The Dying Tent

(Chapter 1 of Nightsong, first book set in the Ondos universe)

Three large yurts surrounded by snow.

Grandfather lived longer than most of our kind did. People said it was my fault. He’d long wished for freedom, to go to the stars beyond and dissipate into nothing. Nature had not let him. Many voices said when they didn’t think I could hear it, that it was because he’d been busy with me.

He’d already been old when the Altesayan merchant brought me to Zemiya, claiming I had the look of them. Whether it was true is beyond me. I was a squalling babe found in a forest, but he’d felt compelled to take me in anyway. Not enough to give me their name, but enough that I was fed, watered and clothed. It was more than many would do.

I was thankful for that, even if the niggling thread of guilt wove around my heart.

To feel a burden is a terrible thing.

But now, his prayers answered, it was time. I knew it and he did too.

He lay so near to the hearth I feared he would burn, despite the winter winds raging outside. It felt an appropriate tribute for Stormfrost’s departure. I had no doubt he would die before the day broke.

Despite the heat, and the smoke so thick I had trouble breathing, his skin was cold. His eyes, clear. Sitting to the other side of him, feet tucked under me, I waited. It was a common pattern between us, ever since I was a child.

I knew he resented this, being inside with me rather than under the open skies in his natural form. It was as it was, though.

My hands, palms dry, splayed over the fabric of my pants, thick and fuzzy. He stared at me for a long moment. The air within our tent was thick with the cloying sweet smell of the herbs burning in the hearth. It would aid in his journey beyond; relax and calm him so the transition was as easy and painless as possible.

I don’t think grandfather even knew the meaning of relaxation.

“You are my son’s greatest mistake,” he said, staring at me. His hands crossed over his chest, his voice reedy and thin, but sure as always. “Yet I had to care for you. You are kin, and that matters. Even though…” he sighed.

Stormfrost never hesitated to say I was a mistake and shouldn’t exist. I knew something clouded my birth — and not something pleasant.

Breeding outside of the herd was not the issue; it was how we grew, after all, avoiding inbreeding. There was something else there, though, that made my existence unfortunate.

What, I did not know, but it was there, festering. In my looks, in my name.

The way he said it. Even though… what?

I did not realize I spoke out loud until his eyes narrowed at me. He would not answer, that I knew. He never did, no matter how well I behaved or how prettily I asked.

“I am gone home,” he dragged me back from my thoughts. “And so should you.”

For a crazed moment, I thought he meant my death. But no; cold and distant though he was, I knew he wished no true ill on me. Not really. Otherwise, he would not have taken me in as he had.

“It is my wish that you leave the herd. Go, find your people. My duty to you is done.”

Just like that. I did not expect praise or declarations of love or even regret. Still, I felt bereft.

My people. I did not know who my people was. Whoever gave me the name I bore, protected their identity well. Not even the worst gossips knew who or what they were. Only that I was not one of them. That I was not born in Zemiya, within the Frost herd. Nevermind the blood ties, nevermind that I bore their look as well as any other.

Grandfather had no children within the herd. His mate died long ago, birthing his son, the father I never knew. Thus, it fell on me to watch as he breathed his last, by tradition if not by taste. I am sure he would rather have Greyfrost with him than me, but it was as it was.

Neither of us had a choice in the matter.

I watched his chest rise and fall, slow, and then it did not rise anymore. Between a blink and another, Grandfather, or whatever made him, him, died. Not a fuss, no spectacle; one moment he was there, the next, he wasn’t.

The world felt quiet, despite the howl of wind and snow battering against the tent’s walls. The fire burned brighter, brighter; stuttered out and back to normal. I took the time to look at him, truly look. Grandfather never abided staring, but Grandfather was no more, and I looked my fill.

We were more alike than unlike each other, and this aggravated him the most. Both of us broad-shouldered, with a straight back and a wide chest. He was taller than me by two hands. Even in his old age, Grandfather’s posture and strength never diminished. He took precious care to keep his body as alive and as active as possible. Most of it spent in his natural form. Grandfather, much like the rest of us, found the human shape limiting and weak.

He was a handsome man, once. His face was scraggly, worn out by age. His stare, once fierce and cutting, blue as a summer sky, dimmed in death. Hair fell long, thick and straight, framing his face and past his shoulder. The Frost herd took pride in their long hair; I was no different. Age turned his gold to silver. Mine was a faded black. The geometric patterns in his pale skin stood out brighter as the glow of life left him completely. He’d lived long enough that the tattoos covered his entire torso and back.

