Authors: Julie E. Czerneda
He was still alive.
Waiting for the spinning in his head to subside, Enris lay on his back, stretched out his arms and legs, and laughed.
From this vantage point, he could see that the mist started about waist height. He was lyingâhe rolled on his side to see betterâon a long stretch of perfectly flat and smooth black rock. He'd have thought it metal from a distance. A road, he decided.
What was that?
Discovering that he couldn't see his outstretched fingers if he stood, Enris dropped to his hands and knees to follow the gentle sound. Kneeâ¦hand. Kneeâ¦his hand found nothing and he jerked back in reflex before exploring more carefully.
Ah. He'd found the edge of the road, as sharp and clean as the side of his cart. He extended his arm as far as he could. Nothing. The sound came from below and suddenly, he knew what it was.
Water. Lapping against the rock.
Carefully, Enris turned and moved in the opposite direction. Kneeâ¦hand. Kneeâ¦hand. Twice more. Then, another edge. Water. Lapping against the rock.
How close had the esan come to missing this sliver of dry land? What if he'd stood and blundered around in the mist?
Swimming was not a Tuana skill.
He found the middle of the road and lay down, his heart racing. Om'ray were coming toward him. He could sense them.
He'd just wait here.
UTSIDE, THE STORM PROWLED, testing each repair with icy claws, piling snow on roofs made of planks and coats until planks creaked and coats bulged downward. By so little was it kept at bay, but it was enough. Inside, the oillights were dimmed, fires aglow. Bodies lay together, warmed by each other as much as the flame. They were all weary, especially the Grona. Hoping for a useful dreamâor noneâAryl closed her eyes, listened to the steady music of breathing, and made herself relax.
How had Enris traveled so farâso fast? How had he managed to be higher than other Om'ray? They'd all felt their world expand upward for part of a tenth, then regain its proper shape. Husni, dizzy, had sat abruptly on the floor.
Only she'd known for sure it was Enris, though doubtless several of the exiles guessed. They probably also guessed, as she did, that he'd been carried over the mountains in an aircar by the Oud or the strangers. She'd only Marcus' word he wouldn't approach other Om'ray; to the impulsive Human, Enris was almost a friend. As for the Oud? They'd shown unusual interest in the Tuana before. Had he been in troubleâbeen rescued? Not that help would be free of risk from either source.
Didn't matter, she told herself. However he'd managed to fly, Enris was in Vyna.
Was it of stone or wood? Were there towering stalks of rastis and nekis, or the flat drearyâwhich Enris professed to loveâland of the Tuana? Or was it more like Grona, stuck on the side of a mountain?
He'd have met his new Clan by now.
Were they welcoming? They'd be surprised, she thought. How many went there? They had to need new Om'ray. Someone of the Tuana's quality had to be rare. He was skilled, accomplished, strongâ¦
Aryl snuggled deeper into her nest of blankets. If they wanted to impress Enris, they'd best set a full table.
Were there Choosers?
Not what Enris sought, but she wished it for him. Someone bright and fun, who was interested in how things worked, who cared about other Om'ray. Someone who would laugh with him.
She missed his laughâ¦
Someone tugged the cover from her shoulder. “You have your share, Seru,” Aryl grumbled, pulling it back.
Oswa? Aryl rolled over, instantly alert. The Chosen knelt beside her, hair lashing with distress. “It's Yao.” So quietly she had to strain to hear.
The dreaming? With a pang of guilt, Aryl sat up. “I'm sorry, Oswa,” she whispered. “I meant to talk toâ”
How could a child be gone?
Instinctively, Aryl lowered her shields to
. What she felt brought her rushing to her feet, running for her coat, Oswa stumbling alongside.
Yao was outside.
Not only outside, but moving away from Sonaâfrom her mother. Too young to be farther than any Highknot climb Aryl knew. Too small and helpless to be out in truenight, let alone in a storm.
How could a child do that?
No wonder Oswa was distraught. Their bond, the tightest of all between Om'ray, must be a torment. She was amazed the mother had been able to make a sensible plan, to get help. “You did the right thing to wake me,” she praised. Boots, coat. “You shouldn't go out in truenight alone.”
Others were throwing off blankets and called questions. “The little one's playing a trick,” Aryl answered, afraid it was nothing of the kind. “I need a light.”
“Here.” A snap and flare as one was lit in front of her. Aryl squinted through the brightness at Haxel. “Rorn. Syb!” More lights were lit. Everyone was moving.
