Chapter 1: Oaths
Droplets of crimson blossomed like flowers as they seeped into the snow. Khara collapsed, her fall broken by soft powder. Blinking, she wiped ice-blue hair from her eyes, breath misting. The sky between the snow-covered trees was a fading lilac of early afternoon. It would have been a beautiful place to die. But she was Khara Feryn, and there was more she meant to do in this world before she left it.
Using her teeth, she pulled off her gloves. She curled her shaking fingers around the handle of the knife jutting from her hip. The stone blade scraped against bone as she slid it out. Her scream echoed through the forest.
Startled, a winter jay took flight and flapping wings filled the stillness.
Khara pressed her palm against the wound. Warmth trickled between her fingers. It soaked into her fur coat and puddled beneath her.
She sifted through the snow for her ancestral sword. Her hands closed around the hilt of the Bone Blade, its pale metal glittered like sunlight off snow and stretched the length of her arm.
Khara dragged herself towards a tree. She’d be dead by nightfall if she didn’t stitch the wound.
The man who had delivered the blow lay dead behind her. He was a Zetstra, servant of the dark god Dorovki, wearing the traditional wolfskin, his black hair braided and tattoos of the wolf across his face.
She spat towards the body. “Isle of Morda take you, and your dark god.”
Through their bond, Khara felt Shaga’s presence before she saw him. The great auroch moved through the trees towards her, a relative of the oxen some tribes used. Shaga was half the height of the pines around them and his wide, black horns brushed against the branches as he stepped into the clearing. His shaggy fur was the colour of fresh snow, his eyes the turquoise of shallow water. He froze at the edge of the clearing, pawed the ground with his hooves, nostrils flaring at the smell of blood.
“Took your time,” she wheezed.
Shaga lumbered forward and nudged her with his nose.
“I’ll be all right.” She gave his snout a pat but it was more a haggard brush, her hand falling to her side. “We need to get to camp.” Khara pictured her hide tent, then pushed the image into Shaga’s mind.
Shaga huffed, breath swirling from his nostrils into the frigid air. She searched his mind and found a crude memory of her village as Shaga experienced it, smells and sounds and shapes.
“This isn’t the time to argue. We can go to the village after I stitch myself up. I won’t fail my Trial. Get me to camp, quickly.” The words were for her, Shaga couldn’t understand them, but sometimes she needed them to form the idea in her mind.
She sheathed the Bone Blade across her back as Shaga dropped to his belly. Grasping one of his curved horns, she heaved herself to her feet. Keeping one hand against the auroch for balance, she moved through the snow towards the dead fox, still caught in the trap she had set. Rare, it would make an impressive gift to the Chieftain, a bit of added security for procuring her place amongst the Voikhu warriors.
She slipped the fox into a leather saddlebag. Hauling herself atop Shaga she bit back a scream as she left a smear of blood across his white coat. Twisting her hands into his thick, knotted hair, Shaga rose.
“Go,” she gasped.
Shaga’s hooves thundered against the ground in the silence of the woods, kicking up a spray of snow. Every stride tore at her wound like fire licking her insides. There was no need to guide Shaga, he knew the way, so she buried her face into his fur to hide from the wind and held on.
Her camp sat deep within the forest, nothing but a tent of poles and furs covered in snow at the bottom of a ravine. Shaga slid down the steep drop in a waterfall of snow and rock.
Khara slipped from his back. At the base of a pine tree, she dug into the snow while one hand attempted to hold back the flow of blood. Her fingers, though frozen, found her sealskin pack.
Though the warmth would be welcome, starting a fire would take too long. Khara found a curved bone needle and a bundle of tendon, she teased it apart into lengths of thread.
Khara discarded her coat. The air bit at her skin like fangs rasping her flesh. Without a fire, she couldn’t melt snow to wash the blood from her hands. She’d have to work around the slick stickiness of it. She wiped her hands through the snow, scraping off as much as she could.
Her teeth began to chatter and Shaga dropped to the ground, curling around her. She lay back into him and lifted the fabric around the knife wound. It stuck to her with crusted blood. Wincing, she separated wool from skin. It was too cold to remove her shirt so she ripped the tear wider.
The pain made her retch. She hadn’t eaten in two days and bile stung the back of her throat. A second surge left her gasping for air. She couldn’t afford to wait for the nausea to pass, already her fingers were clumsy with cold.
With the wound exposed, she scooped a handful of snow and packed it. Red bubbled through. She added more. The numbness of cold relieved some of the pain. It would have to be enough. Black edged her vision.
