cursed him!
He yelled at her. I remember all the screaming and yelling, all that noise and shrieking, and he grabbed her by her hair, it was long and red like mine, and he cut it all off. When a woman’s hair is cut off, it means she is no longer a woman, no longer a person. Then he tied her up to a horse and dragged her to death. It was horrible seeing him dragging you like that. I remember him riding home with mother behind him. She was bashed and bruised and dead, her skull was open, her face was gone. I was so afraid it would happen to you! I was so grateful that the rope broke, but it took so long.
But this is why I asked Karn for help. He and I used to talk all the time about running away together, just him and me. We would sit for hours out with the horses, planning exactly how to escape. One of us would leave, pretend to run away, hiding our trails and doing everything we could not to be found, and the other would search. We always found each other, so we knew we could never leave. If I could find Karn, then Papa could find Karn, because after all, I was only a child. It almost worked once, with the help of Shada,” Hadyn said as she stroked her horse’s neck. “I wish Karn had come with us, I asked him to. But he said he could not.” She fell silent for a moment. “I have never told anyone that before.”
“We have travelled far enough on the road,” Hadyn said finally as she turned slightly to face Tinhara. “We are going to Tessol. There are healers there.”
“A place with healers?” Tinhara asked groggily.
“Yes, they have great healing powers. They can fix many of your pains.”
Tinhara smiled wryly. “Really? They are magicians? Because I think it would take strong magic to heal me now.”
Hadyn made a face. “They can begin the healing process. We won’t be able to stay for long, only a night or two, but then we can head back to Qan, to Paul’s wife.”
“Pawk. Pawk’s wife,” Tinhara corrected. She nodded a bit and then paused. “If it is far away, more than an hour, you will have to tie me to the horse,” she said. She hated to admit defeat, but the only way she could remain on the horse was to be bound to it.
“If you have strength, we can ride quickly through the fields. The land is almost flat and the horses are fit. They are my father’s best. We can buy all the treatment you need. I have taken the coins from my head-dress.”
Tinhara leaned back and wrapped her arms around the back of the saddle. “I think you should tie me on, so I won’t fall off.” Hadyn nodded and dismounted. She used a shirt to tie Tinhara to the saddle and after making sure it was comfortable, the two took to the fields and began to ride again in earnest. Every step by the horse was a jolt of pain for Tinhara, and she began to sweat profusely. She gripped the cloth that held her to the chair and prayed to Hecath for deliverance. She vomited on herself, she pissed her pants and finally passed out.
When Tinhara regained consciousness, she was being taken down from Tula. She could not move her arms or legs to help with the process. Around her was a murmur of soft voices and soft hands holding her, carrying her, stripping her, cooling her. The next time she woke, she was lying on something soft, covered in warm blankets, with fragrant smells filling the air. She coughed and immediately felt a tender hand press against her forehead.
“The fever has broken,” said the man. Tinhara blinked to focus her eyes. A statuesque man smiled at her and stroked her face. “My name is Tushona, I am a healer. You are among friends here,” he said.
Tinhara looked around. The room was full of furs and food and plants and warm firelight. Tushona pulled the blankets back and began to rub a fragrant lotion into his hands. “This is mystral and cranny mixed with some felundar and a touch of pixto. I’m just going to put it on you. It will help heal your wounds and numb your flesh so you cannot feel the pain,” he said as he softly rubbed the lotion into Tinhara’s skin with his dark, strong hands. She laid her head back and let the healer work his way over her body. Each stroke soothed a pain, taking away the sharpness and the aches, and each touch was a salve to her spirit. She gazed beyond Tushona’s face to the carved stone wall on the other side of the room. Plants of various sizes and shapes were etched into the stone, each with a small word or two written beneath or beside it. The touches began to lighten even more, although Tushona’s hands worked just as hard.
