Nyahri guided yw Sabi into the still-standing trees, climbing the western foothills. Spear in hand, she walked Kwlko, finding yet more Oudwn sign: an abandoned camp, a broken arrow. The forest thickened, broad ferns overhanging the path.
Before nightfall, cold clouds descended, and Nyahri pulled a pelt coat over her serape. Yw Sabi wore only her own clothing and a light cloak, its hood shielding her face from the mists. An E’cwn gift, the cloak seemed at odds on the Atreiani, something of one world wrapped about something of another. She relaxed more in the saddle now, though she grimaced at Turo’s unexpected sidesteps and canters. She was learning the horse quickly, though Nyahri worried as the steep canyon tapered.
We have seen no true test of horsewomanship yet, mistress–
“We could go on,” Nyahri said, “but there has been a sharp drop or two and, without light, the horses will know this path no better than I.”
“The Bhar is below us to the left. You may not be able to see it, but I still can. Nothing but rocks and cold water down there.”
“You make my point for me.”
“I could give us light.”
Nyahri wondered what light would be so bright as to help. It will not be a torch, she thought, and she wished no witchcraft that night.
“Nay, mis–” Nyahri caught her words and reined them back. “Please, I would we draw no attention.”
“Very well, but our visibility’s worsening.”
“We should move out of this weather.”
“Can we find a copse, thick evergreens at the least?”
They followed the ruins of an ancient highway, crowded with pine. The path’s cut and fill had washed down the mountainside, torn by the ages. Nyahri dismounted, walking ahead, testing the way. She discovered a wide plateau, too open for her liking, but they crossed into a stand of dense ponderosa.
“We can stop here,” yw Sabi said.
After Nyahri unsaddled them, the horses stood abreast, hindquarters turned to the wind. Nyahri sat beside the Atreiani, her back to a granite slab. Dry ground beneath the trees offered meek comfort and they ate cold rations. After their meal, Nyahri paid homage to her ancestors, thanking the heron god that the storm blew without more malice.
“You wish me to keep watch?” Nyahri asked.
Yw Sabi scowled at the clouds, her shoulders dropping. At last she closed her eyes.
“I am a little sleepy. Just a few hours’ rest, no more, then wake me.”
Yw Sabi laid back her head, with her blanket, cloak, and scarf wrapped around her. In more than a week, it was the first time Nyahri had seen the Atreiani tire. Nyahri moved from the rock and, exposed, the cold sharpened her senses.
Yet after an hour she also faded, her mind wandering, and she shut her eyes. Forcing herself to wake, she planted her spear in the dirt, fighting to keep it upright as the mists wetted her face, the wind blowing in her ears.
Kwlko startled and Nyahri’s eyes snapped open at a soft, quick rhythm in the trees.
No need to fear wolves, who’d find guarded horses too risky a meal and look elsewhere. The stallion snorted and stepped. A tree branch cracked.
Not wolves! Nyahri crouched, her spear in both hands.
“Lo, Atreiani,” she whispered and, a moment after, yw Sabi knelt beside her.
“Three men downslope,” yw Sabi said, her lips close to Nyahri’s ear. “They’re nearer the river, under some pines.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I can see them.”
Nyahri strained her eyes at only spruce and mist and darkness. “Weapons?”
“They’re only watching. I’m not sure they can see us.”
“What do you wish to do?”
“Give them time.”
For long minutes, nothing moved save the worried horses and the bitter gusts. Then a rustle, mistakable for wind. Nyahri tensed, raising her spear.
“Relax,” yw Sabi said, “they’re going.”
“By tomorrow night we will have permanent shadows.”
“I’m sure you’re right.”
The horses settled. As yw Sabi reclined again by the stone, Nyahri stretched and yawned, for the moment reassured.
“Go back to sleep, yw Sabi. I can watch awhile longer.”
“I’m rested. I want you alert come morning. Lay down. Keep warm.”
Three hours’ sleep in a week! A notch for the inhuman. Nyahri frowned at this, but she settled into her bedroll with her blankets packed about her, and her mind turned toward more immediate and practical considerations. If the weather worsens, we will need lean-tos and windbreaks.
On those plans, though, the thick skins warmed her and she slept.
Despite Nyahri’s concerns, the weather cleared the next morning, light snow melting by midday. On horseback she and yw Sabi rounded a series of wide meadows, the pines walling the short, dry mountain grasses. The valley led them for three days and, all the while, Nyahri sensed the Oudwnii following them. A tumble of stones down a slope, a sudden alarm of starlings: the land told a story.
