Ylam

(Chapter 2 of Nightsong, first book set in the Ondos universe)

Winter Night by Adrian Pelletier, via Unsplash

Do you see where the Wandering Mare’s nose points? That’s north. Follow her steps and you will reach the sea.

It was Greyfrost who taught me how to read the stars and the orientation of the lichen when there was no sun to guide myself with. I was little more than a child then, six or seven, but I could remember his words as clear as my own name.

The Wandering Mare shone bright, a cluster of twenty-seven stars, her face turned North. To the rest of Oudn, where her people lived.

So went the tale that the Wandering Mare was once a mejno woman, whose natural form was that of a horse. She loved nothing more than to wander and explore the bounty of Ondos. One day, her travels took her south, far south, to Zemiya.

There, she met the Snow Leopard, a mejno man who fell in love with her. They loved each other and stayed together for a whole season. Yet the Wandering Mare’s heart grew heavy with longing for the herd she left behind. One cold winter night, as the Snow Leopard slept, she ran away — north, to Oudn and the people she loved.

When the Snow Leopard saw she was gone, he was distraught. He chased after her, but by then it was too late. Even now, among the stars, he chased her, right at the tip of her tail, ever close but never reaching his beloved.

Alone in the cold winter night, I stared at the stars and thought of Mist. She hadn’t come to see me off, as the rest of the herd did.

I guess I understood the Mare. Some people were not meant to be together.

Zemiya had few people even before the Trials. After, it was even emptier.

There was a sort of desolate beauty to the island. Evergreen forests speckled around vast boundless skies. Hills like the humps of a camel. I was in luck: after the initial storm, there were no more. Just a quiet, silent stillness. White as far as the eye could see — which wasn’t much, from the glare of sunshine on the ice.

Nothing upon nothing, stretching forever. It was fortunate that winter nights were long. My black coat faded out, blending into the darkness. It was safer to be in my natural form than in my human one.

Every instinct in me wished to go back, to turn on my path and trace my footsteps back to the herd. I was a horse; the loneliness made me nervous, screamed vulnerable and prey. Perhaps before my human spirit would find it comforting, an invitation. But I was born mejno, with the link active from the moment I slid from the womb. Being alone was a threat.

Wolves live out there, the panicked, voiceless horse in me said. I could hear their howls in the dark. Actual wolves, as well as mejno ones. The latter was no danger, most of the time. Nothing I couldn’t handle. The former, though, was another story. Real wolves wouldn’t care whether I was human or horse — I would be a meal just the same. In numbers, it was no problem; the wolves knew better than to tangle with a mejno herd. Alone…

I tried not to think of it. I had to trust my draft strength. That it would be enough to break the bones of a half-starved pack and drive them away, unlikely as it was.

It was a tremendously foolish idea, to travel alone, but what else could I do?

Greyfrost knew nothing of my past, either, no more than I did. A merchant from Altesaya brought me to the herd — and that was that. I guessed going that direction would be my best choice. If I managed to track down the man, I’d find answers to my questions.

It was a guess. But it was all I had.

He’d offered to come with me as far as Ylam. From there I would take a ship across to the continent and proceed to Altesaya. I told him that I did not wish to leave the herd unprotected — distant or not, I loved the herd still. Enough to not want to risk him. He had a successor, but he was still in his prime. It would be years before Frostshadow was strong enough to take over his father’s position.

He asked if I wanted to stay with them. Where it was safe, where I knew what I would expect. Protection. Food. Shelter. Isolation.

No. I had to do this, no matter how my whole self screamed against it.

Go, find your own people.

Wandering Mare, guide me.

I looked at the night sky, checked I was going in the right direction. Away from the fires of the herd, everything seemed brighter, deeper. The wind ruffled through my mane; my bones froze inside my flesh. It mattered less to a horse than it would to a human, but still, I felt the crackle in my joints.

My destination was Ylam, a month’s journey from our latest settlement. There were no roads left in Zemiya. The few built before the Trials disintegrated under the weight of nature. Same with the buildings; most of the islanders were nomads, like ourselves. Most had their tents and cabins hidden in hills and forests, or, in our case, on the plains.

