It was dead silent on the climb up, a quiet grown from years of training and thickened by the gently falling snow. Someone slipped behind me and Diyu hissed at him to keep it down. A flash of scarlet should have been easy to spot even in the disorienting swirl of snowflakes, but there would be no catching her if we gave away our position first.
The order to halt came on a whisper, Diyu's hand thrust out to still us. His fingers were shaking, itching to draw an arrow. Smoke curled on the outcropping just above.
"A tribe settlement," Taina supplied. "Its sister is two hours' journey west." She always knew where we were. Don't know how she did it in this weather. I craned my neck to see.
It's hard to remember the rest. From the first arrow it was a blur. That was why I'd never make general, Diyu used to sneer before his promotion - because the rush of blood got too loud and I could take an order well enough, but ask me what happened later and all I could say is that there had been a battle. My focus narrowed thin enough to balance on the end of an arrow and I pointed it at the princess. Shot after shot, and when she disappeared behind the edge of the outcropping I surged forward for a better vantage point. If Diyu ordered me back, I didn't hear it.
Some time later, silence fell again. Just me, the mountain, and an agony ripping through my leg bright enough to blind. My hand closed around the shaft of an arrow and I cursed. Best to leave it for a healer to remove or else rip out a chunk of flesh on the barbs. I huddled behind a rock away from the wind, and waited.
And when night fell and no one came, I closed by eyes and imagined being carried off on the wind instead. Away from the pain and cold, strong and rolling. I closed my eyes and it lifted me.
Water touches my lips first. It's so warm that I don't notice it until I'm choking on it, and I hear scolding from somewhere behind me. I frown. I know the words but the accent twists the meaning out of my hazy mind's reach.
"Hey! Come on, elevate the head more."
There's a rustling and I'm adjusted. I want to pull away and snarl but my body won't cooperate. The water flows again and I get down as much as I can manage.
"There we go, that's better. Keep him like that awhile - I'm going to get more firewood."
Firewood? Why? At the word my extremities come alive with vicious chilblains and I become aware of how blazing hot the room is. I struggle to move again and a pair of mittened hands push my shoulders back down.
"Make sure he doesn't fall asleep, okay?"
"I've got it, I've got it, don't worry," says the voice that's keeping my head propped up. I'd check for its owner but I hardly have the strength to keep my eyes open. He notices and pats me bracingly on either cheek.
One of them is actually named Hey. I learned this after finally snapping "what" when the other kept repeating it, thinking she was trying to get my attention. They look practically identical at first, all wrapped up in their furs, but when they remove their goggles it's easier to tell who's who.
Hey keeps his googles slung around his neck and my first thought is that he's probably lost a hundred pairs before this one. He has that kind of look about him, just shy of careless, with a dense mop of hair that curls at the ends from too much time in the winter wind. The other one frets over me more but doesn't come too close - her eyes are sharper and quick to pick out my needs, which are few. Water, rest, maybe another blanket. I suspect she's the one that removed the arrow from my thigh.
"Yurairia," she repeats for what feels like the hundredth time. I wish I could turn my back to her and ignore it. "Come on, Yur-air-i-a."
She's so aggravatingly persistent that I give it a try. "Yuria," I rasp. Her name has too many syllables and vowels - who has that kind of time? How are you supposed to get someone's attention on the battlefield or across an echoing cavern when you're busy trilling all those r's?
Hey snorts, then laughs outright. I at least have the strength to turn my head and glare at him and he puts his hands up in easygoing defense.
"Yu is fine," she sighs, and I would consider it a mercy if there were any reason for me to actually use her name. I'll be out of their miserable little hut and back to the Den as soon as I can walk. Hobble, if I have anything to say about it. No familiarity required.
"How about yours?" Hey asks.
Hey laughs again, bold and unabashed.
"What?" I snap. "At least I don't whip around every time someone notices something or greets somebody else."
"Whatever you say, Xuku."
Luckily for me, Yu is as eager to get up and out as I am. Apparently we're not at their camp but rather a small outpost a short trek away. A short trek when you have two functioning legs, anyway. Being cooped up sets Yu to pacing, and when it goes on for too long Hey takes her by the shoulders and gives her a playful shake, which she pretends to hate. It's an insipid routine. But Yu catches me rolling my eyes and decides it's time to test my leg again, and before I can protest they're hauling me to my feet.