“There are men at our flanks,” Nyahri said. “Not sure how far or how many.”
“There were three last night,” yw Sabi said. “I count six now, give or take.”
“They are surrounding us?”
“They’re only pacing us.”
“We could outdistance them. Give the horses their heads. The lea is open.”
“And ride headlong into what?”
“We could lose them.”
“Or blunder. We never believed we’d get anywhere close to Sojourn Temple without meeting the Oudwnii, did we?”
As they crossed wider fields, Nyahri appreciated the Atreiani’s better judgment. Rivulets fingered through the grasses, stagnating in marshes. What seemed solid ground sometimes hid mires, the stallion and gelding struggling till Nyahri brought them higher into the trees. With swamp-stink on the horses’ legs, she thanked the cottontail god, lord of lucky choices.
A gallop might have been the death of a horse.
Yet she cursed the trees too. They confounded her sense of direction, and she lost the path. Only after a noontime stop did she rediscover it along an expanse of golden aspens. At last they made better time.
We are quick, she thought, but not so quick the Oudwn trackers will not catch us.
While they could, she pushed the horses faster.
During the afternoon’s ride, Nyahri shot three hares. That night she made camp within a glade of spruce, a sheer granite cliff guarding them from the north wind. Knowing the Oudwnii already trailed them, she lit a fire and roasted the rabbits.
“You seem well, Atreiani.”
“Why wouldn’t I be?” Yw Sabi sat with her back to the granite, hands folded in her lap. She looked up from the fire at Nyahri.
“A handful of hours’ sleep in more than a week, and you have been some days in the saddle? Most people, when they have not yet learned the horse, they can barely stand by the third day.”
“Uncomfortable animals. Smelly. Dirty. I don’t much understand the point in them.”
“A horse is a precious thing, Atreiani. Tribes without them are always worse off.”
“Worse off is a relative term. In any case, Nyahri, I’m fine.”
A guttural huff sounded from uphill. The horses raised their heads. The trees swayed, creaking in a gust, and a half-fallen ponderosa cracked against the boughs supporting it.
Yw Sabi stood, gazing into the darkness between the pine stands.
“Do you see anything, mistress?”
The Atreiani shot Nyahri a glance but suffered the title. “Not in my line of sight.”
“I smell it.”
“It’d be hard not to.”
The huff sounded again, a low, emptying bellow. Foliage shook, nettles rustling, and something heavy hit the ground. Stones rolled downhill.
Nyahri rushed forward, snatching her spear from its place by the fire. She grabbed the horses’ leads and walked them between the fire and the high granite wall. The horses kicked nervously, pulling their tethers, and Nyahri tied them to the closest tree.
“I see it now,” yw Sabi said.
Gods! It sounds big. And the Atreiani stands there without a weapon–she is strong but not so strong.
Nyahri returned to the Atreiani’s side. The pungent stink of wet fur weighted the air.
A bear, Nyahri thought, but no black bear. Small bears often wandered the edges of the open plains, but the beast in the darkness outweighed a black bear by many times.
Nyahri raised her spear, bracing for a shattering blow. The bear lumbered closer. Yw Sabi stood with her hands at the back of her waist, head tilted, a gesture of pure curiosity.
First the firelight glistened against the bear’s nose and jowls and teeth. Then the rest of it emerged from the shadow. Its brown-black coat rippled as its forepaws swept before it, scraping the dirt, claws more than a handspan long. It raised its head, drawing long breaths, scenting.
“Atreiani,” Nyahri said, “get behind me. I will protect you.”
The bear stood twice Nyahri’s height and, when its forequarters hit the earth, the ground thumped. Sweat chilled Nyahri’s skin.
I might get one strike, she guessed, maybe two, before my spear breaks.
Yw Sabi laughed, truly delighted. “Ursus spelaeus! You are beautiful!”
“Atreiani, step back.”
Yw Sabi stepped forward, studying the animal.
She is mad!
Nyahri rushed to put herself between the bear and the Atreiani, and it rose again. Nyahri bent her knees, setting her spear at a stronger angle.
The Atreiani raised her witch-scepter before her, its ghost-lit patterns following her fingertips. A soft chime filled the woodland, clear even through the rising wind. The bear dropped to the ground, shaking its head, turning its nose away. At last it mewled, snorted, and lay on its side.