The harbour town resisted, though. It was necessary. Zemiya had little to offer in trade, but it needed much, and thus, Ylam remained. It was the only point of connection with the rest of Oudn. I’d been there with Grandfather twice, and with Mist and Grey, once. Every Frost child made the journey at least one time, to learn the way. I was no different.

To hope a child remembers a journey to a place they’ve only seen three times was too much. Still, there were markers — little, unobtrusive hints that told the way. Things only the Frost herd knew were there. Turn left on the weasel stone. Keep going past the broken tree.

The scents, too. The scent of mejno, so different from those of animals, trekking to the same place. Even in the height of winter, there was a trace of it. Faint, but enough to show the way, woven into the land after hundreds of people for hundreds of years. At the right point, it converged to where a road once was, leading straight into the heart of the town.

Ylam was a little more than a mess of houses woven together. If one could even call them houses: shacks, more like. Heaps of salvaged material sealed from the cold and the ice. Enough to keep a small group alive through the long months of winter. Still, the houses had their own personality. They made interesting, asymmetric shapes, in vibrant colours. Some of which, I was sure, I could not see even in human shape.

A weight dropped from my shoulders; the bubble of activity popped over me. Snow gave way to a cobbled path, maintained for no reason other than human vanity. It was worse than the snow but made me smile nonetheless. Stormfrost hated Ylam. He hated what he called senseless frippery. I loved it for no reason than he hated it.

I loved the colours, the sounds, the smells of elk meat roasting over open fires. Even the smell of fish, which made my horse-nose wrinkle in distaste, evoked a sort of happiness in me. For once, I was free to do as I pleased.

Our visits were brief, straightforward. Go to the market by the shore, trade for our supplies, come back. Alone, my feet led me to the tavern. The lights guided me, an invitation against the pitch darkness of the winter night.

It was warm inside, warmer than I expected. I shed my heavy winter cloak at the door, noticing others had done the same. The amber electrical lights swayed to a hypnotic rhythm, carried by an unseen wind. The ventilation and heating system, more like. Dark as it was outside, the tavern was full. The fear of being alone gave way to the discomfort of being surrounded. 

The sound of many talking voices pressed against my senses like a physical presence. My nostrils flared on instinct at the syrupy smell of mejno and seal blubber. For the first time since I left the Frost encampment behind, I was at quite a loss on what to do.

It didn’t last long.

“Look, Shadow, a stray! Shall we keep her? Oh please, shall we?”

I spun on my heel at once, to meet two sets of eyes on me: one dark and pensive, one a bright amber and amused.

Short blond hair framed a tanned skin in gold — not like the pale yellow of the Frost, but a rich, true gold. The amber eyes slanted at the corners, which gave her a catlike appearance — yet she was not feline. I knew that in my bones, no matter how leonine she looked.

The chapped lips curved into a smirk at my no doubt dumbfounded stare.

She sprawled on her corner booth as if she owned the place; for all I knew, she did. One knee tucked close to her chest, the other foot resting on the table. One arm stretched over the back of the upholstered seat to tug at the shirt of the man beside her. The one she called Shadow.

Which, was an apt name. His face was smooth and such a dark brown it made me blink. I’d never seen someone that dark before. It was — well, it was strange and beautiful at once. Black hair cropped short, dark brown eyes and dark attire — appropriate, I thought.

He noticed me staring; smirked, too. I bristled even as I blushed.

“She is not a pet, Sun,” he had a lovely voice, deep and warm. There was a foreign accent to it, no doubt from somewhere in mainland Oudn. The one called Sun giggled, sweet as a child.

“I’m not a stray,” I found myself saying, even though I was.

“Yes you are,” she said. There was an edge to her voice. It was not mean, but firm; like a whip-crack. I got a feeling she was not contradicted often, if at all. “No Frost horse would be here alone unless it was a stray.”

So they knew what I was. How? It was easy to identify the mejno, of course, but how did they know I was a Frost?

“Sit with us, stranger,” it was the man, Shadow. He did not smile, but his eyes were kind. “The night is cold and long, and you look tired. Share with us.”