For the first few steps, civilized speech is way out of reach. The pain prevents me from putting any weight on the injured leg and I curse my way through hopping around the hut, one arm slung over each of their shoulders. Hey asks about a few of the Den's more colorful expletives with interest, and his sincerity distracts from the agony for about a second and a half.
"Let me see the arrow," I say, grimacing as they ease me back down on my thick bed of furs.
"What for?" Yu asks while Hey digs it out from under a pile of hunting traps and fishing equipment.
"The fletching." I grit my teeth and grip my leg at the knee as though it'll do anything to dull the throbbing pain. "Everyone's is unique. I'll know who shot me."
"It was an accident, right?" Hey asks, sounding concerned. He returns with the arrow in two pieces, the half bearing the head mercifully cleaned of any gore.
"Of course," I answer irritably. "We're a brotherhood. And when I get back there, this will tell me which brother or sister's neck to wring for tumbling me down that cliff."
Both of them shift uncomfortably. Ridiculous pacifists. "You weren't that far away," Yu says quietly. "We could track the fight by the footprints, and we know where the Ermine camp usually settles."
"Just hand it over," I say irritably, sticking out my hand. Hey passes me the arrow fletching first and I snatch it up to examine it.
Ebony feathers tied with indigo string. A single, vivid canary feather nestled tightly in the center.
I thrust the arrow back at Hey and grumble that I'm going to sleep.
Diyu shot me, then ordered the retreat.
It's over a week before I'm fit for travel. By then my wound has been wrapped and re-wrapped countless times and covered with herbs whose names I can't pronounce and that Yu never bothers to repeat. I'm weighted down with enough furs to double my width in every direction. Summer in the Den might as well have been midwinter at the summit with the way the wind whipped through the rocky crags, and I'm grateful for the snow goggles Hey lent me the moment I step out into the cold.
"Well! Let's go!" Yu declares brightly. She points vaguely to the west and leads the march.
But my march is more of a trudge. Hey quickly learns that I won't bother to ask for help, so he extends it anyway and I'm just left to grumble and smother my gratitude when he takes my arm and heaves me over stones and across crevices. Yu does a poor job of hiding our deliberately timed breaks - she checks the sun too often and insists we all stop for water, but I know it's for my benefit. I accept the canteen warily. The Denborn and Mountain Tribes are friendly enough, but I'm no merchant. They have nothing to gain from me and everything to fear, especially after the threats I made until they let me take my bow and few remaining arrows on the journey.
"So what are the arrows for?" Hey asks around a mouthful of smoked salmon when we break for lunch. The sun blazes overhead - Yu told us we were only an hour or two away. "Think you'll run into Princess Jimaya out here?"
It sounds like an honest question to me, but Yu snorts and my eyes snap to her. "What?" she shrugs. "She took off South. And even if she hadn't, what would you do? Shoot her and roll her down the mountain to your lair or whatever?"
"I don't expect a pair of migrant snoweaters to appreciate the delicacy of war," I sneer, but the truth is I don't know. I don't feel like myself without my arrow and quiver, so I took it with me. That was all. And up here, surrounded on all sides by miles and miles of snow and rock, the war feels very distant.
But Hey only blinks. "Snoweaters? Why would we eat snow?"
"Yeah, that's a bad idea." Yu nods sagely. "It's just water. Plus you waste energy warming it up in your body. You should just drink water if you have it."
"Do you think he meant it as an insult?" Hey wonders with such honest curiosity that I can only stare at him.
"It's not a very good one. Not like--" Yu cuts herself off and shares a glance with Hey, and they both stifle giggles.
"What?" I snap.
"It doesn't really apply to you," Yu said quickly, as though an unspoken insult could possibly hurt my feelings. "It's about the way you all, you know." She wriggles her fingers through her mittens. "Scurry in and out of your fiery den. But you're doing pretty well out here, so it doesn't make much sense for you."
"Okay. Well, I don't really care--"
"Salamanders," Hey burst out, unable to contain himself, and he and Yu both erupt in laughter. He sobers a little when I don't react. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, it's not nice to say." Laughter still threatens to bubble out of him again. "We'd never say it to your face."