Another way he excluded me. Although I should have a few of my own, Grandfather refused to let me receive my tattoos, the way the rest of the herd did. My ruddy skin went unmarked — a sign of shame.

I thought of these things as I stood vigil over his body, no less imposing in death than it was in life. I recalled his other form, the golden stallion. Part of me lamented I would never see him again. He was always kinder to me in his natural form than in his human one. Whether it was animal instinct or the empathy of the horse giving voice to his true feelings, I would never know.

I sent a prayer to the Wandering Mare, that he found his way to oblivion without issue. Not that I had any doubt; Grandfather was sure in all things. He would find his way, whether the goddess led him or not.

Outside, the storm abated, taking my grandfather with it. The walls of the tent were thick to protect us from the cold and the wind. I could see, with the mind’s eye, the stars peeking through the clouds, the moon shining over fields of white.

It would be easier in my natural form, but that was forbidden. I was to witness his passing with my human eyes, mourn him with human hands and heart.

At some point I fell into a trance-like state, the herbs in the hearth making me woozy and confused. I dreamed many things that night, dreams I won’t ever remember. At some point, I heard my voice rise to the night, wordless and clear, and saw the flames dance to the sound of it.

Then, it was over. The sun broke through, giving the tent a warm, red glow, like a womb. Nights were long during Zemiya winters. The hours of sunshine, precious few. We waited for them eagerly. It was like Grandfather to die during a storm, in winter, and have me stand vigil on him for hours and hours in the cold. Stormfrost never hesitated to put me in discomfort. Why would his death be any different?

The sudden light made me blink. Someone opened the tent’s flap and walked in: Greyfrost. His hair as long as his beard, which reached mid-chest. He owned his name: the man looked almost monochromatic. From his grey eyes to his grey hair and grey beard, to the bland clothes he wore. Even the tattoos snaking up on his arms and chest were black, faded with time.

Grandfather and Greyfrost were friends for many years before I arrived. They remained so until death. The old stallion was younger than Grandfather. Yet when it was time, he took the protectorship — and Stormfrost, for all his pride, ceded it happily. It was uncanny to see how close they were when they were otherwise distant from the rest of the herd.

“It is done,” I told him. I could scarcely feel my legs after so long kneeling. Still, I pushed myself to my numb feet, my knees almost giving under me. I bit my lip to avoid crying out at the pain. Grandfather’s singular weak echoed in my head.

He hated weakness, Stormfrost did.

Greyfrost’s smile was warm, if sad. It was an odd thing to see. His long stride took him to me, and it shook me to the core to feel his arms wrap around my shoulders.

He did not say a word, as was the custom. Neither did I. Speaking in the Dying Tent was not taboo, exactly, but still, it wasn’t done, not outside of necessity. Later, there would be time to speak of Grandfather’s words, to understand.

For the moment, I just wanted to leave.

The winter sun rushed over me, soft as a caress. After a night in the semi-darkness of the Dying Tent, I welcomed it. The wind slid between the locks of my hair, and I felt myself smile. Perhaps to others smiling would be in bad taste.

Then again, my entire existence was in bad taste, was it not?

Drifting into my natural form was as easy and familiar as shedding a heavy winter cloak. I breathed deeply, feeling my lungs expand, powerful and deep inside my chest. The world lost its definition, became flat. Lost the vivid colours my human eyes perceived. That was the one thing I missed in this form: the colours.

Colours went forgotten when hooves hit the ground, with a strength much greater than my human form would ever have. When my heart beat like a drum in my ears, so alive. I ran as if a pack of wolves followed at my back.

I saw no one from the herd as I took a familiar path into the forest and weaved between the trees. The hairs of my tail snagged on branches and thorns, leaving a trail of black-blue hairs. There was a clearing there, deep in the dark. Not even that, truly; more like a gap, a space. Heavily canopied even in winter, where evergreens for some reason tangled together. It was a little den for me, and there I settled to graze, safe and free.

Free. That is how I felt.

The tension on my shoulders was not there. The nervousness. I loved Grandfather, truly, but ours was not a simple love, an ordinary, sweet love. His regard came with shackles, with conditions, many of which I would never meet.

No more.

No more.

“There you are!”