“Gods.” Nyahri stepped away.
“Ah, you are beautiful,” yw Sabi said to the beast, approaching its back. She knelt, laying her hand on its thick pelt. The bear stretched its limbs.
“Come here, Nyahri. Be slow. Make no sudden movements.”
“I do not–”
“Come. Do as I say.”
Nyahri inched forward, spear still raised, until she stood beside yw Sabi. The bear sprawled, so she might lance its heart with a single blow. Instead, she too knelt and laid her hand on its fur. Its cavernous breaths shuddered under her hand, its generous coat muting its thunderous heartbeat. The bear gave a gentle shake of its head and pawed the air.
“Ursus spelaeus,” yw Sabi said, “the cave bear. They existed for hundreds of millennia, but they died out twenty-seven thousand years before I was born. Homo atrean brought spelaeus back to life.”
“The cave bears live because of you?”
“Why did you give them life?”
“Because we could. We decided the resurrection of many mammals would cause little harm, and in most cases it proved important theories of superabundant biodiversity and the role of top-level predators. Wherever we brought megafauna back to life, ecosystems recovered more quickly.”
“Recovered from what?”
“Human folly.” Yw Sabi ran her hand across the bear’s flank. “This fellow is a long, long way from where we first seeded them. Wrong continent actually.”
Nyahri understood continent as little as superabundant biodiversity. “You say that with some concern?”
“Concern he’s here? No, he seems quite happy here. Does it raise more questions for me?” She nodded.
“You do not wish to kill this beast?”
“What shall we do?”
“Ride farther up valley, enjoy the meal you cooked us somewhere else. We’ll leave him to recover. I doubt he’ll follow.”
Nyahri looked at the bear, then at the chiming witch-scepter, then at the face of the Atreiani. She set her spear on the ground, tucked her knees beneath her, and bowed her forehead to the dirt.
“You are a goddess,” she said to yw Sabi. “You raise hellfire and command the greatest beasts. Forgive me if I doubted.”
“Many have bowed to me,” yw Sabi said without the slightest pride, “but I’m no goddess. I tell you again–there are no gods.”
“I know what my eyes tell me.”
“Raise your head.”
Nyahri met the Atreiani’s gaze.
Yw Sabi hinted a smile. “I’d rather other things from you, Nyahri, than groveling.”
“Though if you keep mistressing me, we’ll need another serious conversation about it.”
“Hmm.” The Atreiani started to frown, then shook her head. “Come, let’s leave this bear to his forest and put a few kilometers more behind us.”
They ate their meal colder than Nyahri would’ve liked. The rest of that night they caught sign neither of beast nor men.
The next day they rode through the morning without event, and in the early afternoon crossed into larger stands of aspens clinging to their last golden leaves. The forest floor shone with gold, crisscrossed by the trees’ white columns.
Yw Sabi pulled another device from her tools. She examined it, turning in the saddle, and she watched a tiny dial in her palm, adjusting it in increments. A smile touched her lips.
“Checking our bearing. The poles aren’t where I expected. Maybe some change at the beginning, maybe while I slept? Enough for the axis to flip.”
“Eh, yw Sabi?”
“This is a compass, a simple device. You know loadstones?”
“We use them.”
“The magnetic pole is near south, off by a few degrees from the axis. You realize it once pointed north?”
Yw Sabi raised her hand toward the horizon. “North sat at zero, adjusted by declination, varying from region to region. It always moves, but now it points south. One hundred eighty-seven centesimal degrees–that’s a big change.”
She slipped the compass back into its place, clicked her tongue, and tapped her heels to the gelding. With a cinch of the reins, Turo drew beside the stallion.
Nyahri smiled. “You are learning.”
“Yes, I am.”
For several hours they traveled through the aspens, stopping only a brief while during the afternoon. Nyahri unsaddled the horses, resting them too. Afterward, they left the white-wooded forest, merging with sweet-scented cedar groves and spruce. Another long dell opened, this one free of bogs, and beyond them arose sharper snow-crowned peaks. Nyahri drank the vision, her first sight of the highest alpine slopes.
Yet yw Sabi frowned.
On the path ahead, twenty men waited at a distant outcropping of gray stone. All carried longknives and stickbows and razor-pointed arrows.
“They watching for us,” Nyahri said.
“Thus far, they haven’t seen us.”
“We could ride the ridge, try to circle around them?”
“No need. They’re practically inviting us. Let’s not spurn the gesture.”