“Your garboil is close at hand,” said the healer softly. “He sits over there, in a bed made especially for him.” Tinhara raised her head slightly and caught sight of Giz. He sat in a lush blue cloth that covered a thick fur. He was cleaning himself although he already looked spotless. Giz looked at her once, chattered, and went back to his cleaning. She watched the man’s hands, studying them, wondering at their conservation of movement, at their preciseness and sureness. They were long, smooth fingers, flowing down to soft rosy nails. And it was these commanding, confident fingers that caressed her and healed her.
“I have done as much as I can, the rest is up to you. You must stand up and join me in thanks and prayer,” Tushona said. He took Tinhara’s hands and gripped them firmly: there was only a hint of pain and it made Tinhara gasp.
“You have great magic,” Tinhara said as she stood on shaky legs.
“It is all our town does, and I am one of the best in town,” he said with a proud smile. He tested Tinhara’s arms and legs, touched her back, her swollen face. “You have not had enough to eat and drink. I will provide food for your journey, but you should drink now.”
Tinhara licked her lips at the prospect of grog, and was a little disappointed when Tushona offered her water. “Have as much as you would like, as long as you drink slowly. Yes, that’s right. You know,” he said.
“I know,” Tinhara replied as she lifted the cup to her lips again. “The water is good,” she said as she poured another drink. “Do you have something stronger?” she asked.
Tushona winked and went off to a nearby table, returning with a pitcher full of fragrant fluid. “Gretch,” he said. “Much stronger,” he smiled.
As he poured her drink, Tinhara remembered other drinks and other times when she had sat at a table or on a floor, waiting for the grog to kick in. And then, with a wearied clarity, she saw what she knew would happen; saw herself drink so much she vomited, saw how she forgot how to speak, saw how she forgot her own name. But never did she truly forget the pains and sorrows that haunted her. It seemed now to be a sadly desperate attempt to wipe away her own life story, to fix the past, to undo the present, to blind the future. No matter what she did, how much she drank, she carried her story with her, in her scars and in her muscles and in her flesh. She could not, would never be able to, wash those stories from her. Tinhara wondered then if she really did want to forget the touch of Hadyn’s skin, the smell of her body or the sound of her voice. She answered her question quickly, and she put the cup down. What once she would have done without any thought, today she could not even attempt. She would never try to forget again.
“Just as well,” Tushona said as he poured the gretch back into the pitcher. “It thins your blood. You cannot feel the pain right now, but you are not fully healed. It will hold you well enough to get home,” he replied. He paused, watching Tinhara’s countenance. “That is where your lover said you were headed.”
Tinhara nodded. “Yes. Home.”
“Somewhere safe and warm, just like you want. Hadyn and I will work out the price of your treatment, some odds and ends, and the price of the bed, and she will join you soon,” Tushona said as he led Tinhara back to bed. He shook out the blanket and laid it down.
“Thank you,” Tinhara said as she laid back. The softness hugged her and she sank down into the mattress a few inches. Tushona threw a couple of skin blankets over her.
“Sleep well that you may be on your way soon,” the healer bid. Tinhara fell asleep almost before Tushona had finished speaking his sentence.
Hadyn’s tender caress awoke her from a dreamless sleep and she sighed and lay back with her eyes open, enjoying the attention. “We will leave in the morning,” Hadyn whispered as she bit gently on Tinhara’s ear lobe.
“The morning,” she replied. She shivered slightly as Hadyn’s lips travelled down her neck and her hand travelled up her thigh.
“I have purchased clothes and blankets and food,” Hadyn murmured as she ran her fingers along the scar on Tinhara’s thigh. She laughed a little. “Your wound is almost gone. Almost. But I can still feel the scar. I know its there.” Hadyn climbed on top of Tinhara, holding herself up with her arms. Her hair cascaded down into Tinhara’s face and she slowly moved it aside and looked into the face of the woman she would always be with. Hadyn grinned wildly and tossed her hair back. It fell down again and she left it.
“Do you need to tie your hair?” Tinhara asked.