"You just did," Yu points out.
"Well yeah, but I didn't mean it." He tips his goggles down and peers gravely at me, scanning for any sign of offense. "You know that, right? I don't think you're a salamander."
"Don't worry about it," I say, my irritation pushed aside by bemusement. "How much further again?"
The Herring camp is smaller than I expect but their welcome has the overwhelming warmth of a much larger crowd. I stiffen against the repeated claps on the back and wonder why they feel the need to congratulate me. I didn't do much more than lie there for a while, then take over half a day to make a trek that should have taken two hours. But everyone seems to think this is an incredible feat of strength.
"A Denborn at the summit! If we'd known you could handle the journey, we'd have made you come up here to trade instead of the other way round! Ha!"
"Don't worry, you can stay here as long as you like. Or forever! If you miss the smoke, you can just close the vent in your hut."
"What did you bring? My wife adores your tea but if you've got any of that liquor of yours, I wouldn't say no to that either..."
"Summit salamander, summit salamander!" two children cheer, so heavily bundled that their words are muffled, and they run circles around my legs until I nearly trip and their mother shoos them away, apologizing profusely for their language.
At last Yu breaks away from her own welcome wagon long enough to take me by the arm and shoulder herself between me and the eager throng. "Okay, okay, that's enough, give him some space."
I visit the healer first, who doubles as their Chief. Or at least that's the impression he gives - Yu watches him inspect my leg with a diligence that borders on dutiful and for once Hey's eyes aren't chasing after every fleeting detail that captures his attention. But neither of them call him Chief, and they don't bow, and he doesn't exactly look capable of defending any position of power he might have inexplicably earned. His weatherworn face crinkles when he smiles at me.
"Yurairia did well. Rest. You'll be fine." He ladles me a bowl of thick fish stew, pushes it into my hands, and shuffles out of the hut without another word. Yu waits until he's gone before turning to Hey and smiling brilliantly.
"I know!" Hey shakes her by the shoulders before she can even speak. "See? I told you you'd be guided!"
"Guided to what?" I push my stew around dubiously. A fish head bobs up and I quickly submerge it again. Fish is rare treat in the Den, but that doesn't mean I like staring it in the eye.
"Don't worry about it--"
"I told her the wind would guide her to where we needed to be," Hey interrupts her proudly. "We saw the Ermine camp take off and it was her idea to investigate. And now you're here! Because she patched you up! And now the Elder thinks she's great!"
"He didn't say great, he just said I did well." But I can tell Yu comes alive under Hey's insistence and I could swear she blushes a little bit.
I try a bite of the stew to save me the trouble of further conversation and nearly melt on the spot. It's the most delicious thing I've ever tasted.
Life among the Herrings is a surprising burst of color and activity against the stark white landscape of the peaks. Everyone has a role and they all play them with such enthusiasm that I wonder what they're putting in their water supply. They're all quick to gently reassure me that I can contribute just as soon as I'm healed, as though that's something I care about. I already have a role. It just happens to be an unknown number of miles downhill in an as yet uncertain direction.
"So you were after the Imperial Princess," one of them asks as we all sit around a bonfire at the center of camp. Hey told me his name just a few minutes ago, but I can't remember it - it's impossible to keep track of who's who with everyone bundled up in nondescript patchwork masses of fur. He leans forward as though I'm about to tell him a ghost story. "Why?"
It's been nothing but obtuse questions since I arrived. I try not to give away any trace of impatience. "Why was she up here or why were we after her?"
"She was up here because we're friendly," he says with a smile, as though I should know. "Why were you after her?"
I stare at him, then around the circle, hopeful that someone might supply the obvious. But even Hey and Yu are looking expectant and I suddenly recall that they never even asked me what we were doing on the mountain that day. I assumed they knew. Did they just not care?
"We're at war," I say. "We have been for about a month."
"A war?" A somber murmur sweeps through the group and nearly all of them sit back, shoulders suddenly heavy. Hey and Yu both clap their hands over their mouths. "How sad."
"It's not sad," I say sharply. "It's justice. The Imperialists take and take, and if you weren't so far out of their reach, they'd take from you too."