I laughed; it came out as an amused whicker. Even in the flat duotone of my natural form, she was stunning. A silver blot against the dark of the forest, in high definition, like a painting. I should’ve known Mistfrost would find me. We gravitated like moons locked to each other, ever since we met.

Her fingers brushed up my spine; my muscles trembled at the tickle. I nipped at her side, light, my tail flicking her backside as she moved to embrace my neck, leaning against my flank. 

Even in my natural form, I was not that much taller than her. At fourteen hands, I was rather short, but what I lacked in height I made up in bulk. Thick of muscle, with corded legs and thighs: the look of the Frost horses, deep-chested and strong. My hooves were likely as big as her face. 

Mistfrost in her human form was lean and tall, with an air of fragility that belied her strength. I knew those slim, reedy arms were quite strong. Perhaps not as much as mine; nonetheless, much stronger than they looked.

In her natural form, she was splendid.

I would miss her terribly.

“I thought I would find you here,” she prattled on. I snorted. She knew me well. “Hiding, as usual, whenever your grandfather is involved.”

There was a sad smile on her lovely face. She was so heartbreakingly sweet. I was not sorry. I was not even sad. Death was something Grandfather desired. It was life that he resented, the aggravation of seeing his strength wane and his bones become dust. He’d lost weight in his last years, felt weaker. Death was a welcome friend to him, after all this time.

Her fingers scratched that spot, the point of my cheek; I sighed, deep and, dare I say, happy. In the frozen air went; clotting in my throat. Out it went, warm and wet, making her heavy cloak flutter, making her giggle.

The colours returned. If turning into my true nature felt like removing a cloak, coming back felt like falling. This time, when I sighed, it was much smaller; human.

“Can you blame me?”

“No,” she smiled, but it was no happier than before. Of course, she thought I’d be grieving. In some sense, I was. But it was so very different from the way she would grieve.

Mistfrost was Greyfrost’s daughter, out of his mate, Frost-lily. Her mother was a sweet pale mare with gentle brown eyes and a kind, sedate demeanour. They doted on their daughter, especially the mother. She grew loved and content, a Frost through and through. When it was time for Greyfrost to join the Wandering Mare’s herd, she would grieve.

I was not Mistfrost. I did not have her gentle heart, nor her sweet demeanour.

“I am not sad,” I told her. She would not understand, but Mist and I shared everything. She was only a year older than me, the youngest in the herd at the time. We grew together. “I –”

Perhaps some things should remain unsaid.

“It was what he wanted,” I shrugged, helpless. There were no words to express what I felt that would not sound callous to her ears. Yet, it was enough for her smile to turn kind, and her arms to come around me. In human form, I was a head shorter than her, almost. My chin fit easily on the crook of her neck.

For the longest time, people thought Mist was oyne. That she was born without a natural form. It was rare for a purebred mejno like her, but not unheard of. She’d never had random changes like all mejno children do. Even I, with my dubious past, changed unpredictably whenever my emotions ran high — which was often.

Her mother cried and cried and told everyone she was just a late bloomer. That she would find her natural form. That the link was as strong in her as it was in all of us. Mist was so sweet and well-behaved, she never lost her temper, never raised her voice. Of course she wouldn’t have random changes; she never let her feelings go haywire, like the rest of us.

Even with the suspicions and doubts and rumours of her oyne nature floating about, the herd loved her. They waited and waited for her to change. And she did.

Oh, how she did.

Unlike the rest of the herd, I always knew she was mejno. She was just unlike the rest of us. It was in my den (our den) that she showed me her true nature: the shape of her link with the Beyond. The link all mejno had and that set us apart from the oyne.

Sweet Mistfrost was mejno; her natural form was not a horse, though. It was something else entirely. She hid it for as long as she could, in fear they would banish her from the herd. Feared she would not belong. Perhaps why she understood I would not judge her. I knew how she felt, as I felt the same way.

Her natural form was a swan as white as the hair on her head. With eyes as black as the ones in her human nature. No wonder her arms were so strong; they became wings, vast and powerful and that took her soaring to the sky.

When she showed the rest of the herd, there was surprise, elation and wonder. No, she was not a horse, but swans were common in Zemiya, too. It would be different if she was oyne, but she was not, and that was enough. Horses are accommodating animals, after all. Mistfrost was not banished, but kept in the heart of the herd, as cherished as ever.

The irony: I was a horse, same as them. I had their looks, their build, same as them. Yet I was the one banished by my own blood’s wish.

