Wind Dance Chapter 2
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The woman’s camp turned out to be a cave that barely deserved the name, being scarcely more than a damp depression in the rockface floored with silt. She had evidently hauled a small amount of brush in for a bed. But not enough: Zintlāchmina’s grandfather and mother had been certain to teach her this too, that if one was caught out in the wilderness without shelter nigh at hand one had to build one, and remember that the rule was always to add more brush for insulation. The thickness of a hand above the ground, even when you were lying on it. This one revealed dirt through open patches.

It was the kind of place Zintlāchmina would never have dared to sleep a night in, for fear that she would not wake in the morning. There was not even a fire-scar.

“You haven’t even had a fire…”

The woman dropped to a crouch and shook her head. “No,” she said. “I tried to light one, but everything was too damp - too cold -“

But there were places to find the fine dry material necessary for fire-starting, if one knew where to look. “I will show you,” said Zintlāchmina, and went out again from the cave, clambering a little ways up the slope. There: easy to spy if one knew what they were looking for, she saw a large overhanging rock and scrabbled up towards it. The packed mass of grass and fluff from the late-flowering herbs trapped in the angle beneath it was damp on the surface from the sun, but when she scraped that damp layer away the rest was still untouched. She brought back this handful and set it on the floor of the woman’s cave, then turned to set out again.

The woman touched her lightly on the shoulder. “What should I do?” she asked, evidently discomfited by the idea of someone building her fire for her.

“Grab fuel?” Zintlāchmina suggested. She held up her thumb. “About this thick. Try looking underneath the scrub-bushes for their dead branches.” Going out again, she turned the other way and continued poking through arches of grass weighed down by frost and in the shadows of small bayberry bushes for more tinder.

Her hand plunged into a windfall - the nest of a family of field-mice. The pups were born now, and fed under the snow until they could come out into the new spring fully furred and ready to forage, but that meant the dam mouse had to insulate her nest very well to protect them through the winter months. Zintlāchmina reached in further, until her wrist and most of her forearm disappeared under the cold earth, and brushed them - warm, furry, and oily, all huddled in a little pile. She closed her fist around the lot and pulled them out. They looked almost dead, all so deeply asleep that this had not disturbed them and the mother’s little paws hung limp between her fingers. She transferred the mouse family to her other hand and reached in again, scraping the fluffy seed down and shredded grass that had been used to line the nest out until she had a bundle nearly too large to draw back through the burrow.

Back at the entrance of her cave, the woman had fetched an armful of wood, and not poorly either - only a very limited portion of it was roots too dirtied and soaked to burn.

So Zintlāchmina presented her fistful of mice to Ochon, who swallowed them greedily, and set herself to striking the fire. The mouse nest burned beautifully, and the woman huddled up as close as she could, extending her hands to the flames. Were she still wearing only her lowland tunic, and not Zintlāchmina’s thick woolen overtunic, she would have warned her away lest a spark make her clothes go up.

The orange light only highlighted the hollows underneath her cheekbones and the slenderness of her neck. There wasn’t much wild food available in the wintertimes either - Zintlāchmina’s village depended on cured meat, goat cheese, and the grains and berries they had dried in the late summer and fermented and stored away. It would be easy to go days and find nothing. Her palm, sliding down over her thigh, brushed against soft fur, and she looked down at the rabbit Ochon had brought her. To be honourable meant to practice magnanimity as well, and surely to help a woman’s survival was a better use to put it than just to please Pazomez.

While the woman finished rewarming herself, Zintlāchmina cleaned and jointed the rabbit, tossing the entrails to Ochon. Having finished his meal of mice, he paced near the mouth of the cave, evidently unnerved by this stranger who had taken his mistress’s hide for her own.

When the meat was set near to the embers on a smooth flat stone she had plucked from the scree at the cave’s mouth, Zintlāchmina finally felt it was appropriate to ask. “Do you have a name?” Immediately upon saying it, a flush of embarrassment ran along her jaw. Of course she had a name - everybody had a name. How dare she imply otherwise?

But the woman did not seem to mind her gaffe. “Apillohuitlna,” she responded.

“So how came you, Apillohuitlna, to be out here in the mountains alone?”

The woman broke into a rough-sounding cough. “I - I used to be a bond-servant down in the city,” she said, and Zintlāchmina’s heart clenched in pity. Their village was not wealthy enough for anyone to keep bond-servants, but she knew some of the rich in the cities did, and because they had that power they felt they had no more obligation to be kind to them. What kind of abuse must she have suffered, to think that fleeing barefoot and ill to freeze in the mountains was a better option?

But if she had been a bond-servant, then - “How did you remove your ring?” Zintlāchmina asked.

“They did not ring me,” she answered. “Not yet. I was very newly-taken when I fled.”