“I think there are better things for you to do with your mouth than ask questions that do not matter,” she laughed. She leaned down and pressed her lips hard against Tinhara’s and let her arms bend slowly until their bodies touched. She moved herself up and down as it pleased her, providing this piece of flesh or that for Tinhara to taste. And Tinhara took her in, greedily, passionately, until, both exhausted, they fell asleep, entwined around each other.
Tushona sold them some clean clothes, boots, some plants to eat and some ointments for their wounds. Combined with the price of a safe night’s sleep in a warm bed, Hadyn would have only a few coins left over. They opened the heavy wooden door of Tushona’s home, allowing just a small crack at first, so they could look out. It took some time for Tinhara’s eyes to adjust, but outside she saw a large number of healers, Tushona included, standing in the bright sunlight chatting. One had Giz in his hands.
“I believe it is safe, or they would not be so calm,” Hadyn said as she pulled the door open. It groaned and swung open, and they stepped out. The air was crisp and clean and it felt good in Tinhara’s lungs. The sunlight pained her eyes and they watered, but it wasn’t long before she had completely adjusted and could squint to see.
“Friends!” Tushona yelled as he waved to the women.
“It is time for us to leave,” Hadyn said as she stepped forward. Giz clicked and flew to Tinhara, taking his place on her shoulder. The healers formed a circle around the pair and wished them well on their journey.
“May the healing that has begun here today carry forth,” Tushona said as he signalled for one of the others to get the horses. “We give you all that you need for your journey,” he said. He bowed his head to Hadyn and took a step backwards, opening up the circle. The other healers also bowed and stepped back.
“They will let us go, just like that?” Tinhara whispered. She kept here eyes sharp, shifting them left to right, looking for some sign of attack.
“Of course,” Hadyn said. “You were expecting the healers to fight?” There was a strange sharpness to her tone and Tinhara glared at her. “They would never fight anyone. The point is to heal, not cut someone’s head off.” Tinhara opened her mouth to protest the tone again, but Hadyn turned away and headed toward the woman who was bringing Shada and Tula.
“Our hearts and prayers are with you,” Tushona said as he passed the reins to Hadyn and Tinhara. They climbed on and gave their thanks. Hadyn kneed Shada gently in the ribs and the horses started off at a slow walk. Tinhara tried the same thing, but with different results.
Tula whinnied and bolted, and Giz flew off. Tinhara rode wildly until she was able to gain control of the beast. She pulled on the reins and brought it to a halt. She looked around and saw Hadyn following behind her, laughing as she stroked the little winged garboil. They followed the road as they headed north.
Giz flew here and there after insects, diving into puddles and thrashing about in the muck to get his food. He returned to Tinhara, breathless and impatient. He pulled on her lips, and rubbed his hand against her face. He wanted to be cleaned. Tinhara raised him to her mouth and licked his head. After a few moments of licking, he took the initiative and began to clean himself.
“Did you just lick a garboil?” Hadyn squealed.
Tinhara stared at Hadyn, her tongue still sticking slightly out of her mouth in mid lick. “Yes,” she said as she spit out a bit of fur. “Yes, what of it?”
Hadyn pretended to gag, and then giggled. “It is a garboil. A garboil!” she repeated for emphasis.
Tinhara laughed and put him inside her shirt. She did not mind the discomfort of his wet fur as they rode along. Next to her skin, he began to preen himself and it tickled. Giz’s muffled chatter came from under her shirt. Tinhara looked around. They were near trees that resembled the ghost trees she saw on the way down the mountain. “Are we near the river?” she asked. Hadyn shook her head.
Hadyn took in a deep breath and slowly let it out. “That smells beautiful.” They stopped their horses for a moment.
“What does? The horse?” Tinhara asked as she eased the reins to the right to stop the horse from turning to the left. The horse turned to the right instead.
“We are not free yet. In fact, we are…” Tinhara’s horse twirled to the right again. “Curse this beast!” she shouted.
“Pull harder. Yank the rein each way until the animal stands straight. Yes, again, the other side! There you go!” Hadyn said with a giggle. “You will become an expert with horses yet,” she said.