The group glances between one another so seamlessly that they almost look like one organism. "We trade fairly," says a woman from the other side of the fire. "Crops for furs, glass for furs. Rice for furs."
"Flour for leather!" another supplies to collective agreement. I grit my teeth.
"Then you're lucky not to feel their boots on your necks," I growl, and the two on either side of me shrink back a little. "Do you think we relish living the way we do, backed into our little corner of the world? They'll regret the day they forced us into isolation. Perhaps their city still smolders - perhaps they already do."
For a long moment there's only the crackle of the fire. For the first time I wonder if I've gone too far and shaken their as yet unwavering hospitality. But they must know, surely they have some grasp on the world they look down on every day. Eventually it's Hey's voice that breaks the silence.
"But it's just land," he says. I can see his puzzlement in the flicker of the flames. "It's not you."
"They're the same," I snap, and get to my feet. I can feel the air chill despite the massive bonfire, and even if my resolve doesn't weaken, my debt to them gnaws at my conscience. I clear my throat. "To us, anyway. Land and people are the same to us." I don't wait for them to interpret that, or maybe I just can't bear to think about it for too long. I turn away regardless to hobble back to the hut they've provided me. Without question, without asking for anything in return. I swallow back an apology and don't know why. "It's been a long day. I should rest."
I wake up the next day feeling oddly guilty for my tone at the bonfire. It's stupid. I didn't do anything wrong. I make up for it anyway by showing some of the older children how the Den decorates their spears. They brandish them boldly and yell and stomp in what I can only assume is their best approximation of a Denborn war dance, chasing each other around the remains of last night's fire.
It's only a couple more days before my hobble has faded into a limp. Yu keeps pressing mashes of odd-smelling herbs over the thinnest layer of bandages, then rewrapping them to hold them tight, but not directly on the wound itself. Sometimes it even has a pleasant numbing effect, which she tells me not to get used to.
"Only before bed," she says, jabbing a finger in my face. "Otherwise the pain won't tell you when you've pushed yourself too far."
But she's the one to push me farthest yet when she and Hey drag me out of bed early one morning.
"To check the mammoth traps," Hey explains so casually that my injured leg nearly gives out from under me.
"Mammoth?" I've only heard stories, tales of massive creatures lumbering about the peaks centuries ago, tall and tusked and terrifying. Yu laughs.
"What do you think you're wearing, rabbit fur? C'mon, we should leave now if we want to be back in time for lunch."
It's the first time I've left the Herring camp since my arrival and the trek this time is mercifully easier. I'm still not up to my usual speed, but who knows what my usual speed is under these conditions. Hey helped me strap on a pair of bizarre meshed shoes that took some getting used to, but out in the fresh powder beyond the camp, I'm amazed at how they keep me astride the surface of the snow. We tramp across the glistening banks as a trio. I only fall over once before getting the hang of it.
"So what's waiting for you back home, Xuku?" Yu asks, and Hey whips around to look at her. I'm doing my best not to sound winded by the trek and take a few breaths before answering.
"Certainly not a promotion, given my last performance," I joke. "I have a sister. Calthi. She's an archer too."
"Calti." Yu practically coughs around the name and I snort. "Why are all your names so hard to pronounce?"
"To irritate you," I say, and she laughs. "Calthi's younger than me, but she has her eye on joining the Chief's Guard one day. And if her eye is as good as her aim, she'll make it."
Hey whistled, impressed. "Sounds important. Are you in the Chief's Guard too?"
"No. It's an important position, but not a particularly adventurous one. They almost never leave the Den." Not that I would have made it anyway. Calthi has night vision I can only dream of. I imagine her perched on an outpost at all hours, scanning the peaks for any sign of my return, furious that she can't abandon her training to come search for me. But Diyu probably told them I was dead. That whatever was left of me was probably buried in six feet of snow by now. And Calthi's young. She hasn't had to mourn the death of a comrade yet, let alone a brother. Just as I'm wondering whether she was the one to shoot the arrow into the funeral pyre, Hey's voice drags me away from the thought and I don't resist.
"Whoa. Can you imagine never leaving? When there's so much of the world to see?"
