It was nice weather for riding, and we made good progress for a while. Then Jerna asked, “Are we going to the main road or past all the villages?” There was something to be said for the villages because we might be able to get food and shelter there, but on the other hand we had packed enough food for weeks and Vurian and Rovin said there were shelters about half a day apart (in summer, that might be a whole day in winter) all along the main road.
“I’ve been to three villages already, I don’t need to see them all!” Riei said.
“Three Hills isn’t a village!” Jerna said.
“Tal-Nus, and Stone Bridge, and that place where we helped Hylti with the scarlet fever,” Riei said, and privately to me in my mind, But I’d forgotten about that last one.
So the main road it was. It was wide enough for three or four horses side by side, but we rode with two and three, and the pack animals trailing behind like a little herd. At first Jerna was ahead with Vurian, because she wanted to know everything about the school, then the boys rode together and we girls behind them, and at some point Rovin rode next to me because we wanted to talk about building and making. “If we don’t find a shelter we can always make a snow house!” I said.
We did find a shelter, though it wasn’t large enough for both the people and the animals. It had a sign “Shelter number 4”, and Vurian said that was counting from Valdis, not from Turenay.
Then Rovin said, “You had the right idea, Leva, if we build a snow house for us we can use the shelter as a stable! I hope it snows a bit more so that will be warmer, too.”
The boys even had folding spades on their pack-horses! So we made bricks of snow like we’d done before, and when we had enough to build with Jerna said, “Shall I go and see if I can find firewood? Because there’s not nearly enough in the lean-to.”
“Wait,” Riei said, and she licked her thumb and stamped a tiny seal on Jerna’s forehead.
“Eek!” Jerna yelped, because of course it was a seal of the Nameless.
“That’s so I can pull you in if you get lost,” Riei said, “like this!” And she made a pulling gesture and Jerna yelped again.
“I’ll go with you,” Vurian said, “the building isn’t work for four people anyway, we’ll only be in each other’s way, and two of us can carry twice as much.”
They went, and we built, and after a while we had a round snow hut that had one entrance outside and another one against the side door of the shelter so we could get to the animals without going outside. And chimneys to let in air built in already. We melted snow in buckets to water the horses and mules and to wash ourselves, and Rovin put a bucket of almost-boiling water in the snow hut so the inside melted and, because the wall was so cold, froze again at once. “I saw what our breath did last time,” he said, “this should make the walls stronger!”
Then Riei suddenly panicked, “They’re lost!” She asked me to hold her tightly and think only of her, and then she sent her mind out of her body to look for Jerna and Vurian. It was a creepy feeling, holding only a body that Riei wasn’t in! She came back after a while, and then we also heard people outside, and those were Jerna and Vurian with their arms full of firewood.
“We did get lost!” Vurian said. “We found a lot of branches that the snow had broken, and stacked them all to take to the shelter later, but we’d gone the wrong way and took it all north instead of south! Now we’ve got only what we were carrying when you called us.”
“It’s my fault really,” Jerna said, “I pulled loose when you pulled me hard!”
“It’s all right, you’re here!” we said, and gave them hot tea and washing-water.
Riei had made dough with flour and dried fruit to hang in a cloth over the kettle to cook, and when we’d shared that I said, “let’s make another one and let it hang tonight for breakfast!” and everybody thought that was a good idea.
We were so tired that after we’d made sure the animals were safe we fell asleep at once in the snow hut, piled together like a litter of kittens. I was the first to wake up, and I had to piss, so I climbed over Riei and Jerna (who both slept on) and tried to go outside, but there were at least twenty foxes sleeping in the entrance! I didn’t want to wake them up, so I climbed back over Jerna and Riei and then Rovin and Vurian, and the boys did wake up. “Why are you climbing over me?” Rovin asked, and I said “Because the door is full of foxes,” so he had to look too, of course, and woke up everybody. I went to piss in the stable, there were so many horse-droppings there already that a bit of people-droppings didn’t matter.
“I thought foxes lived alone!” Vurian said. “But that’s a whole crowd of them.”
“Perhaps they sleep in the shelter when there’s nobody there,” I said, “and there was no room for them now and they found another warm place.”
We ate our breakfast (it had worked, it was only a little soggy from hanging in the steam so long) and cleaned the horse-droppings out of the stable, and then we saw that the foxes were gone and we could break up the snow hut. “That’s safer,” Rovin said, “suppose the foxes get in tonight and it falls on them!”
“Mizran wouldn’t like that,” Jerna said.
On the way to the next shelter I saw some beady eyes looking at us now and then.
“You’re not hunters, right?” Vurian asked, and no, none of us girls had ever hunted, not even Jerna. “I saw some wolf trails back there.”
“Do you think the foxes kept the wolves away?” I asked.
“Perhaps. At least they were in the way.”
“A wolf, that’s like a really big nasty dog, right?” Riei asked.
“Even nastier. They don’t usually attack people unless they’re very hungry, but they must be hungry with all that snow. Is this more snow than usual, Jerna?” he asked, and yes, it was.
We must have missed the next shelter completely, perhaps it had been in the snowed-under copse we’d seen, because when it was already pretty dark we found shelter number 6. It was so large that we could all fit in, people and animals and all, but it was in very bad repair, cold wind blowing through cracks in the walls, and the floor was filthy as if the people before us hadn’t bothered to sweep. The boys made a wall of snow to cover the walls on the outside, while Riei started a fire and I started brushing animals and Jerna made brooms of grass and twigs so we could do some cleaning.
A couple of foxes looked in, some even in the shelter itself, but we shooed them out, “those pancakes are for people, not for you!”
