It was Midwinter.
Tegwyth reminded herself of that. A time for celebrating that the longest season had finally turned on its pivot and the warmth of summer, though short-lived, would come again. A time for gifts to be given and feasts to be eaten. In past years she had been given gifts by the owner of the caravan – her owner – trinkets to wear, bangles for her wrists and ankles, a fine scarf to protect her hair and pull over her face, keeping the dust from her nose and mouth, as it was thrown up by the caravan on the road. She had been pampered and cosseted, well treated and cared for. She had even believed she was loved.
Then last Midwinter she had become a gift.
She had seen it coming from the moment his true-born child had started speaking venom – one who would take no competition for her father’s affections. And he, in his turn, adored her and indulged her. Then the boy-child Tegwyth carried was born to live no more than a few gasping breaths, like all his sons before. She had failed him.
So at Midwinter she had been given away. A gift to seal a trading pledge with a merchant from across the ocean – a merchant from this city, from Keran. The merchant had taken her into his house and then taken almost all she cared about from her – even her hope. But when he threatened to take and sell the most precious thing in her life, she had risked everything and run away. It had been her Midwinter gift to herself.
So yes, Midwinter was about gifts and feasting, but sometimes, maybe, you had to take the gifts and help yourself to the food.
It sat on the table beside a smeared empty bowl with a lingering savoury smell of soup. Someone had bought it, eaten their fill and left half the loaf. Whoever it was did not want the bread and it had already been paid for, so it could not really be considered theft.
She had first seen it through the small window, as she stood, shivering, in the frozen white outside. Somebody had wiped away the condensation of the warmth within so they could look out, which had granted her a half-glimpse inside the tavern. That had been enough. Following a group of wealthy men and their whores through the briefly open door, then shrinking into the shadows to disguise the quality of her dress and the thin felt cloak that had been worn through in patches.
The loaf still sat unguarded. The boy clearing the tables did not seem to have noticed it yet. He was at the far side of the room, dodging between the patrons with their fine and fancy faces, plump from good eating. He ducked, avoiding a cuff aimed at his ear, as he picked up a jug someone had not yet deemed empty.
The loaf looked bigger than it had through the window. Tegwyth’s stomach called out to it and she was grateful for the sounds of raucous cheer. Without them the man standing with his back to her, close by the fire, might have heard. He was tall and even from behind she could see the wider whiskers of his beard as they spread from his chin.
She knew who he was, of course, all of Keran had heard of him. They called him Drum. He was someone special here and his arrival the previous day had been talked of everywhere as she hunted for food. Not many sons of Temsevar, as she knew well, made their way to other worlds and even fewer of those who did ever came back as he did. Even here in Keran, where the twin domes of the spaceport humped high with snow dominated the city, it still seemed strange beyond imagining for Tegwyth. She struggled to believe that anyone could come from worlds beyond the stars.
Her eyes moved back to the loaf which seemed so far away – as if, it too, sat on another world. Beside it, cast aside onto the stool and partly pooling its fabric over the table, was an odd, sleeved garment that might be some kind of coat. It was the colour of freshly shed blood, but had a sheen in its fabric which the flickering firelight caught and played with. She had seen the bearded man wearing it out in the snow on his way here. It must be warm to wear as he had needed no cloak. Even above the gripe of her stomach for food she felt a sudden desire for the coat and the warmth it could give.
She looked back to the bearded man. He was laughing now. The woman he was talking to was someone special too. Tegwyth knew her given name was Micha and had heard the gossip that her late husband had been in good health, in his middle years, before marrying his young bride. Now a recent widow, she was the woman who owned this hostelry, the very best in the city. Which was why, this Midwinter, so many of wealth and status were here – and was also why Tegwyth really should not be. The thought almost broke her courage. The risk of being recognised, identified, returned.
Knowing if she waited longer she would never make herself act, she slipped from shadow to move under the nearest table. It was by the door and prone to regular blasts of cold air, so it had been left empty.
Pressed close to the wall she paused to be sure no one was aware of her presence. The door opened and she froze as if the snow-laced air had made her into a statue of ice. The bearded man, half-turned his head towards the door, then smiled as he saw who was there. He beckoned in a welcoming way and called out:
“Tavi! Get your lazy butt over here I want you to meet someone I -” He broke off slapped his own cheek with one hand and laughed. Then spoke again using strange words Tegwyth did not recognise.