He patted the seat beside him, an invitation. Like a puppet on strings, I followed, no conscious thought to it. I was tired; my bones ached. My head hurt from the cold and the stress and… everything. I curled into a ball beside them, close enough I could feel the warmth of them, but not so close that we touched. The horse inside trembled in satisfaction. Herd, it whispered in my head. Safety.

His hand slid over the shared bench and to my shoulder. His fingertips curled, touched my skin. I felt myself flush, embarrassed and content. Tried not to meet Sun’s eyes, not to notice the way she tilted her head and her lips parted in an ‘oh’. Maybe it was human pride that made my heart stutter with shame, that they would find me like this.

Whatever restraint I had, whatever protest I meant to say, died in my throat. She’d moved from her slouch to cross over to me, so I was stuck between them. Her smile turned sweet — such a flurry of emotions. Before I could say anything, her whole side pressed against me.

She removed my thick winter gloves, and her palms pressed against mine. Skin to skin. I shuddered. Warmth spread through me, greater than the heating system of the tavern could provide. I knew it for what it was: the comfort of a herd, even among strangers.

“Was it so obvious?” My voice sounded weak to my own ears. Her smile died a little, rueful.

“Only to us, sister. We are not meant to be alone.”

We weren’t.

Frosthaze was the oldest in the herd, before her death. It was she who taught the young on the ways of the mejno in general and of the Frost in particular. We are one in different bodies, she would say. Much as you are one with your true nature, you are one with each other. It was an odd concept, for a child, but soon we understood it. We needed each other, at all times. Alone, we were vulnerable.

Sun’s golden eyes fixed on me.

“I’m Sunhawk,” she said. This close to me, I realized how small she was. As a human, I stood a little more than fifteen hands high; this girl could not be more than fourteen, although we seemed to be of an age. Her hand looked like a child’s in mine. “And that gloomy guy is Shadowhawk.”

“Nightsong.”

The name felt odd in my mouth. In the Frost herd, I was just Night. I could almost forget I was not one of them.

“Song, eh? Interesting. Never heard of it.”

Me neither.

“I meant it, you know. Travel with us. A horse alone is a terrible thing.”

“How do you even know I’m a horse?”

That bothered me — I knew the scent of mejno, sure, but how did they know the species of my link? Unless they’d seen me change, which was unlikely.

Sun stared at me as if I’d grown a second head.

“Zemiya has only one herd,” it was Shadow. His fingers pressed against my shoulder, light. Commanding my attention. I marvelled at it. “Stands to reason you would think the smell of horse was just the smell of Frost. But you knew what we were, didn’t you?”

Of course, he was right. I knew. My face grew hot, hotter at the gentleness in his eyes. Had I been so sheltered I missed on basic things such as how to recognize a mejno horse? I was a grown mare, yet besides them I felt little more than an untried filly.

“More reason to travel with us,” she twinned her fingers with mine. For once, I did not think of Mist.

“I am going to Altesaya —“

“Good; we will pass through there.”

I wasn’t so sure her companion agreed with that statement. His serious, handsome face said nothing. Still, he didn’t argue back, which I took for acceptance.

Sun’s catlike eyes were bright and warm, like a pleading kitten. Why was it so important to her, I did not know. Still, some cold, dead part of me felt touched. It was a novel thing, to be wanted.

“I am a stranger,” it was a last-ditch attempt. I knew I wanted to be with them, these horses with sweet smiles. These horses that knew me for what I was: a stray. That didn’t discard me. Yet the rest of me thought it would be a horrible idea to follow them.

“You are a horse,” she shrugged as if that was enough. Perhaps in their world, it was. “Come, let’s get some food in your belly before we sleep. We leave tomorrow, so you’re lucky you found us at all.”

“What did bring you this far, anyway?”

I told them, between sips of warm seaweed soup. To their credit, they made no comment on the situation beyond wordless commiserating sounds. All the while Sun pressed like a vice to my side, playing with stray locks of my hair. Shadow seemed just in thought.

