Wind Dance Chapter 1
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Zintlāchmina wished she didn’t have to wake. She had ducked her head outside of the blanket and then immediately withdrawn it against the cold. There had been frost on the ground in the mornings, coating the grass-blades and filigreeing the rough edges of the stones, for the last several days. Surely the first snow of the season would not be that far away - and then the hunting and training season would be over, all the pikas and quail, squirrels and rabbits nestled into their burrows, sleeping until the snow retreated months hence.

So regardless of what she wanted, her time was limited. She had to make good use of it. Groaning slightly, she sat up and swung her legs out of the hammock, pulling her blanket up around her shoulders to conserve a little bit of the warmth while she tied on her aprons and her sleeveless tunic underneath it. She regrettably had to shed it and stand to reach over and fetch her deerskin overskirt and long-sleeved overtunic. She tucked her braid into her collar, shoved her feet into her felted boots, and quietly padded over to where Ochon perched. Below his perch was a niche built into the stone wall where she kept a small bag of meat strips as rewards for him, as well as her hand-guard and the hood she sometimes used for him, if they were travelling somewhere unfamiliar. But he spent most of his time unhooded - like now, when he had tucked his head down almost into the curve of his wing. His feathers were fluffed up too - she supposed he was not any more enthused than she was to be heading out on such a cold morning.

Zintlāchmina wrapped her hand-guard around her right palm and wrist, then clucked gently and knocked the back of her hand against his feet. “Come on.” With only slight hesitation, he stepped onto her wrapped hand, and she took his jesses in her fist.

Opening the door-screen only a crack so as not to wake the rest of her family, she stepped out into the thin periwinkle light of the morning. She drew a deep breath of frost-scented air; the grasses and shrubs all around sparkled like they had been carved out of quartz like the amulet hanging around her neck.

There was, of course, no falcon-hunting permitted within the village. Every young person tried it, once, and then found out why they couldn’t hunt rats away from the grain stores like that, once their falcon leapt upon dog and kid and all the other small, scurrying, yet important things one found in a village. But the goats had been brought down from the higher meadows already, as the grasses had started to brown and die and the vegetation had started to redden in the cold, and so she hiked upwards, winding in a zigzag pattern back and forth up the face of the mountain.

She broke out over an outcrop, and suddenly the whole landscape became patent before her, falling away into sharp arêtes, bright ridges of greys and taupes, the gleaming ribbon of a stream as it wound into the pine forests sweeping up to the feet of the highlands and lining the valleys. With a laugh, she cast Ochon off, and he rose up into the sky just as a line of liquid copper swelled and bubbled along the edges of the facing ridge.

And the air broke into layers of gold and orange and scarlet, pouring like honey down the slopes and over her in a rush of warmth. The disks of the suns crept over the horizon, rendering Ochon a small silhouette wheeling against it. She wished she could join him - how beautiful would it be, to watch the suns-rise pouring over the world below like a flood and to rise with it, suspended on the arms of the wind.

Then he pulled in his wings and dropped - like a stone, like a dart, like a star broken away from heaven and tumbling to earth. He disappeared into the scrub for a moment, and then emerged with something large clutched in one foot. Even larger than the usual mice and songbirds he brought back to her - as he approached, she saw it was a rabbit, white rump flashing in the suns-light. With the extra weight, his landing was somewhat clumsier than normal; the rabbit’s head was crushed between his toes and her arm.

Zintlāchmina pulled out a scrap for him before he could start digging into its skull for the rich, fatty brain. “Good boy,” she said, reaching up to ruffle the feathers on his chest while he gulped it down. She took the rabbit from his talons and tied it onto one of the loose loops on her belt. They would be having fresh rabbit for the nightmeal tonight - let this be her present for her brother Pazomez, he loved rabbit.

Ochon chirred expectantly. “Ready?” she asked him, grinning. His eyes fixed on her free hand. She held up her fingers, and then flicked them upwards. “Go!” Ochon launched himself up off her arm, and she could hear his wingbeats fading away as he gained height.

Zintlāchmina smiled and pushed her fingers into the soft niche in the side of her neck, until she could feel the beating of her life there, and continued up the path. This was one of her first memories - her grandfather, holding her in one arm and his own falcon on the other wrist, taking her small hand and pressing it to his own lined throat, to show her how he timed flights. She remembered being very impressed, not wanting to take her fingers away even after Tolchar, his favourite falcon, had landed again, presenting a beaten songbird.

Her grandfather had been the best falconer - her mother had demurred, saying only within the memories of the village, but Zintlāchmina knew better: in the whole wide world, across the whole of time. People had brought their falcons to him whenever they had troubles with behaviour, illnesses, failures to perform, and he would fly the birds just once and would be able to return them to their owners with advice that never failed to come sure.