Then Jerna went out with the boys to get firewood because there was hardly anything in the lean-to. “We should write a note, “Please leave this pile higher than you found it”, Vurian said, and I burnt it in the roof-beam of the lean-to with a heated awl. They came back with not only a lot of wood, they’d found a fallen tree that they’d only needed to cut to pieces, but also with a couple of rabbits. We gave the foxes all the heads and entrails and forelegs and ate the rest ourselves, and Riei put the bones in the kettle for broth.
“Shall we tell ghost stories?” Jerna asked after we’d eaten. “Nooo!” Riei and I cried together, it was creepy enough in the empty land without any people except ourselves and only the sound of the wind in the night! But Vurian said, “We can do like the Ishey.”
“And tell brag stories?” I said, because that was what the Ishey boys had done who we travelled with.
“Yes — this story is about a girl, though.” And he told a wonderful story about a girl that a boy wanted to marry, but she said she already had a girlfriend and she’d have him only if he did three impossible things for her. So he got her a star from the sky, a pearl from the moon and a diamond from the bottom of the sea and hung them on a necklace which he gave to her and said “I’ve done what you asked, but I won’t marry you! Because I’ve got a girlfriend on the moon, and one at the bottom of the sea, but I’m going to live with my boyfriend in the sky!” But the girl had a girlfriend anyway, so she didn’t need him.
“That makes me want to make things!” I said.
“You’ve got all your tools, right?” Vurian asked, but I didn’t have much material, and anyway I had to invent the things first, so I made drawings in my notebook by a light that Vurian made for me. I was so busy that I didn’t notice everybody else was asleep until the oil lamp I must have been drawing by for hours –Vurian had gone to bed like the others long ago– started to flicker.
That’s how I was the only one awake when there was a big thump on the back wall, and the sound of barking that must be foxes because they barked very differently from dogs. I didn’t dare go outside to look on my own in the dark, and didn’t want to wake up the others, so I closed the crack in the wall with horse-poop and checked that the doors were safe and went to sleep.
In the morning we did look, and found lots of tracks, some from birds (which I’d heard as well), little fox paws, larger dog-like paws, and huge paws the size of both of my hands together. “There’s been a bear here!” said Vurian, and showed us how large the bear was, longer than I was tall from front paw to hind paw.
“Do bears eat people?” Riei asked.
“Bears should be asleep all winter! But we’ve had warmer weather for a while, and this one must have woken up hungry.”
“And then it smelt a house full of juicy people and horses and mules,” I said.
“Exactly. But it couldn’t get through the wall.”
“I think the foxes tried to chase it away too,” I said, “they barked like anything!”
“I don’t know if foxes can chase away a bear,” Vurian said, “a bear’s pelt is too strong for their teeth! But it must have noticed it couldn’t get through the wall and gone away.”
We didn’t see the bear any more, or any wolves or foxes, only a couple of crows, and a large stripy cat eating a bird it had caught.
Now we’d get the stretch of land without any water, so we melted a lot of snow to fill all the waterskins except one that we filled with the leftover rabbit broth. The rest of the rabbit broth we’d eaten for breakfast, with bits of pancake in it that Riei had roasted until they were crunchy.
“Let’s try to make to shelter number eight!” Vurian said, so we started out as early as we could. The land went up a bit here, not really a hill but we could see it was a slope, and it looked as if not much grew here, only a few despondent-looking bushes. That was because it was so dry, the boys said. There was less snow on the other side of the hill, but it was still cold. We could see plumes of what looked like smoke in the distance, but when we looked with our minds we didn’t see any people and we didn’t want to leave the road to investigate. Perhaps someone in Turenay would know.
Now we saw other people on the road for the first time! They were going in the other direction, a man and a woman on a laden ox-cart with two mules tied behind it. “Good day!” we said, and they greeted us and asked “What’s it like back there?”
“More snow than here,” I said, “but the shelter we’ve come from is large enough for you and your animals and there’s enough firewood.”
Vurian said, “We’ve seen tracks of wolves and bears. It’s a strong shelter but but you might not make it before dark with your oxen.”
“Perhaps we should have turned back,” the man said, “but we’ve come too far for that now. You’re right, oxen are slow.” But he goaded them on regardless, and soon enough we couldn’t see the cart any more.
Vurian was very silent as we rode on. “What’s eating you?” I asked.
It was a while before he answered. “I may act as if I’m sixteen sometimes,” he said, “but I just don’t have the — I should have asked them to come back with us. But they wouldn’t have listened. Not even to Jerna and she is sixteen.”
“No, I don’t think they would have,” I said. “And with the oxen none of us would have made it to the other shelter before dark, they said it was too late to turn back. Now they have a chance to get to a safe place, at least.”
It was only just before dark when we came to the other shelter. It wasn’t as large as the one we’d left, but not as dirty either, and the lean-to was full of firewood. With a note: “We stacked this for the next people. Please fill it up again before you leave.”
Vurian hung his head. “Now I feel even worse,” he said, “if they hadn’t done it they’d have had plenty of time.”
“They didn’t know that, did they?” I said. “And there’s nothing you could have done to prevent it.”
That didn’t help much, but perhaps it helped a little. After we’d cared for the animals and heated up the rabbit broth and eaten that and some of the things from our bag, Vurian said, “What I’d like to do now is practice semsin together, teach each other what we’ve learned.”
Rovin looked sad, because he was the only one who couldn’t join in, but I said, “Hey, here’s my notebook, perhaps you’d like to read that and see if there’s anything in it you can use, I’ve made lots of drawings of things.”
“You let me read your notebook?”
“Well, we’re both artisans, we can learn that from each other at least!”
So he read all evening, sometimes making notes himself, while the four of us gifted people practised. We tried to see each other with our minds, then hide from each other –Vurian and I were best at that, Riei worst because we kept sort of tripping over her– and it made us so tired that we weren’t even awake enough to make a cup of tea before bed.