“Hurry!” Oswa grabbed the nearest coat; she didn't bother with boots as she ran for the door. Her hair whipped its desperation; it carved red streaks across her face and neck, barely missed her eyes.
No point trying to stop her. Taking the light from Haxel, Aryl looked for the only one who could. She was shocked to find Hoyon seated on the bench, his back to them.
A question for later.
Rorn and Syb thundered mere steps behind as Aryl followed Oswa out the door and into truenight.
The storm she'd mocked to Bern had become a thick swirl of snowdrops, pushed this way and that by the bitter wind. They caught and stopped the light, making it impossible to see more than a few steps ahead. That didn't slow Oswa Gethen. She wasn't Yena, but her desperate need to reach her daughter kept her moving at a reckless pace. Aryl matched it. Rorn and Syb had drawn their longknives, the blades glinting in the lights they carried. What good they'd be against rock hunters, if any were out in the snow, she didn't know. But she didn't suggest they put them away.
“Why isn't Yao coming back?”
Rorn was right. The child kept moving away. Aryl
lowering her shields.
Wincing, she quickly raised them again.
How could the child not know where her mother was?
Over the wind and the muffled pound of feet through snow, she could hear the choked moan Oswa made with every breath. No matter her will, the weaker Om'ray was failing. Aryl tossed the light to the ground and took her arm as she staggered and slowed, sending
through that contact. “Let us find Yao,” she pleaded. In answer, Oswa sagged heavily against her, mute and gasping. “Syb, go!”
Rorn stayed with them; Syb, freed to move at full speed, disappeared beyond the wall of snow with his light.
Rock hunters were the least of their fears now, Aryl knew. Unlikely the child had a light. If she made it through the ruins and treacherous footing, she would walk off the river's bank.
If Yao stopped? The cold had grown deadly. In a warm coat and boots, every lungful made her shiver inside.
“Rorn. Take her.” He came at once, holding Oswa with one arm, the other lifting the oillight.
“I have to find Yaoâ¦” the mother gasped, but couldn't break his grip.
Oswa hadn't stopped for boots. Aryl knelt. The thin cloth Grona wore on their feet was little more than shreds, the flesh beneath bloody and torn. Too much skin showed, all of it mottled with white. She sucked in a breath between her teeth. What would Yao's feet be like?
They could only help one at a time. She took off her bootâtoo narrow. Rorn grunted and lifted his foot. “Use mine.” Oswa didn't argue again, her
as her feet warmed.
Snow filled the air, collected on their heads and shoulders, softened the stone. They didn't try to follow Syb; they couldn't take Oswa back. As it was, the Grona mother sobbed quietly, her hair straining against her hood. Aryl couldn't imagine the agony of being forced to wait, apart.
Surely Yao felt the same?
Oswa straightened in Rorn's hold, snow sliding from her coat. “She's coming!”
A heartbeat later, Aryl felt it, too. Yao, moving in their direction. Considerably faster, she thought with relief, than those little legs could travel in daylight, let alone the dark.
Syb carried her.
With a sigh of relief, she retrieved her light from the snow and relit its flame. “Go back. I'll wait with Oswa,” she told Rorn. Though his feet were wrapped in a tough double layer of Yena gauze, they had to be numb by now. He didn't argue, gesturing gratitude as he limped away.
Oswa stood on her own, now, as if her relief was a Power as potent as any Healer's. Aryl could feel her
âand something else.
Why? “What's wrong?”
“Wrong? Why do you say that?” The Chosen's voice came out thin and harsh. “There's nothing wrong.”
Hardly the way to convince her, Aryl thought, but let it go. It wasn't her place to question a mother, after all.
They stood together in the circle of light, eyes half shut against the sting of snowdrops that, in her opinion, aimed themselves at faces, and waited in silence.
The wall of snow brightened, revealed Syb, the child wrapped in his coat and held against his chest. She squirmed as they approached, her head popping out from its covering.
Syb exclaimed in pain. Aryl's head pounded. The blissful sending dampened to bearable as Oswa's shields extended around her daughter.
Confusion as Yao bellowedânothing wrong with her lungsâfor her mother to carry her, while Aryl and Syb made it clear to both mother and child that this wasn't about to happen. Between Oswa's abused feet within Rorn's big boots, and the terrain? They might have to carry both. Then an exhausted calm.
“Let's get home,” Syb suggested, his teeth chattering. He'd refused her offer to take the child. At least, Aryl thought, she made a warm bundle in his coat.