With shaking hands, it took too long and too many attempts to thread the needle. She’d bleed out before she managed it. She roared at her clumsy fingers, her voice cracking, but as she raised her hand to throw the needle away, a nudge from Shaga stopped her. His mind pressed on hers, the weight of it like a blanket around her, slowing her thoughts.
She clutched the needle to her chest, bent her head and closed her eyes. “Adezda, goddess of light and the summer thaw,” her words were a dry croak, “please, find me and judge me. As you gave the Bone Blade to my ancestor, so I have used it to slay a servant of your sworn enemy.” Khara grimaced. Each word took more than she had to give. “Save me and I will… continue to serve you until there is no more breath in my lungs,” Khara’s hands were numb, all her heat bleeding into the snow, “and the Gates of Nazgora open to draw me forth. I swear this oath to you.”
A sudden wind twisted through the camp, brushing against her skin. Warmth came back into her hands.
“I ask you to find me worthy,” she whispered. “Today I am to become Voikhu and will be yours forever.”
The breeze faded. Her trembling stilled. She threaded the needle with tendon. She pinched shut the wound and set the needle against her skin. Piercing through, she pulled it tight. The strand of tendon hummed through her skin.
She pushed the needle through again. And again. Pinching the skin back together each time it slipped from her fingers. She threaded the last suture and tied it. Drawing her own stone dagger she cut it, and let the last of the tendon drop to the ground. The stitches held. The bleeding eased. She slumped into Shaga, letting her hands fall to her lap.
She dragged on her blood-stained coat and relaxed back into Shaga’s thick fur. The auroch licked her and nudged her into standing.
“You’re right.” Khara pressed a hand to the stitched wound. “I suppose… if we leave now… we can reach the tribe before nightfall.” Her body betrayed her, legs giving way. She hit the snow. “Or maybe a minute of rest would be good.”
Shaga nudged her again.
She rose. The world tilted and she clung to Shaga’s horns. “I can’t, Shaga. You’re too tall and I have no strength left.” She dropped to a knee. “I need to rest. Start a fire and sleep.”
“Enough, Shaga.” Khara dug through the sealskin until she found her fire-rocks. She rose on unsteady legs, found her fishing spear against a tree and used it to lean on as she moved around the camp.
Inside her tent she pulled out the dried grass she used as bedding and the branches stored at the back to keep them free from snowmelt. They fell from her hands as she turned. Bending down she picked them up. She started to put them back into the tent, then remembered why she needed them.
She piled the wood, setting the grass at its centre. It took longer than it should have, the path from thought to movement. The pain from the cold had ceased, numbness had taken hold again.
She sat a moment, resting. Snowmelt dripped from the icicles hanging from the tree branches. A crow cawed somewhere in the distance. She noticed the wood in front of her. Piled neatly. What for? Shaga bellowed, a low, long moan. A plea to leave.
Home. The Trial. A fire. She needed to light a fire. The cold would take her if she didn’t. Shaga watched as she tried to stand, his sadness and longing clinging to her like a mist.
Khara stood, only to feel herself slipping into darkness. “I’m Khara Feryn. I won’t...” Her eyelids drooped. She swayed, clutching at the fishing spear. The fire-rocks tumbled from her hands. When had she grabbed them? She slumped to the ground. She wasn't cold anymore. Closing her eyes, she fell into dreamless sleep.
Khara woke to snow crunching beneath her, scraping along her backside. Shaga held the hood of her cloak in his teeth as he pulled her through the woods.
She didn’t know how long she’d been asleep, but her camp was out of sight.
“Take me back.” She pressed against Shaga’s snout.
He let go and shoved her until she stood on shaking legs. She grabbed onto him to stay upright. The shadows of the trees lay longer than before. She had been out for a while.
It must have been shock. She’d heard of it, experienced it in milder forms after injury but never had she passed out from it. She felt better than before, kind of. No fresh blood so the stitches had held. Light snow was falling. It would obscure the tracks back to camp and in the dense woods, she could wander for hours before she found a landmark to orient herself.
“You’re not going to lead me back, are you?” she asked.
In answer, Shaga dropped onto his side, lessening the climb for her. She dragged herself over his ribs and collapsed atop the hunch of his shoulder. Kicking a leg over, she held tight as he rolled and lurched to his feet. She settled herself between his shoulder blades.
Exhausted from the climb, her eyelids fluttered as they travelled through a world of silver pines, towering cedars, spruces bowed low with the weight of winter.
The afternoon sun, a pale ball of blue through the thick haze of clouds and flurries, sank towards the far horizon. The world turned to misted white around them as the flurry built into a snowstorm.
Khara shivered, digging her hands deep into Shaga’s fur until she could feel the heat of his skin.
