Dyana ran down the horse-path in the snow, stopping every so often to shake it off her toes. Her circulating vitality and skin-strengthening would melt any that stuck to her, but then the water would make more stick on, and it would just cake on until she shook it off. It was becoming a chore. Deep breathing refilled her spiritual vessel with the vitality of the forest air, and it swam and spun inside her.
Focusing on proper circulation helped her keep calm, and she needed that right now, because the worst things kept happening and now she was going in the wrong direction: away from her Seffy. That brute of a man, who looked more like a big hairy bear than a human, was heading toward him instead, and it made her heart ache.
Sometimes she had it coming, like this time, because it was sort of her fault that the bear-man’s family all got stolen. Father had always said that the good man takes the slow, hard road that reaches the heavens, and the wicked man takes the short, easy road that only goes halfway. Keeping little Seffy was definitely the long, hard road, and that road was full of tall, pale, hairy warriors riding around on horseback and trying to do horrible things every time they caught up to her.
“Master Dyana, you should wear clothes,” said the tiny, flying boy with glowing blue skin and dragonfly wings who called himself Wolfscar. “Then you’ll look like all the other people.”
“I do wear clothes! Where do you think you’re sitting?” she asked. “I have to keep tying this shirt back on because you’re making it come loose and slip off.”
The little creature sat contentedly snuggled into the cloth she tied across her breasts, and although he was sitting between them, after a few minutes it didn’t feel any more intrusive than a kitten. He looked like he would have been too young to wear clothes if he lived with her Nomads anyway, so what did it matter?
Wolfscar said, “No, this isn’t a shirt. It’s a scarf because shirts have sleeves. It’s not a shirt, so it’s not really clothes.” Not only was he the size of a bird, but he had a tiny little bird voice as well. It was the strangest thing she’d ever heard; maybe a bit deeper than a songbird, but not much. She still had no idea what exactly he was. Seffy had dark blue skin, and Wolfscar had pale blue skin. Perhaps they were related, somehow?
“My tribe didn’t wear shirts at all. We lived on the beaches and only wore skirts, men and women both,” she said.
“It was hot.”
Dyana reached up to pat the little bird-boy on the head, since it that’s what one did with children. But then she stopped—Relessa had told her once that birds don’t like to be petted like other animals. Would he be bothered, or would he like it? Seffy always liked being touched; he held on like he was afraid she’d disappear. He clung to her constantly, even when it was awkward. Whenever they sat down together, she held his hand or stroked his hair. Or his ears that poked out like pointy leaves.
“Wolfscar, do you...” How do you ask someone if they like to be petted?
“Do I what?” he asked.
“How old are you?” she asked. She dropped her hand and decided she’d try petting him later.
“I’m not any old.”
“Okay, what?” That was a weird answer.
“Garbi is eight, and Pepper and Flower are nine, but I’m not any. None. How old are you?”
“I’m seventeen. You’re not even a year old?”
“Nope. Mama said she’ll pick a good birthday for me but it won’t be until next summer. Garbi has the same birthday as the sun, which was only a little while ago, and Flower and Pepper both have birthdays when the winter starts to go away. But I don’t have one yet.”
“And already so smart,” she said. “You must grow fast.” She finally reached up and gently scratched his head, gently with just her fingertip. His soft, short hair reminded her of a fuzzy rat. He didn’t seem to mind.
She kept up her pace, running as fast as she dared in the dark. She had so much on her mind that it was easy to miss low-hanging branches or rocks under the snow, and every twenty paces she hit something that made her stumble. They were probably riding their horses on a path deliberately designed to annoy her. Curse the dark. Curse there not being a real road here. Curse being here at all.
Something had been nagging at her since she’d first started feeling comfortable at the bear-man’s fire, and she suddenly realized what it was: She was lonely. Seff wasn’t really all the company a person needed, adorable though he was. She needed a community. She needed her nomads and her father. This family had been so close, so comfortable and happy, and she wasn’t a part of it. They had almost started treating her like a friend and she hadn’t realized before how badly she needed that.
Not only was she so lonely shouldn’t even explain, as if any of the ice-people in this frozen land would care, but she just kept getting more foolish. Captured by the locals again. This was the fourth time that had happened since she pulled little Seffy from under that rock. This would never have happened to her father. No, her father would have just laughed at a lasso around his neck and found something to hold on to. It had taken her a mile of dragging before she thought of that. And he wouldn’t have just let that bear-man push him around, either.
When that bear-man got upset and tried to impress her with his strong presence, she should have just gotten up and said, “I am no child, fool. My fist can crumple your shield, and you will die under my heel. If you want my help, ask me from your knees!”
That’s what she should have said. She should have let that man know how serious she was. And how he treated Seff? He deserved it. And his brood deserved a better father, too; a nice one like she herself had had. His wife seemed nice. Why did she put up with him? He was such a stinging jellyfish whom no one should touch. Probably just because he kept her fat. Probably fed her lots of honey and land animal and no fish or grain.
She snorted in anger and thought about it some more. Everyone else in the world was so awful. People were terrible everywhere she went, all except her nomads who had been kind and humble people whom the spirits loved. Some had been better than others, but in comparison with anyone in these ice-lands even the worst Nomad was a blessing.
“Master Dyana, are you sick?” asked Wolfscar.
His question shook her from her thoughts. “What?” she asked impatiently. “What do you mean?”
“You made a sound like this:” said the little bird boy, who then imitated a sniffle. “Pepper and Flower got sick once and they kept doing that. Garbi had to sit on the other side. And then Mama made them have a lot of blankets, and she kept touching their heads and said they were still too warm. And I felt it too, and they were warmer than normal, but I said they should take the blankets off, but--”
“I’m not sick,” Dyana interrupted.