"What's there to see all the way up here?" All of it looks the same. White on white on white with only rock and the occasional fire from a sister camp to break the monotony.
"Oh right, you've never flown before." Yu stabs her spear into the ground to rest a moment. "We'll take you sometime soon. You'll see."
"I'm not getting on one of those things," I say darkly. I've heard enough of the tribes' ridiculous flying machines to stay well away from them, no matter how reliable Hey and Yu have proved to be so far.
"Oh stop, not everything is rocks and dirt and danger," Yu says airily. "How much further do you think, Hey?"
Another hour or so brings us to the edge of a massive crevice and I regret my resolve to think of the summit as an endless blanket of white. The ravine is a vivid blue like I've never seen before, haunting and deep, as though somehow illuminated from within its own walls. A stillness seeps out of it like a vapor. It's too quiet and too old, a rift in what should be reliable ground. Nothing like the reassuring weight and warmth of the Den. I back away, uneasy.
"Don't worry," Hey reassures me with a clap on the shoulder. "Nothing's waiting for you down there. Look."
I shake my head. "Not in these stupid shoes. I'm not falling to my death dressed like this."
"You nearly fell to your death dressed in a leather diaper and you were okay with that," Yu points out, and the pair of them laugh. I've never heard people poke so much fun with so little bite behind it. "Besides, look there." She points a ways down the length of the crevice and I spot a hulking pulley system and a long set of stairs carved straight out of the ice. "If you fell, you wouldn't be stuck. How do you think we get the mammoths out of here?"
I chance a glance over the edge again. "So what, you drive them in here and then haul them out?"
"Sometimes, and sometimes we just bait it and wait for them to fall in. You can see the bait in there - they go nuts for lots of the flowers the Forest People bring us since they can't forage for them up here," Hey explains, then grimaces. "The trouble is they don't die right away, so we have to do it in pieces. Usually takes the whole camp. But everyone can eat for months on a single kill, plus there's ivory for spear tips, more fur and leather than we know what to do with..."
"It would have been cool to show you one," Yu sighs. "Plus I wanted to see how good you are with a spear. I bet you could hit one in the eye from all the way up here."
A rush of confidence chases away my earlier hesitation and I peer back down into the crevice. "Probably," I say nonchalantly. I've never seen a mammoth and I have no idea what one would look like wedged and thrashing between the icy walls. But bigger game is just a bigger target. Both of them groan in disappointment.
"We'll have to come back. I wanna see that."
"Ooh, maybe another bull will wander off and we can chase it in instead!"
"What's the most dangerous thing you've ever taken down, Xuku?"
We turn to follow our tracks back the way we came. My smile falters and I'm grateful that most of my face is covered up from the cold. I don't have the heart to tell them the truth. "Bow or spear?" I ask instead.
"A bear. I ran across its den too close to winter and it chased me up a tree."
"No way!" Yu exclaimed at the same moment Hey gasped, "By yourself?"
"It wasn't very heroic," I laugh. "I was stupid to attract its attention and even stupider for letting it corner me. I was sixteen. Barely in my first ink. It took ten arrows."
"And what about with a spear?"
"Wild boar. Vicious, tenacious things. It nearly gored me, and since then I've much preferred the bow."
"I bet we could take down a boar, right Hey?" Yu asks with a grin. She stoops down and gathers a scoop of snow between her mittens, packing it into a tight ball. "My aim's pretty good."
I'm busy pointlessly shaking snow off my shoe when Hey's response is muffled by the fwump of Yu's ball of snow hitting him straight in the face. I jerk my head up in alarm but Hey is laughing as he swipes his face clean. "Watch it, I nearly lost my goggles!"
A second shot from Yu hits him in the shoulder and he dives behind me for cover, hastily scraping together his own handful of snow. "What are you--" I begin, but my question is cut off by a heap of snow to the face. I trip over my ridiculous snowshoes and tumble over Hey's back to land in an outraged heap behind him. The pair of them explode in laughter.
"That was brutal, Yu! He hasn't trained for this!" I shake the snow out of my eyes in time to see Hey fly gleefully to my defense, firing snowball after snowball in Yu's direction. She leaps and twists out of the way but her furs are so bulky that it looks more like a flail - her legs slide out from under her and she falls, shrieking as she covers her head with her hands.