“I see.” If she were caught with a ring on, anybody would be able to take her back to her owners if they wished, and could probably be reasonably sure of being compensated, at least with respect and the social connection that came from thus upholding the laws.

And of course, that explained why she had demanded that no-one be told about her, because there was no way for her to be sure that someone from Zintlāchmina’s village would not do just such a thing. Zintlāchmina could not think of anyone she would expect would - the general impression on bond-servitude was a vague disapproval, that owners were shirking on their own work by forcing other people to do it and then didn’t even have the decency to compensate them well - but if Apillohuitlna had dared to run away, she clearly wanted to be safe more than she wanted to be sorry.

Still, though. It was worth it to offer. “Will you not come back to my village with me?” she asked. “You will be - much warmer there, and especially if you are sick -“

“I’m not sick,” Apillohuitlna said quickly.

In Zintlāchmina’s experience, people who denied things so quickly were usually lying. But she didn’t want to spook her into fleeing entirely, didn’t want to - Zintlāchmina had all the power in this situation, and she did not want to seem as though she was forcing it upon Apillohuitlna. An honourable person did not force others to her will, not through violence nor through the control of water, shelter, or food.

Thinking of which, she checked the meat. “Meat’s ready,” she said, in lieu of anything that would really enlighten her about Apillohuitlna’s situation.

Apillohuitlna devoured the rabbit, streaking oil over her hands and face, making a tiny moan of pleasure at the taste. A ray of bright light thrust through the cave-mouth, making Zintlāchmina wince and shield her eyes. She peeked out, noticing that the suns had climbed high into the sky while they had been speaking.

“Will there be someone missing you?” Apillohuitlna asked, mouth full.

“Yes, soon.” She turned back.

“Then go.” She gestured with a shining hand. “Don’t - don’t get in trouble for my sake.”

“I’ll come back tomorrow morning, all right? And I’ll see if I can bring more food.”

“Here, take your tunic back,” Apillohuitlna said, and started to remove it.

Zintlāchmina wanted to tell her to keep it, but it would be somewhat suspicious if she returned without overtunic and with no explanation as to where it had gone. “Yes, I think that would be best.” Apillohuitlna handed it back, and she tugged it on over her head.

“I’ll come as soon as I can tomorrow, all right?”

Apillohuitlna grinned childishly up at her, and plucked one smoking branch out of the embers. “It’ll be all right,” she said. “I have a fire now.”

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Even before entering her home, she caught the clack of Pazomez’s beater against his loom. He looked up as she pulled the screen away. “You’re back late,” he said. “Did you and Ochon have a good time?”

Zintlāchmina set Ochon back on his perch, not looking at Pazomez. “Mmhmm.”

She needed to think. Training sessions with Ochon would give her an excuse to go out daily and bring food to Apillohuitlna - except that she never usually brought a waterskin or food with her when she went, choosing to eat when she got back. So how was she going to get supplies out unsuspiciously? And about clothing - none of her clothing could be spared, for she was already wearing all but her very warmest cloak at the moment. But Paz, her mother, and her uncle would certainly notice if she took away any of theirs. Blankets she could spare one of, if she wore her tunic to sleep, but that raised the same question of how to carry it out without anyone wondering what she was doing with a blanket in the wild in the early morning.

Pazomez slipped the beater through his shed, unfastened himself, and stretched, coming over to her. “Well?” he said, making small kissing sounds at Ochon, who had begun to preen. “Did she work you too hard?”

“Don’t baby-talk my falcon, please,” Zintlāchmina said. Ochon was a working bird, and ought to be treated like it.

Paz made an overexaggerated grumble, ruffled her hair, and then darted back to his loom when she tried to swipe his hand away. Zintlāchmina put away her scraps and handguard and pushed one boot halfway off before thinking better of it - she still needed to feed and water the goats. As the noise of Pazomez’s weaving started up again behind her, she went out to the stable. She shook out a bundle of hay and tossed it into the goats’ side, then checked their water trough. There was ice riming the outer edge, but it hadn’t frozen over entirely yet, and she could probably leave the rewatering until the evening.

A warm head pressed up against her palm, and Zintlāchmina scratched it absently. “I don’t suppose you have any suggestions?” she asked. In her mind’s eye her uncle’s shelves full of bindweed roots, sacks of seeds, and bundles of cured meat and cheeses rose again, and she counted the items, trying to balance nourishment against ease of concealment against what he would notice if she took. And then she realized what kind of thinking she was doing. When her grandfather and mother had been showing her how to make shelters, and suddenly - well, the world hadn’t changed, but the way she had looked at it had: seeing in bushes, clumps of grasses, loose scree-slopes not only their own natures but the potentials of what she could use them for at need. He had complimented her, when she had first pointed this out, said, “Ah, Zintlāchmina. Now you are looking over the meadows with your better eyes.”

So she would have a plan. Her mind had a whole day and night to work over this problem - it would surely come up with something.

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