“Oh. Then are you angry? Did you go like this:” said Wolfscar, who then gave a snort. “Papa does that all the time, and Mama sometimes too when they get in fights. He does that because he’s angry, but only a little bit.”
That question hit too close to the target, which made her feel incredibly annoyed. She could even feel her heart beating a bit faster. She almost wanted to flick the little bird-boy on the side of the head and tell him to be quiet.
“I just don’t like your Papa, is all. I was thinking about him. He’s not a good person,” said Dyana. And that seemed to do the trick. Wolfscar fell silent again.
She ran onward without saying anything more, quite content to let conversation stay dead as her feet rushed lightly across the snow. It really was cold out here, she realized. Really, really cold. Her Seffy must be close to dying. All he had on was that weird, ugly tunic thing the bear-man had made. And now that she thought about it, those slave-takers in their disgusting dead animal skins, all painted grey and so smelly she thought it would kill her--maybe it was time to start killing them. They were never going to leave her alone. They had nothing else to do but come after her, not with everything frozen all the time. How did they even farm? It was absurd.
And then Dyana found herself cresting a ridge and gazing out over a flat, shimmering expanse of pale snow five hundred paces across, and she couldn’t even see them yet. She yelled in frustration and punched a tree so hard it cracked in the middle. Then she huffed loudly and resumed her run. It was freezing so bad it was making her shiver.
“Master Dyana, are you alright?” said the little bird-boy. He sounded scared, which was fine with her. It wasn’t her…
And then she realized that she was shivering. That wasn’t right. She had…
“Spirits pull it to hell,” she muttered. She came to a stop.
“I’m sorry. I’ve just been… really emotional lately. Things have been hard. Can you let me rest for a moment? I need to sit down,” she said.
The little bird-boy awkwardly climbed from his nest in her shirt and flew an arm’s length in front of her face. He had one fingertip in his mouth and a look of grave concern in his large, innocent eyes. The anger began leaving her only to be replaced by slow and subtle guilt.
Then he abruptly turned and flew back and forth between the nearby trees. His light cast shadows everywhere like a festival lantern as he ducked around branches. And then, after only the space of ten breaths, he was back. He said, “I found a place under a tree that doesn’t have any snow. But can you hurry? I want to save Garbi and Mama. So…” and here he looked at her sideways, very shyly, “please don’t just go to sleep. You have to help me. I’m just little and I lost my spear.”
Dyana did her best to ignore the pang of pity that struck her at the urgent helplessness in his tiny voice and said, “I don’t need long. I just need to catch my breath.” She followed to where he indicated, and sure enough there was a nice dry spot under a fat, wide conifer with greyish needles. She sat down in the active position, resting on her heels with her hands open in her lap, and closed her eyes. She breathed deeply, slowly, gathering her essence. The anger and distraction that had decayed her strength crumbled slowly and faded into nothingness. Into resolve. Focus.
Her father taught her that impure passions fed on life—they made you feel strong and alive, but it was a false and temporary strength that left you drained afterward. True power came of control, purity, intent. Proper cultivation of vitality brought strength, but if she was getting cold, then she was getting weak as well. She was an embarrassment to his memory, sometimes.
She focused on breathing, slowly feeling her spirit and body come back into balance. All she had left of her father was his example, and there was no way she was giving that up too. Seff needed a proper parent, if nothing else.
Wolfscar shimmied back down into his little nest in her shirt and waited patiently. She breathed, long and slow and deep, inhaling all the life in the earth, then in the air, then in the earth, then in the air…
And finally she was recharged, or close enough to it. Vitality circled throughout her body again, strengthening her limbs and hardening her skin. She felt warm again, and calm. She stood up, cracked her knuckles, made herself smile, and said, “I feel better now. Sorry I was so cranky.”
“I’m glad. I thought you were always like that. Can we hurry now?” asked Wolfscar with a clear note of concern.
“We certainly can. Hold tight, because I’m going to run. Fast, this time.” She started out slowly, and when she could tell that Wolfscar was able to hold himself in place, she picked up the pace. The trail was easy to follow here, a straight line across a long, open meadow that curved along the base of a series of hills. Now that she was out from under the trees, the snow caught just enough of the starlight to glow faintly and she had no trouble leaping high over any lumps that might be a rock.
After a short while, perhaps a mile, she saw them about another quarter mile away, and they saw her. Two men on two horses, one carrying Agurne and the other Garbi.
She held Wolfscar down so he wouldn’t fall out and sprinted after them, augmenting her legs with vitality. She rushed forward in a burst of speed greater than a crashing wave and her passage kicked up enough wind to toss the light snow several feet into the air.
It was too fast, however—as she rounded a corner, she hit ice and slid for almost a count of ten before she tripped over a lip of earth and tumbled into the snow. Wolfscar shrieked in terror and once they finally came to a rest, he scrambled out from his perch and started shaking snow off himself. He recovered quickly, and looking left and right to make sure his little dragonfly wings weren’t bent, he scolded, “You shouldn’t go that fast! You need to remember that you are carrying someone! I could’ve gotten mashed. You can’t go like that anymore.”
“I’m not going to mash you.”
“I won’t. But we’re almost caught up, so I’m running again whether you like it or not.”
“Well…!” Wolfscar flew back and forth several feet in a way that made him seem highly upset. “Well then I’ll just fly, and you can warm me up after.”
“Then go,” she said.
The bird-boy turned and darted off fast as lightning, so fast it startled her. He almost left her behind, and she stood and raced after him without fully catching her breath.
Even over the sound of her run, she could still hear Agurne shouting curses long after the trail took them from her view. The woman was loud. Dyana couldn't quite make out what she was saying, but when that woman wanted her voice to carry, it carried, and it made them easy to follow. Maybe that’s why she was doing it, and her anger was false?