(Chapter 3 of Nightsong, first book set in the Ondos universe)
I hated the sea.
Beautiful, yes, the crested waves rising and falling like a great, breathing beast. It would be even more beautiful if I didn’t feel sick and unstable all the time. The inner horse laughed at me, far less bothered by the endless rolling and rocking. Still, I kept human. It felt safer, sickness or not; I could sit or lie down. The horse laughed at that, too.
At least I wasn’t the only one. Shadow seemed just as wary, although he hid it well. Sun, on the other hand, laughed at us the whole time, the brat. She felt no sickness. Rather, she joined the crew most of the time, trading her labour for stories from the sea. I wondered whether anything fazed that woman at all. It didn’t seem like it. Even the captain, a seasoned man whose natural form was a cormorant, was sweet on her.
Most of the crew had seabirds as their true natures. They flew ahead of the ship, or around it, chasing fresh fish for supper. As a horse, I wasn’t fond of meat, though my human stomach would consume it just as well. There was only so much seaweed soup one could eat, however, and fresh vegetables, while available, were a luxury we didn’t feel comfortable indulging in too often.
Three days into our journey, we stopped to refuel in one of the nameless islands between Zemiya and mainland Oudn. There were plenty such islands littering the sea, too small to be on a map, yet well-known to the people living at sea.
As the ship dropped anchor for refuelling and restocking, we took the chance to disembark. the village was much like Ylam, little more than shacks. These rose on palisades, presumably against the rising of the tides.
Besides, the weather was much warmer. Enough I traded my heavy winter clothes for lighter ones, the likes I would wear in a Zemiyan summer. There was still a chill in the air, but even the snow seemed lighter, softer.
It wasn’t snowing when we touched the beach, the water clear and inviting. I knew it would be ice cold; yet, the tranquil brush of the sea relaxed me like it failed to do while in the ship. The day was warm — it was day, longer than it would be in Zemiya. I marvelled at the speed of the craft, and how it ate the distance like it was nothing.
Sun’s delighted scream echoed in my ear. I could see the old captain (what was his name? I did not know) watching her with a special kind of fondness in his eyes. She was a lovely girl — funny, how I saw her as a girl when she was only a little younger than me.
Unbidden, a random thought flashed through my mind. We had been together for a little over a week, and I did not know their natural forms. I knew they were horses — Shadow taught me how to separate the scents of mejno, herd and horse in my mind. I would learn the scents of each animal and identify them as I could the wolves and the bears of Zemiya. First, though, I wanted to know the true natures of my companions.
Horses know how to read each other. A flick of an ear, a shift of limbs, a sudden tension — these flare bright as stars to each other. We had been together for a week, sleeping in the same chambers (though not the same bed; there was no room). Trading stories and worries. I knew Shadow caught my restlessness in the air, the same as I had his.
“Shall we?” he smiled, more relaxed than I’d ever seen. Before I could answer, there was a flash, and the human was no more.
In his place stood the one he truly was: a handsome black stallion, shining like a jewel in the winter sun. His mane fell in long, wavy tangles around a thick, arched neck, almost down to his knees. An equally wavy black tail flicked over powerful hindquarters, almost brushing the sand, although not quite. Such a contradiction; his human hair was near shaved.
He was tall, taller than me, and his legs had a thick black feathering, far more than mine. Nonetheless, he was slimmer — elegant as his human version.
“As handsome as I thought,” I said, and let my human nature fall away.
The world flattened, widened. I could see almost everywhere around me. My hooves pawed the sand, heavy and unused to the feel of that substance. So strange and yet, not unlike the feel of snow.
“Are we having a party?”
An ear flicked in the direction of the sound. My friend’s voice sounded louder, clearer. Shadow snorted, his own hooves moving restlessly in place. I watched as she ran, laughing all the while, straight to the sea. A bright flash and the girl was no longer there.
I understood then why she was so short: her true nature was a pony. She was slim and fierce, long-legged. The pale yellow of her body did not quite gleam as Shadow’s own coat, but it was a soft, buttery colour. Her white mane and tail flew as she galloped, quick as the sunshine, crashing against the waves with a joyous whicker.
To my surprise, she swam with a certainty I never knew in a horse, moving with the waves as if she was born there. Shadow followed her at a much more leisure place. He limited himself to the line where sea and beach met so that the water hit barely under his knees. Hesitant, I moved towards them, bucking against the cold that hit my limbs.