It was late when we decided to sleep, much later than I would’ve done otherwise. Telling hours was hard in winter when there were so few hours of sunlight. I didn’t protest when Sun tugged me up and after her. Didn’t even think about it when she dressed me down to my underthings and put me to bed like a child. Another time, I might’ve wondered about it. Or about how they settled on each side of me on the bed.

But I was warm, and cosy, with a full belly. I drifted to a dreamless sleep between two perfect strangers.

Not the sanest of decisions, maybe, but did it matter?

Winter brought no mornings, not really. It would be hours until the sun rose again. My body was fine-tuned to its own rhythm and such, I woke hours later to darkness. My new friend was still asleep, curled against me, hands joined just shy of my breasts. She looked even more like a child like that. Such a contradiction with the woman she was while awake.

Shadow’s long arm was heavy around my waist, reaching all the way to his herd-mate’s side. I hadn’t felt such comfort in months — if ever. I shared a tent with Grandfather, as was the custom. He was never a cuddler, unsurprisingly, and neither was I. 

Or perhaps I just never had the opportunity to try.

“You are a loud thinker,” Shadow’s comment made me smile. Of course, he was awake, though he made no move to rise. I wondered about his position on their herd. Likely a Protector; it seemed to be the fate of stallions.

“Am I, now?”

“Yes. I take you are not used to sharing space, either?”

In the Frost herd, we shared tents against the elements. I wasn’t privy to how the others organized themselves in sleep. It was inappropriate.

“No,” I said. It would be pointless to deny. “It isn’t bad, though.” There wasn’t anything to it, just the warmth of bodies against the chill. The oyne, I knew, frowned upon what they called indecent behaviour of the mejno whose link pulled towards sociality. It puzzled me how one could consider such a thing bad; even the oyne lived in groups. It seemed lonely to isolate oneself that way.

I knew I did not enjoy it, at all.

“You need a true herd,” he said.

“You need to shut up. Both of you.”

I giggled. Sun’s golden eyes narrowed at me. Not a morning person, it seemed. Which was ironic, considering her name. Shadow laughed too, no doubt used to his herd-mate’s behaviour.

“Is she always dramatic like that?” I asked him.

“Worse,” he shrugged. There was a genuine fondness in his voice, which made my heart sing. Would that I had someone speak that way of me. Sure, I had Mist — but she was lost to me now, and only the road ahead remained.

The people outside our room stirred. Soon, we were on our way down, back to the tavern and a warm breakfast before our journey continued — wherever it may end.

I took the time to question the tavern’s owner (who was not, in fact, Sunhawk; I learned that mejno herds did not hold possessions) about the Altesayan merchant. There were many such people, coming and going. It would be near impossible to identify the one who brought me to Zemiya over twenty years ago.

Near, but not quite.

“I remember,” said the old woman, curled so close to the fire I saw myself back in the Dying Tent. Yet, it was nothing like that. Her face was weathered, her eyes like those of a much younger woman. White hair clung in wisps to her skull, falling over her shoulders like a shroud.

Shadow and Sun looked at each other; I saw her mouth, tortoise. Strange, to see one this far south. They tended to prefer the warmer weathers; their true nature demanded heat more than ours. Yet the old woman did not seem uncomfortable.

When she spoke, her voice was dreamlike, as if drawing from a great distance.

“The man with the baby, yes… I thought it was odd, because he was not mejno, no… I do not know his name, child, but I do remember… he was unique… oyne. Won’t be hard to find, no… few oyne in Oudn… in Altesaya… so many years and I have only seen the one, yes… here, anyway…”

I fell on my knees beside her, kissing her hand; she smiled at me, distant. Leathered fingers brushed my hair, sticking to a few of the loose strands.

“So young… so lost…” she laughed at her own words. “You nomads… go find your past, that you may find your future…”

The words hit me like a hoof to the chest. How do you know? I wanted to ask.

Perhaps age graced her with a wisdom beyond what my young mind could understand.

“Thank you, senèks, thank you…”

She laughed again, like a winter wind, and waved her hand for me to go. I did.

“Well,” said Sunhawk, leaning against her companion. “To Altesaya, then.”

“Yes,” I breathed in, the cold air of Zemiya, the only home I’d ever known. “To Altesaya.”

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