Shaking her head, Tinhara said, “I do not think so. When I get home I shall find Huel and abandon this beast. Or perhaps eat it,” she said.
“Oh no you do not! You will not eat Tula or Shada! If you do not want him in Qan then you should set him free on this side of the mountain. He will live free here.”
“Unless someone captures him,” she added.
“Unless someone captures him,” Hadyn repeated. She sighed and clicked her tongue, and the horse began to walk. With no effort whatsoever, Tula followed. Hadyn audibly sighed and urged her horse to move faster. Without prompting, Tinhara’s horse moved faster too.
“If we swing around that way, toward Hook Lake, we can avoid people in the area and perhaps find fresh fish to eat,” Hadyn said as the pointed north-east. A deep rumble carried across the sky.
“That is the same noise I heard when I was on the cross, at your father’s. It will rain,” Tinhara said as she looked toward the sky.
“Yes, we should seek shelter. The rains are usually heavy at this time of year, the weather can be unpredictable. Snow and rain and ice beads. We can ride through if it is not too bad, but sometimes you cannot see five steps in front of you,” Hadyn said. “I do not know this area too well, but if we ride hard we can get to the edge of Hook Lake. There should be some shelter we can find there,” she said as she urged her horse on.
“Wait!” Tinhara shouted as her horse too gained speed. “We cannot see anyone, we may be captured!” she yelled. Hadyn was too far ahead and try as she might, her horse would not keep up. She felt the first few cold drops of rain hit her and she reached up to pull her cloak tighter around her neck. It was a loose fit and it did not tighten measurably no matter how much she fiddled with it. The rain got a little harder and a little harder. The horse tossed its head back and whinnied in protest at the rain. It became quite heavy and Tinhara could barely see. She tried to stop the rain from falling into her eyes by pressing her hand against her forehead, but it did not work; the rain was cold and it stung as it fell. She could see her own breath beginning to rise in the air and she took some comfort in the familiar sight. She rode after Hadyn through the pouring rain, kicking up mud and slush as they went. When Tinhara looked up again the rain mixed with fine snow and a little further on the rain ceased and instead it was just snow falling from the sky. She stuck her tongue out and caught a couple of flakes. She smiled, overjoyed at the return of snow to her life.
“Snow!” she shouted as she held her hand up. “The weather is seems very unpredictable here. We will have to find shelter,” she shouted out. They rode on for a while, pounding through the snow at an incredible speed. Tinhara was surprised at the ability of the horses to travel through so many different landscapes, up steep hills and through mud that might hold down another animal.
“Over there,” Hadyn said as she pointed ahead of them. Through tree branches hung with heavy snow, through the veil of flakes that tried of obscure her vision, she saw Hook Lake.
“This is the closest shelter,” Hadyn said breathlessly. They raced toward a group of trees and stopped under the branches. They dismounted and set up a quick camp area, tying the horses to nearby trees. The wind settled down as quickly as it had started, but now the sky would stay its dull grey for the evening.
They unwrapped the meat they had purchased from Tushona. “Will you help me cook it?” Hadyn asked.
“It becomes tough and tasteless,” Tinhara said. “My teeth are not good, and it is difficult to chew. But if you want it cooked, I will find the wood.” She got up and searched. She found a piece of rotting fruit and brushed away small insects that flittered about. Giz, who was still perched tightly on her shoulder, leapt up and snatched an insect out of the air. He landed softly on the ground and leapt up again, sucking another bug into his mouth. She watched him for a moment, laughing at him. Giz flew up and slapped her nose.
“Giz, by Hecath, what kind of little beast are you?” she said as she rubbed her nose. It did not hurt, but it had surprised her. He chattered and flew at her again, but she fended him off, finally winning the battle when she threw the fruit at him. He chattered and retreated to a high limb, his teeth bared and his eyebrows raising and lowering.
That night they managed to start a fire, Tinhara providing the muscle power and Hadyn the expertise. It surprised Tinhara that by twirling little sticks of wood, a fire would start. Wood was too rare a commodity in Qan to waste practising on such risky ventures, when it was easier to find rocks to start a fire.