I thought about Grandfather, what he would say about this. No doubt he would call it disgraceful. Was there shame in being free — truly free, as I felt? I don’t know how long we spent like that, running by the shore, chasing waves. The sky began to darken when we made the slow trackback to the ship. I had sand in my hair.
“This was a good day,” I said to no one. Shadow, at my side, smiled. He embraced me, hand heavy on my shoulder. I leaned against him, tired and happy. Sun, excited as ever, still cavorted like a child, running ahead and around us. A large black bird, a cormorant, dropped from the sky to land on her shoulder; I smiled at her sweet giggles.
Shadow and I traded a look; I saw his eyebrows arch at the sight. He shrugged, and we followed them to our ship and to the continuation of our journey.
“They could’ve at least allowed us a night on the island,” he sighed. I agreed, of course. Our journey had to be quick, though. There would be time for rest — and blessed stillness — later. Or at least, so I hoped.
That night, when we went to our cabin, Sun didn’t follow. We hadn’t seen her since boarding. I stretched on the floor, as was my custom, with Shadow by my side. We traded the single bed between us, but in truth, I preferred the floor. It rocked less than the bunk nailed to the ship’s hull. Shadow, being taller than both of us, also felt more comfortable on the floor, curled around me.
It was near dawn — or what passed for dawn, in winter, it was black as ever outside — when I woke to Sunhawk creeping in. I could see a shadow of a smile on her face, in the faint starlight. I smiled, too, unseen in my nest of covers. She crawled on the bunk, near soundless, lying on her stomach, hand seeking mine. We always touched in our sleep. I no longer needed that reassurance, but still, it felt nice.
There was no reason to question where she was; I knew, she knew I knew. I was happy for her, though I could not quite understand. I was too different, I supposed.
The journey would last a week or so more. One day, we passed another ship in the distance, the watcher flying over to send tidings. To my surprise, we soon heard voices from below, from the waters. Men and women, smiling and laughing in greeting, swam around our ship — which slowed to a crawl, it seemed. I stared in awe as, with a flash, they turned into dolphins.
“I didn’t know that was possible!”
“Anything with bones,” said Shadow, quiet. I felt my cheeks burn. How little I knew about our own natures! It was as if in the wilds of Zemiya, the rest of the world fell away. We knew the bare bones of our nature, it seemed. How to live, how to survive. We knew of bears, seals, and wolves even; we knew of elk and deer, seabirds and snow leopards. And, of course, there was Mist, my proud, beautiful swan. Yet there was so much more to learn and discover!
“How strange their lives must be,” I said, for lack of anything else. I considered it. How wonderful, to slice through the waves as a dolphin. Much like flight. Much as racing through the tundra, wind in my mane, only the sky as a witness.
“Indeed,” he said, with a smile. I liked Shadow very much; he never laughed of my obvious ignorance, unlike Sun. “I hear they live on the islands and coasts, most of the time. Some, I hear, live on floating fortresses, which litter the ocean…”
I thought of the stories told by the herd. About whole societies that never landed, but lived afloat in elaborate ships. At first, I thought those too unlikely to be true; but maybe they weren’t. It would make sense for those whose true forms were dolphins or other sea creatures.
“True forms tend to be more intelligent animals,” he explained. His soothing voice had a lecturing tone. In someone else, it might sound condescending. Shadow was too gentle for that, though. “Mammals and birds are more common; reptiles are more common than fish. Still, there are some…” he gestured at the featureless expanse around us. “Out there.”
“How do you know so much, Shadow?”
Was it common knowledge, and just us, the backward folk of Zemiya, did not know it? No, that did not sound right. Yet, he only smiled at me and didn’t answer.
The rest of the journey was uneventful. We stopped to refuel a few more times, but these islands had no beaches, only rocky abysses that plunged into the sea. There was no sign of the strange people of the sea, either. I wondered whether I would ever see them again.
Soon, we reached a port city I had only heard about, murmured by travellers and merchants.
Talavi was far unlike Ylam or any of the settlements we met before. I tried not to gape like a savage, but it was a near thing.
“The jewel of the sea,” said Sunhawk, smiling at my dumbfounded stare. “Or so it meant, in some old tongue.”