I thought of these things as I felt her hands twinning in my hair. She loved my hair, dark as it was, so unlike hers and most of the herd’s. Tears brimmed my eyes. I would miss her, her touch, her presence.

That was the painful part, far worse than Grandfather’s death. Losing her hurt. I was never jealous of Mist, not of her beautiful face, not of her fair hair, not of her blackberry eyes. Not even how everyone embraced her, even though she was different. I loved her too well for that.

“Father said we can share a tent,” she whispered against my hair. “So you won’t be alone. I will sleep in yours, the one you shared with Stormfrost. For as long as you need. Will you let me? You shouldn’t be alone.”

I had to tell her. I had to.

My throat closed up. I couldn’t speak.

Instead, I disentangled from her embrace and took her hand. I was not dark, exactly, but her skin was still paler than mine, likely due to her link. Some people were like that, they took part of their true natures into their human ones. She led me to the rock we often shared, that was a perfect sitting place. Dropped in front of me, on the snow, so I could braid her hair.

Mist’s hair felt like moonlight in my hands, and the shard in my heart sunk deeper.

I had to tell her. I couldn’t. But I had to. I had to.

“Remember when we found this place?”

I did. We were little more than teens. I’d just ended my first moon cycle. Wanted to show off my control over the link — shifting in and out of my true nature. My natural form was already heavy and strong. Mist decided to clamber onto my back. Bad manners, but I didn’t mind. I took her for a ride through the forest, and that’s when we found the den. It would be a full year before she showed me her true nature.

My fingers sank through her hair, braiding it the way she liked. She purred — there was no other word for it. I knew she loved when I braided her hair, which was why I did it.

“Grandfather wants me to leave,” I said.

“Stormfrost is dead,” was her response. “He can’t enforce anything.”

“Still. Is he wrong? I don’t belong Mist. He didn’t even give me the herd name.”

“Father will.”

“He won’t. He could have, he never did.”

“He would if I asked.”

I fought the hope blooming in my chest. There was no one Greyfrost loved more than Grandfather. He’d never suggested welcoming me into the herd, with the tattoos and all that entailed. Even Mist, who was not like us, had delicate designs etched on her skin. Designs I did not have. I was there; fed, clothed, protected, like the others. But I was not part of them, the things that made them a herd. Tolerated, but not part of the whole.

Grandfather was dead; perhaps he would change his mind. Perhaps he would heed his pretty daughter’s words and welcome me at last.

A boon granted to a beloved daughter. Not to me. Not because I deserved it, because I was one of them, but because his daughter asked for it. Because he denied her nothing. Yet, was I so proud to deny my heart’s desire, due to circumstances?

“It was Grandfather’s last wish. No doubt he spoke of it to Greyfrost.”

She turned to me, her beautiful black eyes fathomless. Stared at me long, and hard, until I felt ready to squirm.

“You don’t want to stay?”

Point blank, she always was. Mist knew me too well.

Did I want to stay? I wasn’t sure. On the surface, yes; but as I thought deeper into it, I knew it wasn’t the idea of leaving the herd that hurt me. It was that even in his deathbed, Grandfather rejected me in all ways that mattered.

Did I want to stay, an outcast forever, depending on Mist’s friendship? Oh, I would miss her terribly. But Mist had many friends, and it was a question of time until she found her mate. Swans mate for life. When she found her other half, what would happen to me?

“You don’t,” she said, flat and quiet. I hurt her; I could feel it. Our link to the Beyond was our greatest joy, but it came with a price. The price of having the link take shape of a horse was being attuned to the emotions of all around us. Especially those we loved.

“Mist…”

“No. You don’t want to stay. Admit it, Night. You don’t.”

“I’m not one of you,” I said. It sounded meek even to my ears.

“Do you even want to be?”

I took too long to answer. I felt more than saw the way she withdrew from me. She hadn’t even moved; Mist never made a scene. Yet, I felt it, the way she wrapped her hurt around her. Of course she would. I would have felt betrayed as well. How to explain that I would miss her terribly, but —

It wasn’t enough.

She wasn’t enough. I knew she knew that.

How callous of me.

There was a time when being one of them was all I ever wanted. Grandfather’s words echoed in my head. Go find your own people.

Before I could regroup, she stood once again, brushing the snow from the seat of her pants, and striding out of our den. Something broke inside me at that moment. At that point, for the first time since I entered the Dying Tent, since the elders carried my grandfather’s body inside and lit the fires for his passing, I let myself cry.

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