The man at the door was wearing the same kind of coat as the one on the stool, only in a dull metallic blue-grey. Tegwyth kept very still. If he moved his head even a small amount he would see her. But his eyes were not even considering straying. They were locked on the woman called Micha and his face wore an expression of awed discovery. As he walked quickly over to the fire, all three were caught up in his arrival. The bearded man clapped a hand on his shoulder and almost pushed him a pace closer to the woman.
“Micha – this is Gernie Tavi. Agernilio Tavi if you want the full bloody mouthful. He’s the man I’ve been telling you about. Would you know it, he’s taking over the whole bloody spaceport. I offered him a lift so he could be here for our Midwinter,” the bearded man gave an exaggerated wink. “He’s only got Standard for the now, mind, so we can talk about him behind his back all you like.”
Micha had the golden skin of someone from the far north of the Western Continent and hair, piled up into a high style with cascades of ringlets, the same rich red as Tegwyth’s own. She wore embroidered skirts of the finest woven wool and a bodice that clung over her breasts, like a second skin, made from some strange offworld fabric. When she smiled, as she did at the man called Gernie, her eyes widening, she looked truly beautiful.
The loaf was within reach now. But so was the coat and it was that Tegwyth slid carefully from the stool first, looping it around her and under her cloak out of sight. Then she reached out again for the bread.
“I really wouldn’t do that if I was you.”
It was the bearded man. He had moved away from the fire, perhaps so the other two could get to know each other – or perhaps, feeling simply not wanted there anymore. Either way, he now stood on the far side of the table. His face hard, although his voice sounded more as if he were offering her friendly advice than any threat. But she had just become a thief – she had stolen his coat, its warmth so good around her, the warmth of life in the bitter cold of winter. And the price of theft, even if she had been free and not hunted as an escaped slave, was death.
For a moment she thought to run. To flee. Break away. Rush for the door and out into the snow. But as if he could read her thoughts, the bearded man had taken a step to the side so she would have to pass him to be able to leave. His hand curled on a strange looking item clipped onto his belt. But as he moved and light fell on her face, his expression changed. It seemed to soften, as the warmth of the sun softens the hard packed ice. His hand moved away from his belt and he shook his head.
“Sweet truth and dare, you’re only a bloody child,” he said. And reaching past her he picked up the loaf. Tegwyth wondered when he would notice she had taken his coat, maybe he would see the flash of brilliant colour through one of the holes in her cloak, maybe he –
“Here, you hungry? Eat this and I’ll get you some hot soup to go with it.”
Her hands closed over the bread. It felt soft and smelled of yeast and grain – and life. The bearded man had already left her, striding back to the fire.
“Micha – could I ask for more -” He broke off laughing at something Tegwyth could not hear the woman say. “See? I told you that you two would get along.”
He was distracted. They all were. Tegwyth ran.
It was because she ran she didn’t look. Didn’t take the usual care. Her face was uncovered, profiled by the narrow lighting as she wrenched open the door, ducking under the arm of the slow, bulky man who was paid to make sure it stayed shut. But she heard the shout.
“Tegs?” Then: “Stop her!” Running feet. “Back off, she is my property!” and the thunder came, before: “I hope I killed the bitch.”
It hurt so bad she staggered and thought she would fall. As if something had pierced her through the side. It made no difference though, she kept running. Past the bulk of the snow-clammed houses, holding her side as the warmth leaked from it. Limping a little, she crossed the cold-pressed open ground marked by a thousand hooves and the runners of sledges and sleighs. She scurried over the last road, slipped on the ice and slid under the vent that heated the small building by the spaceport dome. Pulling the snow and ice after her, she pushed herself further and deeper into the narrow shelter. By then the pain was coming in great waves; like the waves she had seen deep out in the ocean on her journey here from the Western Continent, arising from unseen depths and slamming hard against the hull of the ship.
The small voice, no more than a whisper, came from the dark recesses of the little cave she had found for them. That had been the hardest thing, teaching Elisca to be silent when she needed to go out to find them food. But at least they were together and the child spared the horror of branding and separation that Tegwyth herself had known. Tegwyth gasped and almost cried out as she unwound the coat from under her cloak, pulling it free where it stuck, wetly, in her flesh, then wrapping it around the cold-skinned child. It was too dark to see what she was doing and she had to work by feel. When she was done she pressed her cheek close to her daughter’s.