A series of buildings rose like pale teeth against the sky, shining as much as an iceberg out in the sea. Behind them, I could see more, rising even higher, a mountain chain made by human hands. Boats and ships littered the port, bobbing idly in the quiet water, and beyond I could see the beaches.
Winter seemed to break in this place; nonetheless, there was a chill in the air. The sky was clear, though, which was a good sign. There should be no snow for a while. The streets were asphalt, something I’d never seen before. Roads stretched between the buildings, sinuous snakes of a dark, shineless grey. They broke and undulated in some places, no doubt due to the constant weight of frost and the melt that followed it. It was too cold for foliage; still, some evergreens dotted the landscape. They looked lost and alone among the sky-high buildings.
“We have business to take care of,” said Sun. “We’ll find a place to sleep, rest and eat, then we deal with what we must, and go on to Altesaya.”
“Will need supplies too,” Shadow added, his hand catching mine.
There was no one on the streets. A few lights shone here and there on the windows, but the whole city felt deserted — abandoned. In Zemiya, the Trials meant little, for little changed. There weren’t many people there, even before.
Here, though, I could almost see the city bustling with activity. Thick with people going on their daily lives, before the world population fell to a tenth of what it was. Before the Trials.
I could not imagine living in those times. I could not imagine living in this place, full to the brim. With people, with the vehicles that became obsolete after everything changed. With noise and smog and a million voices. It was as strange to me as the planets they said circled around the stars. Like it belonged to another world, to a book of fiction.
The restaurant was not far from the dock, and, to my surprise, there was someone waiting for us there.
They could be sisters, Sun and the stranger, except in that they were nothing alike. Both had the same slender but muscular look, the same golden-brown skin and golden hair. Both had that same easy, leisure way of dominating a room — although the stranger was much taller than Sun. Those similarities were superficial at best.
There was something about her. Something in the way she moved, the precision — there was no other word. Nervous energy even when still, like muscles coiled. Where Sun smiled and laughed easily, the other woman was serious. No, not quite serious; she was blank. As if everything and everyone else were beneath her.
Her voice had a strange echo. As if another, higher voice sounded on top of hers in a high-frequency whistle. It sent a shiver down my spine.
Every instinct in me screamed predator. I locked my knees, forced my body to stay still. She noticed; her eyes tied with mine. Hers was a dark reddish-brown, the colour of dried blood, rimmed in black.
Her lips quirked into a smile, and the tension broke as if it never existed. I must’ve made some sound or something. She had crooked front teeth, I noticed, though I could not explain why. Her head tilted in question before she turned her attention to the menu in front of her.
I felt oddly bereft.
“Runehawk,” she said. The odd echo was absent now. “The only one in the herd to actually fit the name.”
“Rune’s true nature is an eagle,” Sun said, parking herself beside her and looking at the menu herself. If she and Shadow noticed the moment between us, neither of them remarked on it. “But we keep her around anyway. She’s useful.” The woman cocked an eyebrow at that, but did not seem offended.
I could imagine how. Zemiya had a healthy population of golden eagles, both mejno and not, excellent hunters in all. The mejno colonies often traded with the herd, dried meat and furs for herbs and healing. I knew them to be solitary people, often settling in pairs that kept to themselves. Besides, having eyes in the sky was always useful.
“Useful,” she snorted. “Well, more than you.”
Sun only grinned in return. In the weeks it took to leave Zemiya to the mainland, I’d learned how unruffled and steadfast she was. Little bothered Sun’s bright disposition and confidence in herself. The name fit her well. She was far from useless, too. The girl was small, but she was full of charm and quick to befriend others. She finagled secrets out of people so easily they never even noticed.
We made small talk as we chose our meal and ate. For the first time in a long while I enjoyed a meal of greens and grain, cooked in olive oil and salted to perfection. Soon, however, as we delighted in fresh-cut fruit (all except Rune, whose own meal was meatier than ours), talk turned to herd and business.
“Hawk got your message,” said Rune, chewing absently on an already-naked bone. “He asks you and Shadow go back. They need you elsewhere.”
I felt more than saw the shared looks between Sun and Shadow. They’d agreed to follow me to Altesaya. I didn’t need to ask who this ‘Hawk’ was; likely the protector of their herd. It was in their name, after all.
“I know. You agreed to get the stray to her destination. Doesn’t matter. I will go with her, and you go home. Sienna will be expecting your report.”