“My gloves. I left them in the clearing,” she said aloud to herself, to Shaga. They were one and the same these days.
The ground steepened as they climbed beyond the forest. The trees disappeared and Shaga came to a stop where the plateau dropped away before them. They paused there a moment as Shaga searched for the path, hidden by snow. Above them, the storm was fading. Below, spread the endless plains of Fel Nor Ré.
Dark shapes moved against the landscape. Dýr. Nosing through the snow and rocks for lichen, their antlers covered in velvet. Her people’s livelihood. They pulled the sleds, their hides made clothing and tents. Their meat kept them fed through the harshest seasons. Their tendons became bowstrings and thread.
“That’s half as many in the herd as there were when we left last spring. It must have been a hard winter,” Khara said.
“I know boy. It’s been a hard winter for us too.”
At the centre of the meandering herd were circular tents and columns of smoke, dozens of them. Small figures moved between them. The wind brought the sounds of shouts and laughter.
Shaga found the path. Khara lay her head against his shoulder and he took her home.
The villagers saw her coming long before she arrived. Khara couldn’t help but smile as they gathered at the edge of the tents, waving and calling. She half-climbed, half-fell from Shaga’s back. Hitting the ground, a strong arm caught her as she stumbled.
“Arvi.” Khara grinned and pulled the warrior tight, leaning on him to stay upright.
“Your father would be proud,” he said. “I know I am.”
She smiled as they released each other. Khara noticed the grey in his beard was no longer alone. Between the familiar locks of myrtle, that dark green and bluish tinge of riverweed, were streaks of grey, the wrinkles around his amber eyes deeper than a winter ago.
Her father’s best friend. Still a powerful fighter but almost an elder. Would her father look this way now if he still lived?
“You’ve gotten old since I left,” Khara said.
“And I see you’ve not gotten any wiser,” he replied, smiling. “Is this blood yours?” He held her before him so he could look at her blood-soaked clothing, now frozen and stiff.
“Some of it. But the Zetstra I killed lost more than I did.”
Arvi’s smile faded. “A Zetstra? How far from here?”
“The other side of Vorlyn Forest. Tried to gut me while I checked a trap.” She pulled out the fox, its body rigid as a board.
“The Zetstra would never dare move so far east,” Arvi said. “They know this is our land.”
“I remember father going to battle against them.”
“But always in the summer when we are far to the west, near the border. The day of prophecy grows near, it cannot be coincidence. Leave it with me, and do an old man one small favour before you see the Chieftain?”
“Anything.” Once she was Voikhu, Arvi would be her commander, his orders obeyed without question.
“Find your mother before she skins my hide for keeping you all to myself.”
Khara turned to Shaga, setting a hand on the ridge of his snout. “We're home.” Shaga didn’t want to leave her but she pressed against his mind. “Go, eat.” He lumbered off as Arvi sent her off into the crowd.
Children squeezed to the front, wanting a look at her. The last person to attempt the Trial of Winter had been a generation ago, but they hadn’t survived. As she moved through the crowd and they noticed the blood, the villager's excitement dropped into fear and they shied away, parting before her.
Without Arvi to lean on her strength was waning. She refused to fall in front of the others. Khara gritted her teeth and found the resolve to keep walking.
The last of the crowd parted. Khara glanced up from trampled slush and rocks to see her mother. They were mirror images of each other, the only difference between them; time. Streaks of silver wove through her mother’s blue hair, her eyes the grey of sea ice. They had the same square jawline, though on her mother it gave a sense of wisdom and on Khara, defiance.
Her mother’s eyes crinkled around the edges as she smiled and held her arms out. Khara fell into them and her mother’s hands drew her tight.
“Tiquk.” Cherished One.
Khara bit back a sob. She hadn’t heard the name in so long. “Mama.”
“You’re hurt?” Her mother pushed her away to look at the blood as Arvi had.
“Not all is mine. My wound will need cleaning, but I must speak with the Chieftain first.” If her mother knew the true extent of her injury, she would demand Khara head straight to their tent and see the Chieftain only when she was better. It was a fight her mother would lose, so better to avoid it.
“As stubborn as your father.” She kissed Khara on the cheek. The wet of her mother’s tears left behind as they pulled apart.
“Where is Jiyuk?” Khara asked.
“Fishing. Your brother won’t be back until nightfall. Go. Speak with the Chieftain so you can come back and rest.” Her mother raised a gloved hand to Khara’s cheek. Khara pressed her own hand overtop it.
The Chieftain’s tent stood tallest, marked with antlers at the door. The heat inside, though welcome, sent a wave of nausea rippling through her.