“There,” she said so softly the air barely carried her words. “I brought you a gift for Midwinter, sweetling.”
She held the child close as the little one wolfed down the bread, fed and wrapped warm for once. But for Tegwyth the cold seeped deeper into her with each breath. It seemed to hurt less though, but she felt so very tired. Her daughter clasped safe in her arms, Tegwyth let herself fall asleep.
The frost had frozen the blood onto the surface of the snow almost as soon as it landed, stark red against the white. In the cold illumination of the flashlight, it seemed crystalline and jeweled.
“She’ll have lost too much,” the bearded man muttered grimly. Gernie nodded. He was no expert but even he could see what this trail meant. They followed it out past the courtyard wall and on towards the edge of the settlement.
“If we had been a bit faster or you’d just hit that – ”
“We had no bloody choice,” the other man cut across him. “It’s how things are here, lad, you can’t bloody change it.”
“The bastard shot her,” Gernie protested.
“And in his full legal right to do so. She is his property – or was, most likely. She ran away and that means she knew she was in for death if she got caught.”
“So you and Micha have to make nice to him? Man, that’s -” Gernie realised for the first time just how alien this world really was.
“We had to play it that way. That’s the way it bloody is around here, Tavi. Maybe if you work on it you can make a difference one day, but you can’t go shooting down local notables – nor even beating them up. Not if you are planning to stay here – and I take it you are?”
For a moment, Gernie wanted to say no. Wanted to say he was not going to stay anywhere a teenage girl could be murdered, legally, in front of an entire tavern full of people. But even as he opened his mouth to say as much, he found his mind filled with the memory of an oval face with golden skin, framed by dark-copper ringlets and wearing an expression of appalled compassion. Something inside him moved.
“I’m taking the job,” he said, “if that’s what you are asking. It’s why I came here after all. The pay is crap, this place is like a nightmare. But someone has to run the spaceport so crazy people like you can come and trade here. I’ll stick it a year or two then head back to civilisation.”
The bearded man grinned briefly.
“I think Micha will be pleased.”
Gernie said nothing to that, it was still too new, too startling. He shone the flashlight back on the snow and followed the trail.
The blood seemed to vanish near the small block building that backed onto the first of the spaceport domes. As if the ground had opened and swallowed the girl.
It was two days later as Gernie was still familiarising himself with the incredibly unsophisticated technology that enabled the spaceport to operate, and wondering just what he had taken on in coming to this hellish backwater, when he heard the sobbing. It sounded so close that, for a time, he thought he had to be hallucinating as he could think of nowhere it could come from.
Except he was not the only one who heard it.
It stopped around early afternoon, but they kept searching even as the huge red sun began to vanish behind the horizon. When it was gone completely, the ground would turn to rock in the cold of the night and their task would be harder if not impossible.
They found the body first, lying in the small gap that went under the ledge at the bottom of the wall, where there was an overhang to allow for venting and drainage. Drum had used a simple heat detection probe from the belt he wore, sensitive enough to tell the difference between solid snow and freezing flesh. He was red faced, he had been digging along with the rest.
“She must have dropped down the side and pulled herself along so the snow would fall back over and cover the way in. She’d be getting air and water melted down from the venting brick to your control room, Tavi.”
Then, as they moved the body, there was blood red shimmering in the white, like the gash of an open wound. Drum grunted something short and abrasive in the language Gernie knew he must soon begin the struggle to learn, the only language most spoke here on Temsevar.
“What is it?” Gernie asked. At least Micha spoke Standard.
But the bearded man ignored him and bent down again, pulling at something that the ice did not want to release. Then he drew an energy snub from his belt and used it to melt the frozen edges away from what they could see, his aim careful and precise. More red emerged. Then he stopped and clipped the snub back before leaning in to try and lift it free.
Gernie was sure he recognised the red now.
“That’s your coat, but how -?”
“Don’t stand there gawping, lad, give me a bloody hand here.”
The thermal-release coat was slightly warm on the inside and wrapped around something bulky. Gernie brushed the snow away as the bearded man pulled and lifted the entire bundle free from the snow. A small chubby hand, flesh pale and blue, emerged limp and lifeless from the folds and the bearded man held the wrist for a moment then tucked the arm back.
“Is it -?”
“Aye,” there was a sadness in his voice and he caught on the words. “We were too slow. It took just – just a bit too bloody long, the poor mite.”
Then the bundle moved in his arms.
by E.M. Swift-Hook
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