“Don’t you —”
“Have business to do? Yeah, but that can wait. Yours cannot.”
I resented being called a stray by this stranger. I resented, even more, being foisted on someone else. I had enough of that from Grandfather.
“You know, I can get to Altesaya on my own…”
All three turned to stare at me. It would be unnerving, but at that point, I didn’t feel like caring.
“You owe me nothing,” I shrugged. “I’m not part of your herd. Just point me the way and –”
“Don’t be absurd,” the woman, Runehawk, snorted. “You can’t cross Altesaya on your own. For one, you ponies need a herd to keep your sanity. For another, you wouldn’t survive.”
I didn’t even know what to say. How dare this utter — utter —
Predator or not, I was three seconds of taking my chances and jumping a random stranger in a restaurant. Possibly from strangling her to death. Shadow, being the sensible and sweet stallion that he was, tugged me by the back of my shirt as if he’d had to do that a thousand times. He was quite strong, but then, he was a rather large specimen in both his human and true forms. It was enough to keep me from committing homicide seconds since arriving at Talevi.
Still, how dare she.
“I am not a helpless burden to be passed about,” I seethed. “And I am not a pony!”
Well, that was a significantly less intelligent retort than I expected.
There was a heavy silence, a moment of suspended disbelief. Tension so thick you could cut it with a knife.
Then the whole table erupted into wild laughter. It shocked me to hear my own voice joining them. Even Rune’s own laughter, high-pitched and laced with that strange echo, mingled with ours. I could feel the strange looks from the other patrons, but somehow, that didn’t matter.
“Oi, what’s wrong with being a pony?” it was Sunhawk, but she was smiling.
“Nothing, but I am not one,” I huffed, as haughty as I could, which… wasn’t a lot.
“Be as it may,” Rune sighed, “it’s still not wise to try and cross Altesaya alone. Much less in winter,” I was about to retort, but she kept on, “the mountains have strong winds and snowstorms. You won’t be able to fall into your true form often, either, not there. Horses aren’t made for high altitudes like those.”
Eagles are, though, went unsaid. In truth, it made sense that I should not be alone. We all knew what happened to mejno deprived of their true natures for too long, and, as a horse, I needed company. The stress of being human and alone, in unfamiliar, treacherous lands… it would be suicidal.
Still, it rankled. I was not so proud as to deny the truth, but, it rankled.
Like a ripple over a lake’s surface, the aloof mask fell and she was someone else. Warmer. Closer. Disconcerting.
“Agreed.” I sighed.
It seemed that was my fate. To be passed around like a bag from person to person, caretaker to caretaker. I didn’t bother questioning why Sun and Shadow needed to go. Herd business is herd business, and while curious, I had enough decorum to not pry. In the Frost herd, where I skirted the edges of belonging, I learned to not look too hard into things that did not concern me.
“We should stay here overnight. Rest. Resupply. Then we go.”
As we left, we went our separate ways. I stayed a few seconds watching Sun and Shadow go, arms linked, leaving me behind. It felt strange after so many days spent together. Something tugged in my heart, a longing I knew well.
Rune didn’t give me a chance to stare. She latched on my wrist with surprising strength, tugging me after her. Half of me wished to protest such treatment, but in the end, I stayed quiet and let her lead me.
Instead, I let my human nature fall away. If I thought it would annoy her, I was mistaken. She only smiled, eying me with something akin to amusement, grabbing my backpack and slinging it over her own shoulders. The hand that was on my wrist moved to my withers, twining in the blue-black hairs at the base of my mane.
I tried to shake the feeling of how comforting that felt.
“That’s a beautiful shape,” she said. Her hand slapped against my back. It sent a ripple down my muscles, on reflex. “Strong. Almost short like a pony, though.”
I snorted against her neck, tugged at her shirt in reprimand. She laughed. The human side of me smiled at the sound.
We walked side by side through streets and alleyways, destination unknown to me. Wherever we went, Rune never seemed to hesitate; I wouldn’t be able to retrace my steps. Likely because I was busy watching her.
There was something about her. Something more than the sense of predator and prey. Like a song I’d heard as a child, but could not remember the words to. A story with a forgotten name. I didn’t know how, but she felt familiar. Like we knew each other, somehow, once. Her arm slung over my withers; she leaned against my shoulder. Perhaps she felt it too, that strange familiarity.