"Here!" Hey thrusts a snowball into my hands. "Exact your revenge, mighty archer!"
My aim is perfect, of course, and Hey crows. I turn to him for a second snowball but Yu takes the opportunity to jump to her feet and charge. She tackles us both into the snow and for a few seconds I don't know which way is up or whose limbs I'm pinned under, only that I can barely breathe for laughing. I manage to extract myself when Yu starts shoving snow down the back of Hey's coat as quickly as she can.
"Ah, quit it! That's cheating!"
"You aided the enemy!"
"I thought I was the enemy!"
"Wait, wait," I interrupt, mittens full of a crumbling mass of snow, and they both look up. "How do I make it tight?"
"Oh." Yu gets to her feet calmly, her battle abandoned. "Here, get a little more and smooth your hands around it. Like this." She shows me how it's done, hands it over, and I immediately pelt Hey in the face.
After that there's no telling who's on whose side. The air is thick with shouts and snowballs and my furs have become so plastered with snow that I practically blend into the landscape. At any given moment we're ganging up on one another, forging alliances, instantly betraying them, and begging for mercy. I stagger off the battlefield when exhaustion gets to me at last - they're much better practiced at this. I wave them on and they carry on without me as I collapse back into the snow. The powder puffs up and swirls around me, a cascade of glistening sparkles in the midday light.
We're late for lunch. I notice my leg throbbing for the first time since we arrived at the crevice. The sky is ludicrously blue.
Life on the mountain is tiny. Maybe it's the size of the towering peaks or the impossibly wide stretch of land below us that makes it feel that way. We have a good view now, but I'm told in a couple months the cloud cover will thicken and we'll only catch glimpses of it every once in a while.
"Doesn't that bother you?" I ask. I shudder. All I can think of is an ambush, enemies lurking unseen.
"Nah." Hey carries on struggling to thread a thick bone needle he's using to patch the inside of his jacket. "It's like a hug from the sky. It feels close, you know?"
I don't know. I don't know a lot of things, like how they treat their wood to burn so well despite the frequent snowfall. I don't know how they predict the way the wind will blow so they can turn their huts against it. I don't know how they decide when to move, nor how they can bear it when they do. I guess it's all a matter of survival, and that part I do understand. In the Den you learn quick or you're left behind. At the summit you learn because... I don't know. Because what else would you do?
"Give me that," I mutter, and Hey hands over the needle with a grateful sigh. The coat follows and lands with a heavy thump over my legs. I didn't expect to do it all for him, but Hey's already stretched out in front of the fire, arms pillowed behind his head, so I do it anyway.
There are rumblings about moving on soon. The children are getting restless and the adults often comment on things like empty traps and better snowpack further south. The topic comes up in earnest around the bonfire one night and I pretend not to see Hey and Yu glance at me. I stare into the flames instead. If the camp is moving on, I suppose I should too.
"The Ermines have already packed up and the Lynx took off yesterday."
"They're nearly as bad as the Terns. Always quick to move on. The fishing's been fine!"
The conversation carries on in pockets and I'm only able to catch brief snatches here and there. From what I can glean, it's an involved procedure - I kind of expected them to just uproot and wander off somewhere else. Hey and Yu jump up to volunteer for some part of it before I even have a grasp on what it entails. "We'll do it!" Yu declares. "We'll take Xuku. He'll like it."
But when I meet them the next day in front of one of those dreadful flying machines, I resist.
"No. No, absolutely not--"
"Come on, Xuku. This is how we scout the sites! It won't take long, there are only three to check and we won't even land for long--"
"It's fun, I promise."
"Maybe to you!" I'm doing everything I can to keep the aggravation in my voice from sounding like fear but I don't think they're buying it. I'm no stranger to heights - the Den would be little more than a hollowed out rock if not for the countless catwalks that span its depths. But to take off into the mountain winds with nothing but leather wings and what, a wooden frame? Two snoweating fools at the helm? That's tempting death.
Guilt pricks me for even thinking of them that way. After all they've done for me.