“When I saw that cross he had made for you, I… I did not think you would survive,” Hadyn said. Her voice was soft and sad.
“He underestimated me,” Tinhara finally said as she poked at a piece of meat sitting in the fire. “They always do,” she said grimly. “He let his guard down, and I escaped not only with my life, but with you.”
“He will never let his guard down again,” Hadyn said.
Tinhara sat up on her knees. “It does not matter, for now I know him. I have seen the enemy and I know his madness.” She poked again at the meat, stabbing it on the stick.
“Will you kill him?” Hadyn asked. She was suddenly a child again, as frightened as she had been running down the streets of Galmaq.
“Your meat is cooked,” Tinhara said.
Hadyn took the meat offered by Tinhara, pulling the stick close to her lips to blow on the meat. Her bottom lip quivered and she was about to cry.
“I know his madness can be cured, and perhaps then, he will return to the man you knew. I have seen men go mad before, in the dark months in Qan when there is no light. They can do horrible things, but when family tends them, when the light comes, when the sun returns, so do their minds,” she said. Unless they eat human flesh, she added to herself.
“Do you believe that?” Hadyn asked. Here eyes were wide and in them was a glimmer of hope.
Tinhara smiled and nodded. “Of course,” she said and that glimmer of hope turned into a beautiful sparkle. Tinhara laughed and leaned over to hug Hadyn. “We will travel through this, and by my soul you will be happy,” she whispered.
The next day they rode with little conversation, each deep in her own thoughts. Tinhara wondered if her life would ever return to what it had once been, but realized by and by that she hoped it would never return. She had spent her time drinking and fighting, stealing and sleeping, all with no purpose other than to survive to the next day. She would sit for hours and drink, sometimes with strangers but usually alone, and regret how her life had been. She would fall asleep and, only by the love of Huel would she awaken to find herself protected by his warm fur and his razor sharp claws. She missed him deeply and wondered if the Gods had given her Hadyn in exchange for Huel. It was a replacement that she cared not to think about. Giz, however, seemed to enjoy the ride and the bouncing and bounding of the horse as it travelled along through the snow. Before she knew it, they were on the edge of the Hessen River.
By Hadyn’s estimate, they had missed Trekle by one hour to the west and Hech by one hour to the east. The river was much narrower and less steep than where they had previously crossed, and the water did not move as quickly. Tinhara wished they had crossed here in the first place. They waded into the water with their horses, each horse walking slowly and diligently along the river bottom until it was too deep, and they had to swim. The horses were nervous but a soft, reassuring song from Hadyn calmed them and they continued across the river to the other side without incident.
The pair stood, cold and wet, on the other side of the river. There were no human tracks, no sign of people, so they decided to camp there. Tinhara joyfully spit out her ancestors’ gift of light, scaring the horses but knocking down a small tree suitable to begin burning. They stayed for three weeks, relaxing, resting, planning and learning to laugh again. The river provided fish and an unlucky mountain goat provided more substantial food. They would have races in the snow, with Tinhara always winning the short ones and Hadyn’s long legs always carrying her to victory for the long ones. They would touch by firelight and sleep soundly afterward. This was a gentle life, the kind Tinhara hoped for the rest of her life. But they decided it was time to move on, assured that they could return to this place, safe and sacred with their energies, whenever they needed. Now they had to return to the flatlands of Qan, to find Huel. Tinhara was certain that she would be able to find him along her old trails, but she wanted to go to the mountain people for news of the war before heading inland. They agreed to head over the mountain to the east where the peaks appeared to be separated by a pass, and then once in Qan they would head west again, along the foothills to Pawk’s camp.
They gathered everything together into the pouches they had fashioned from some of the blankets that Hadyn had purchased from the Tushona, and headed home. Tinhara had learned how to control Tula a little better, and Tula had learned how to take direction from Tinhara. Giz would fly back and forth between each woman, switching rides when either one tired of stroking him.