The building was old, like everything else in Talevi. Cradled between two others, they were so close my true form would not be able to squeeze between them. It wasn’t necessary; I watched as Rune unlocked what looked like the front door, and in we went.
Inside was dark, as everything else. A couple lightbulbs tried to revive themselves — motion sensors, most like — without much luck. There was a strong scent of mildew in the air. Yet there was no dust, at least, not enough to imply misuse.
“Way-house,” she said, and I nodded. A place where travellers made their homes, then. Zemiya had none of those; foreigners hardly ever adventured beyond Ylam. I’d heard about them from Greyfrost. For the mejno, any place is a good place, he’d say. But sometimes, a place to stay is good. Safe. Not all people live like us, with our tents.
My hooves cracked like hammers against the stone-like floor. Some material that resembled stone, but wasn’t. It made me cringe against the sound, which echoed oddly in the otherwise silent hall. I’d never been in a building like that.
I didn’t need Rune’s look to fall back into my human nature, shaking the snow and the dust from my shoulders. Good thing, too, as there was no way my horse-self would be capable of navigating the stairway. Five whole floors of it, and so narrow we moved in a line, her in the lead and me in her shadow.
The apartment was, in one word, a nest.
Underneath the mountain of cushions, blankets and other soft things, must have been some wooden floor. Somewhere past it, there might be a door to a bathroom. A couch rested against a wall, forgotten. A few books scattered here and there, but I couldn’t see their titles, it was so dark. To the east was a window, which overlooked the other building; one couldn’t see the sky through it.
Whatever I expected from Runehawk’s home, no matter how temporary, wasn’t this. I couldn’t imagine the aloof, regal woman I first met cosied up under the blankets like that. Reading her books. Alone.
She shrugged, unapologetic, picking through the mounds of cloth towards where I presumed was the bathroom. Her cheeks were pink, though. It was strangely endearing. She’d discarded my bag on the couch.
Then again, she was an eagle. Perhaps nest-building was as natural to her as sleeplessness was to us, horses.
On habit, I noticed the different fabrics that coated the ground. Silks and cotton and all sorts of materials. A variety of textures and sensations, of colours and shades. It should be nauseating, but it somehow wasn’t: the colours blended into each other, fused together. It was beautiful, in a strange sort of way. I liked it.
“You okay?” it was her, back from wherever she disappeared to. Instead of the heavy winter slacks and jacket, she now wore a t-shirt and shorts. The shirt had a print of a fluffy grey kitten licking a cupcake. It didn’t fit her image and yet, somehow, it did.
There were markings on her legs. Faint and pale against the skin, too small for me to understand. They wove in strange, unknown patterns, like calligraphy. On her arms, too, now that I thought of it. Her hands. Up her neck. Over and over, the markings, like a history written in skin, in pale pink-white ink.
I hadn’t moved from the door, awkward in this place that wasn’t mine and that I didn’t belong to. For the first time, the first of many, I asked myself whether leaving Zemiya was truly a good idea.
Yet what choice did I have?
Plenty, Mist’s voice replied, somewhere to the right of my heart. You had plenty of choices.
“An impressive collection,” I said, by way of explanation, gesturing to the mess around us. She didn’t smile, but I could feel the humour in her eyes as she sat across from me, crossing her legs under her. The light of the fading sun cast half of her face in shadows. She shrugged; I saw a small smile mark her lips, quick as a shadow.
“Most of these left by the people who came before me,” she said. Her hand brushed the pillows she surrounded herself with. Somehow, between her return and then, she’d wrapped herself into a cocoon. I hadn’t noticed. “Some I brought. They will be here for the next traveller.”
Way-houses were like that; the people who made use of them left something for the next person, and so on and so forth. Curious that she would find the one with the most blankets and pillows available. But then, maybe that was more common than I thought.
“You know,” I told her, “I used to weave, in Zemiya. I was quite good at it…”
I joined her on the ground, wrapping myself in as well. It was comfortable, her nest, and warm. So very warm. It made me yawn. The exhaustion of travel, of a good meal, the tension through it all fell on me like an avalanche. I blinked against the fading sunlight.
Before I knew it, I was drifting, curling into myself. She is a predator. She is lovely… why do I…
“You will have to weave me something, then,” I thought I heard her say. Her voice sounded too near, though, too close for it to be true. I didn’t bother to open my eyes. Maybe...