Kyira dragged her belt blade through the slaver’s throat, acutely aware of each tendon and muscle tugging on the fine serrated edge. Warm blood burst out over her hand; she had taken the vein. A momentary flutter, but she clenched the bone handle and completed the movement, as though preparing a pig for the Feast of Moons.
Even as the slaver fell, another emerged from the mist, taller than the last by two heads and twice as wide. His minksin swirled behind him — a wide canvas larger than her sleeping mat. She set her feet as he barrelled towards her, spinning a two-handed ortaxe above his head with one arm. Kyira dove and slid into the plug of ice she had hauled out barely an hour before and sprang back to her feet.
“All he wanted to know was if you had any friends out here, girl,” rasped the huge slaver. “The Kin would save you all. Might even let you go if you had a map or two, but I guess not.” He nodded to his fallen partner. “I reckon you’re out here all by yourself. There ain’t no one what can save you.”
“Get back!” snarled Kyira, swiping her belt blade out in front.
“I don’t think so, girl. You might be quick enough to catch old Okvik off guard, but not me, little one. Not Siskin.”
Kyira shifted left, feigning an escape.
“Oh, no you don’t!” The slaver rushed forward, realising too late that the ice hole lay between them. His feet slipped as he tried to fight his own momentum and he toppled awkwardly in, one arm and leg stretching out of the hole. “Curse you!” Guttural pants punctuated each word. “Gods curse you!” His muscles shook as he searched for purchase on the slick edges, splashing icy water over himself.
Kyira stepped back but kept her belt blade out and steady. The dropped ortaxe was heavy enough to rebalance him if he could reach it, and he clearly had the same thought. He thrust out his arm and clasped the weapon’s handle, but the move shifted his weight the wrong way and his body tipped forward into hole.
“No!” he cried.
Kyira peered over the edge. The slaver was holding his head a hair’s width above the slushy water, the metal point of the ortaxe pushed into the ice hole’s side, giving him enough tension to press himself rigid against the inside of the hole. He was strong, of that there was no doubt. She side-stepped around the hole and tapped the crook of the slaver’s knee with her moccasin. The tension broke, his grip failed, and the slushy Laich swallowed him with barely a sound.
She stared at the gently bobbing ice, as though his wide mottled face might somehow emerge, angry and dripping, ready to exact hateful vengeance, but she knew better. His pig heart had beat its last.
She forced her gaze up, scanning the Laich. Mist was not unusual for this time of year, nor this time of day, but it had come on so quickly she had barely finished setting her fishline when the hills had vanished behind a thick veil. At least she knew exactly where she was, as she always did.
The first slaver’s still form was sprawled a few paces away, surrounded by dark spatters. She collected the extinguished oil tin at his feet but didn’t relight it. Slavers always travelled in twos, but they might have been part of a group waiting out there in the mist and they would see the light. Besides, her lamp fuel was far too precious to waste. She rewound the wick and pressed it into the congealed mixture, then tucked it away in her waist bag.
She squatted over the slaver’s corpse, holding her belt blade over his ruined neck. There was no coming back for this pig, but it never hurt to stay cautious. His face was black with Lines but there was no elegance to them, they had no story to tell — nothing she could make out anyway. She touched her chin, feeling the raised patterns and following them to the base of her bottom lip. Each of the five swooping Lines marked her cycles as an adult, the beginning of her story, her aspirations, and her life.
She blinked at the slaver. Where his skin wasn’t Lined, it was cracked and red. A Southerner then, not used to the cold, dry winds of Nord, and judging by the beige patches on his breeks, he’d spent weeks, maybe months, in the saddle.
She rummaged through his pockets, ignoring the fleas crawling freely between his inner and outer garments: a dirty pipe made from a wood she had never seen before; some flint; some rolled smokeleaf; a chewstick; and a small pouch. She pulled the drawstrings and let the weight inside tip out onto her palm. There was no mistaking it, even in Nord babies sucked on the varnished wooden bulb to help them sleep. So, he was a man. A father. What sort of woman would have bred with you? Certainly no Sami, nor any other Nordun woman that she had met.
A colony of dark specs crowded around a spot of blood on his furry hood, and she stood, feeling nauseous. Regardless of who he was, nobody who let themselves get in such a state lasted long out here, not least those who kept their guard down for so long. He had to have had a camp close by, she thought as she dragged him to the ice hole. The body slid along the edge, tipping in headfirst, just like his friend. The Orca would make short work of them both.
The ice plug came next, and it dropped neatly back into the hole forcing a little water to gurgle up the sides. She dipped her hands in and scrubbed the blood from her skin, trying to picture which sort of fire would warm her up the quickest. It was a half day’s walk from here on the Laich back to where Aki, her father, had camped and she would need to find somewhere along the way to sleep. There were a number of places: the cave near the fourth sister of the valley she knew as the Waning Crescent; a hidden alcove in the small waterfall a league beyond on the last sister — she might get wet, but at least she would be hidden.
The dark residue, colourless in the evening light, pooled with the quickly freezing water. She had not planned on being away from home for so long, but the new season’s taimen living in the Laich were far too fat to just leave to the Orca, and twilight was the best time to catch them. It was why she had spent most of the day cutting such a big hole through the ice. It was lucky it was not yet spring — things might have gone very differently if she had been fishing for eels.
A noise blew in from the north bank and her breath caught. A whicker. She stared into darkening night, but the mist gave nothing away.
Please get in touch if you have any questions or enquiries. I respond to all human messages.