The pass they had spied from a distance was a twisting and narrow crevice bathed in opaque light that filtered down past the steep mountain cliffs. It cut north to south, more or less, and was dotted with fallen rocks and great boulders that had to be circumvented. A few times the women had to dismount and all but pull their horses over the rocky terrain. Finally the pathway straightened out and they could see the other side of the mountain range, the snowy, icy world of Qan. Tinhara felt drawn to the snowfields in a way she had never known, and she was eager to get through the pass.
“We should hurry,” Tinhara said as she urged Tula onward. The horse quickened its step, sometimes slipping slightly on the rock. She heard a rumble of thunder and looked up toward the sky. It was clear. “Did you hear that?” she shouted back to Hadyn.
“Yes. Have we passed into the Land of the Gods again?” Hadyn shouted. She hurried Shada to try and catch Tinhara, who was waiting for her at a spot where the pass widened.
“No, that wasn’t from the Gods,” Tinhara said as she looked up again. “There is that rumble again,” she said. Still the sky was clear, although a few small pebbles tumbled down the side of the pass and in front of where they had stopped. She held her hand out, but felt neither rain nor snow. “I do not know what it is,” she said. “It does not matter, we will move ahead. It is only another few minutes I think, and we will be through the pass.” She tapped the reins and clicked her tongue, and Tula started. Hadyn kept pace, taking the lead as the pass got narrower.
Giz let out a loud shriek and took to the sky. “Where are you going?” Tinhara shouted after him. She watched as he ascended, squawking and chattering all the way. That was when she spied the movement in the mountain. “Go!” she screamed as she whipped the horse with her reins. Tula almost ran into Shada, who was slower in the startup. “Go! Go!” she shouted. The horses leapt forward, whinnying as their hooves clattered over the rocks. The stones above their heads began to rain down on them, sliding with a grinding rumble down the side of the pass and into the passageway. The horses kept running as the boulders grew larger and larger. One bounced off another rock and hit Tinhara squarely in the back. She grunted and almost fell off the horse, but Tula stayed the course and followed Shada obediently. Tinhara looked up and saw a great wall of stones descending down upon them and she screamed for Hadyn to hurry. A few more steps and they would both be safe. Shada pulled free of the pass and ran straight ahead, Hadyn raised in her saddle, leaning over the horse’s neck. Tinhara could feel the imaginary weight of the rocks descending on her and she too stood up in her saddle and urged Tula onward.
Tula almost cleared the pass as a great crashing noise came from behind. A few of the wilder rocks bounced off the sides of the canyon as if to chase after them, and one hit Tula’s flank. She panicked and bucked in the middle of the run, trying desperately to flee the attack. Tinhara flew off the horse’s back and landed heavily more than a dozen steps away. Tula veered left and ran wildly, smashing herself against a boulder. Dazed, Tinhara watched as Tula went down under an avalanche of rock. The mountain settled with a groan, and the rocks trickled to a stop.
Hadyn leapt off Shada and raced over to Tula. By the time Tinhara got to the horse, Hadyn was tenderly stroking Tula’s limp head, the only part not buried beneath rock. The horse was dead and Hadyn sobbed. Tinhara put her hand on Hadyn’s shoulder and looked again to the mountain. She was breathless with exhilaration. Despite the danger, it felt good to be at home with the living, breathing world. By comparison, Arpine had been lifeless; the land had lost its soul, its voice long silenced by the people who lived there. But here in Qan, the snow and air and ice and mountains lived and sang and moved.
“Tinhara! Tinhara! Wake up!” Hadyn shouted. Tinhara bolted to her feet and groggily looked around. She reached for a knife that was not at her side and warily shook her head to wake herself more.
“What is it?” she said hoarsely. She coughed and spat out a bit of phlegm.
“Tula. She’s gone!”