Yao's eyes were bright and curious. “Which way?”
“Hush,” Oswa said quickly, tucking the coat around the child's head. “None of your silly talk, Yao. You know you shouldn't go outside without me. Be grateful these fine Om'ray were willing to come out in the cold just for you.”
Her father hadn't. Why? Something was wrong. Aryl stared at the child, then her mother. Syb shifted from foot to foot, looking uneasy as well as cold. “Where is Vyna, Yao?” she asked abruptly.
Haggard and worn, Oswa nonetheless gave her a defiant glare. “Hush!” she ordered her daughter.
Not to be denied, Aryl
. Yao's mind lay protected by Oswa's powerful shields, but that wasn't what she sought. The connection between Om'ray went beyond the mind; even the Lost remained tied to all others of their kind. She'd never tried to trace it before, to extend her inner sense to follow it between minds. She'd never had to.
There. Strong, steady. A bond between Syb and Oswa, from both to herself and back, from all three, reaching outward to every other Om'ray and back.
From Yao to them all. That as well. She was sure.
But to Yao?
The child existed, severed from everyone else, even from her mother. Blind to the glow of her kind.
Like Marcus, Aryl realized with horror. Like the Humans. But not.
On impulse, she dipped into the M'hir.
The child was a tiny light, calm and assured, as if floating in the wild
was perfectly normal.
Who are you?
Thereâthere was the connection. Aryl could
it, burned through the dark between Yao and her mother.
How is this possible? What are you, Aryl Sarc?
from Oswa, creating whorls of fear and worry.
Before she could think of a response, Syb's plaintive “Roof and a fire, Aryl?” brought her back to the real truenight.
He was right. Whatever was going on here, no reason to stay in the cold to find out.
“This way, Yao,” she told the child, pointing to the warm glow of their kind.
A reassurance no Om'ray should need.
By the next morning, Sona had been carpeted in a smooth, glistening layer of fresh snow. It clung to every surface and showed no signs of melting, despite the brilliant sunlight. Haxel, ever practical, put the unChosen to work packing snow into empty jars. Hoyon suggested they make piles on the sunless side of upheaved stone, then pile wood on top. While Grona used such for a means of keeping certain foods cold, Sona's need was for water. This would work as well.
Not that everyone worked. There was laughter in the sharp cold air. Yao was showing Seru and Ziba the Grona game of shapes in the snow. It involved a great deal of snow being tossed at one another, as well as lying in the stuff.
As she helped Veca roof their next building, Aryl watched them. By day, the youngest addition to Sona proved to be an ordinary child, delicate of feature and build, with the brown hair and eyes of her mother. At most, six years old. Her truenight ordeal had been washed away by good sleep and food. Yao had been remarkably sensible and dressed properly before leaving on her adventure, however she'd managed that without notice amid the busy Om'ray. She'd told Seru this morning that she'd gone outside to look for her Grona playmates. When Seru related this to Aryl, she'd laughed at the cleverness of the child, to make up such a story.
Not clever, Aryl thought. The truth and tragic.
Oswa had begged them not to tell Yao's secret, to let her do it. Which had to wait. The mother hadn't fared as well as the child. She was with Oran in what was being called the Cloisters by some; true, it was their place of healing, complete, Aryl grimaced, with Adepts. According to those experts, the cold was more than unpleasantâthe Grona insisted in dire tones that toes and fingers could be damaged by short exposure, that Om'ray could die of it.
Which made the cold, Aryl decided with some amusement, a threat like bitersâdealt with by the right clothes and common sense.
“Need another plank?”
She eyed the dark gap in front of her. “Do I?” Her job this morning was to stuff dried vegetation into cracks. They hurried to finish the fourth building in the square, as well as improve the roofs. Coats, as they'd discovered overnight, couldn't hold much snow without support. On the ground, Tilip and others had begun laying down stone for a walkway to connect this home to the othersâan innovation Hoyon claimed would keep feet out of the mud that came with the melting of snow in the spring.
Mud she hoped would grow plants.
With a chuckle, Veca spanned the distance with her hand. “I'd say so. Unless you want someone's bed to be wet.”
“A youth misspent climbing,” Aryl explained. She put down the bag of twisted leaves and picked the top plank from the stack beside her, though “plank” was an optimistic word to describe the ragged pieces scrounged from the wreckage of hundreds of other homes. “I should have helped Costa with the roof tiles.”