She remembered sitting beside his knee on dark winter nights, listening to him tell her tales of heroes and ancient battles, underscored by the howling of the wind outside. Of Cuexochitl, who instead of an ass rode into battle a great cat and filled her enemies with fear before her spear came near to them; of Quohue, who had slain his own sorceress-sister and taken over her empire; of Macui, who had stood one-handedly against the much greater host of foes that had come to burn his village to the ground and drag off its inhabitants as bond-servants, for there had been none other able-bodied within it - and who had died one-handedly there as well, unburied and witnessed only by his killers and Hualma. “That,” her grandfather had told her, there in the leaping firelight enclosing them away from the night, “is true honour, Zintlāchmina. It is doing what you know to be right - when there will be for you no commendation, and when no-one would know if you took the easier path.”

Turning a corner, she lifted up her hand, waved it, and whistled.

Ochon turned, descended, and began winging his way back towards her. Zintlāchmina reached into her hip-bag for a slip of meat to reward him with, and raised up her wrist. He definitely deserved a good reward for that - this was the longest time yet that he had remained in flight and yet came back as soon as she signalled. They had been working up flight times for the last year and a half, about, starting with ten-heartbeat times, then twenty, gradually increasing until they were into the multiple hundreds.

His jesses swished over the scrub as he approached, the beating of his wings heavy like running footsteps. And just as his talons reached out for her hand, just as his wings blotted out the sunslight, something large leapt out from the shadows. Ochon spooked, one wing striking her shoulder painfully, and flapped away in a swirl of feathers and flash of scaled skin. Zintlāchmina heard herself scream and flinched, although it was useless - there were no predators so big up in the mountains but the panther, and the list of people she had ever heard of to survive a panther attack alone she could have counted on one hand with room to spare.

But no, she realized: the scream hadn’t been hers. And there were no sharp claws digging into her arms, no jaws shattering her bone. She dropped her arms from her face to see, cringing back against the hill-face, a young woman. She seemed almost more afraid than Zintlāchmina herself, still cringing back, hiding her face from sight.

“Who are you? Why did you do that?” Zintlāchmina demanded. One did not make sudden movements around falcons if one wanted to keep all their eyes or fingers, or the eyes and fingers of anyone else in the immediate vicinity.

An indeterminate frightened sound was the only response. She softened. “Are you all right? What’s the matter?”

A response wound its way thinly out between the folded arms. “Your eagle…”

Despite herself, Zintlāchmina chuckled. “He’s not an eagle,” she explained, “just a ruddy falcon.” To hunt with an eagle… not even she would have dared to dream such a thing. The laugh must have put the other woman a little more at ease - she peeked out, and then straightened up.

Now that Zintlāchmina could take a better look at the woman, though, it was clear that, whoever she was and whyever she had been afraid of Ochon, she had recently met with hardship. Her clothing was not mountain clothing - she wore only undertunic and aprons, unadorned and heavily dirtied, and her legs underneath it were bare and covered in thorn-scratches. That might explain it a little bit - if she was from the lowlands, then she would not know much about falconry. But why would anyone from the lowlands be here in the mountains, alone and suffering?

“Please don’t tell,” the woman blurted. A rush of pity poured through Zintlāchmina - she wanted to ask why, ask what the woman thought she would do to her, because it wasn’t a crime to be out in the highlands no matter how much one was struggling. But she had been afraid of Ochon’s very presence - that question would probably scare her away entirely.

Come to think of it, where was Ochon? He probably wouldn’t have gone too far away - she cast around over the grass and scrub, and then looked up the mountainside. A rough, high spur of broken rock jutted out above the path, and a russet-and-white patch perched on a ledge caught her eye. She whistled and held up her hand again. “Come on, Ochon!” she called. “It’s all right! She’s not a panther!” He stomped on the ledge, but did not raise his wings to descend towards her. Ugh. Her falcon was apparently a coward.

A gust of wind whistled around the spur, tossing the loose threads of Zintlāchmina’s hair into her face. The woman gave a full-body shudder, pulling her arms around herself and shutting down her face. On impulse, Zintlāchmina dragged her overtunic off over her head and held it out. The wind rushed over her bare skin, drawing a wave of frission over her skull and down her spine.

“No, I couldn’t -“

“Take it,” she insisted. “At least for now. You look like you’re freezing.”

Hesitantly, the woman took it from her - her nailbeds looked bruised, darker than they should have been from the cold, and Zintlāchmina winced - and shrugged it on. The sleeves flopped down over her hands, making her look like a child dressing up in an older sibling’s clothes. The grimy mat of her hair tumbled out when she pulled up the hood.

“Have you been living out here?” Zintlāchmina asked, knowing what the answer must be - nobody with a home to go to could be quite so wretched. A timid nod confirmed her expectation. “Where?”

The woman shook her head resolutely. Clearly, she was running from something. But what?

“Look,” Zintlāchmina said. “I can help you.”

“Then swear,” she begged. “Swear on your honour that you won’t tell anyone about me.”

She swallowed. “All right. I so swear.” She whistled a third time, and pulled a scrap of meat out and waved it around for good measure. “Ochon! Get down here, you little idiot!” He flapped clumsily down and snatched it out of her fingers before settling himself down on her wrist. She stroked his head and back, and smiled her best comforting smile at the woman. See? He was very tame. No need for fear. “So, your camp…?”

The woman turned and led her off the trail, through red willow clusters and low-growing bayberry. With Ochon resting against the side of her ribcage, Zintlāchmina followed.

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