Tinhara ran over to where Hadyn’s voice came from and found the woman standing near the opening of the pass, staring at a bloody, empty hole. A trail of gore lead off across the rocks and into the pass. “Get back to Shada,” Tinhara said as she waved Hadyn off. Obediently, Hadyn scurried back to the campsite.
A piece of white fur clung to the edge of a boulder, stuck in the drying blood. Tinhara crawled over the rocks and grabbed the fur. “A bear,” Tinhara said to herself as she crouched down. She looked carefully at the fur, and sniffed it. “Huel!” she screamed as loudly as she could. “Huel!” Tinhara yelled again, her voice echoing across the mountainside. A small disturbance in the snow behind her caused her to turn, but it was only a few small pictu scurrying for cover. She turned back and headed down to Hadyn. She did not hear Huel sneaking up behind her until it was too late.
He pounced on her. The next thing Tinhara knew, she was face down in the snow, squirming under his front paws. She could hear him chuffing, almost laughing at his conquest. She cleared the snow from her face and shouted “Huel! Off!” He refused to move. “Off!” she shouted as the flailed her arms and legs around uselessly. She paused, breathless, and waited. Hadyn stood, frozen in the spot, unsure about whether she should move. Once Tinhara was perfectly still, he stepped off her back. She pushed up with both her hands and sat up. Huel sat in the snow opposite her, his jaw open, lips pulled back like a smile. She tapped him lightly on the nose and laughed.
“Can you believe the beast has found us this quickly? I thought I would spend months looking for him,” she said with a wide smile. Hadyn laughed nervously. “It is fine, it is Huel. Come, give him a scratch,” she said as she motioned for her companion to come closer. Hadyn tentatively reached out and let him sniff her hand. He licked her and chuffed, and she scratched his head. Tinhara threw her arms around him, burying her face. He smelled musty, familiar and his soft growl told her that he recognized her too.
She sat with him, leaning against his side as she picked the bits of snow and refuse from his coat. “I suppose he stayed in the area, picked up my scent, maybe, but could not cross over the mountains,” she said. “I will have to make him a new muzzle. That will be the only way to keep Shada safe. And a new harness. We will have to fashion out a new sled, maybe using the trees,” Tinhara said. She looked at the horse, tied up a few dozen steps away; it was nervously eyeing the bear. Tinhara doubted that Shada had ever seen a bear, but prey knows predator.
Tinhara and Hadyn spent an hour looking for Tula’s carcass, and another hour trying to piece together what was left of her harness and reins for a muzzle.
“Now what?” Hadyn asked.
Tinhara gazed out over the land for a long time. The snow was bright even with the limited amount of sunlight that shone out. There were Naqtuk clouds in the sky, forming to the west. The land rolled down away from them. At this height, she could see into next week and it was all a brilliant, wild, cold world. She could see, two days hence, a herd of tawnluk moving across the land. It was the month of Ikvik now, the time of sleeping. At this time of year, the tawnluk would be coming toward the mountains to eat the bark off the trees. She would have to remember to leave pieces of the bark behind from the wood she would use to make a sled.
Her destiny seemed clear to her now, much more clear than it had ever been, even clearer than when Cyr gave her prophecy. She had been so certain then, that her one great and brave act in life was to take Hadyn home. But here she sat with the woman, having taken her home and brought her back again, turning her back on a great prophecy. Until that moment, it had not been something that she could see clearly. Now the truth permeated her being, filling her with the sense of redemption she had been seeking. This is what could happen when one misfit drunk made a promise to herself and found the living part of her soul. And it was this soul, this woman, who would keep her spirits, guide her actions and let her live the kind of life of which she had only dreamed. Together they would live in the endless snow of Qan, with the ice and cold, the wind and the Gods, the ancestors, and the clouds in the icy distance, dark and wild and blue.
Ice Quest – The serialization of a novel written by S. Molyneaux. Published on the 1st and the 15th of each month. This is the last installment of this serialization. This is a work of fiction – bad fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead or anywhere in between, is entirely coincidental. Copyright © 2004 by S. Molyneaux. All rights reserved. ISBN 0-9735190-0-2