"I think I've been plenty open to the life you keep here," I try again, steadying my breath. "But it's only been a month. You forget I wasn't born here, you ask too much - this doesn't exactly come naturally to me, nor should it!"
"It's been two months," Hey points out quietly.
I whip around to glare at him. I expect to find the lie written on his face, but there's nothing. Two full months - that can't be right.
"Come on, Xuku," Yu repeats. I know she's impatient with me but all I can hear is condescension and my temper flares. "You'll have to fly there when we move on, so you might as well get used to it now. It'll be good practice."
"Who says I'm going with you?" I snap.
Both of them go quiet at that. Hey flicks a glance at Yu, hesitant, but she only sniffs and pulls her goggles down over her eyes.
"Fine. Your opinion doesn't matter then. We'll find the best spot without you."
"Yu," I begin, but she cuts me off.
"Don't worry about it." She turns and hoists herself into the bars of the flying machine's framework, bracing her legs to lock herself into place. I can't help but think it looks less safe than ever. "You're right, you weren't born here, so why would you stay? Your place is right in your name."
Denborn. She doesn't say it, but I know she would have spat it if she had.
"We're at war," I remind her angrily. "My people are dying. My sister might be on some battlefield somewhere because I'm not there to defend my home instead! I can't stay up here forever and just pretend it's not happening!"
"Could have fooled me. You've done a pretty good job of it so far." Yu whips around to look at Hey. "Come on, get in. It'll be easier to fly without his dead weight."
"Yu," Hey says gently, climbing into the machine across from her. "Ease up a little. Don't say something you'll regret."
Yu's obstinately checking the fastenings that attach the wings to the frame. Hey gives her a few moments, then sighs and turns back to me.
"We knew you probably wouldn't stay forever. We just hoped you would."
I'm disarmed by the understanding in his voice. He waves me forward.
"Won't you come with us? I promise it's safe, we've done this a hundred times, and if you hate it we can turn back after checking the first spot. It'll probably be your only chance if you're not going to move on with us."
I want to keep arguing with Yu. Push her until she calls me a salamander or something else stupid and has to feel badly about it. But it would only disappoint Hey and I wonder when I started caring about what did and didn't disappoint Hey or anyone else on this miserable mountain. I scowl at Yu as I climb into the bottom rungs of the frame.
"There we go." Hey ruffles my hair through my hat and I want to take a swipe at him. Yu gets the same treatment and I see the stiffness in her shoulders melt by a fraction. "C'mon, let's take off. Hold on tight, Xuku - you can hook your legs there to feel more secure."
I expect it'll take a lot of effort to lift this heap off the ground, but Hey and Yu take hold of two overhead bars and pull. The snow beneath us swirls up in a cloud under the massive wings. Two more beats and we're aloft: to my immense embarrassment I let out a yelp, wrapping my arms around the bar in front of me as the ground falls away. The camp huts grow smaller and smaller and if I had the voice to yell at them to take us back down, I'd use it - but I'm not sure I could stand the sight of the ground rising back up to meet us with the same speed it left us behind.
"Try looking out, not down." Yu has to call over the rush of the wind under the wings. I want to hate her for assuming I don't know what to do, but her tone is kinder and she's right: the sickening dizziness in my gut fades when I look out over the horizon. My breath leaves me in a rush. Mountain peaks jut out along the horizon like a cutout, far more numerous and jagged than they appear on the ground. In the distance, a hawk wheels over some impossibly tiny prey. I lock my legs tighter around the rungs, too afraid to look for the view behind me, and as if on cue the machine turns to answer my unasked question. On the other side of the mountains stretches the expansive plains of the Empire, miles and miles of fields, glimmering gold with the harvest to come. Past that, the sea, blue-gray and terrifying, and I gasp - our inheritance, our legacy, the entire purpose of our war. Without thinking I reach out as though I can grasp it, then redouble my grip on the frame when my stomach swoops in protest. But it's thrilling this time, I feel myself grinning even in the freezing cold wind, and seized by a sudden courage I take the risk and hold my arms out to the sides. The wind keeps them aloft and I whoop in delight - at my own bravery, at the beauty of it, and the ridiculous sequence of events that have put me in the rungs of a Mountain Tribe flying machine.
Hey laughs behind me and the pair of them take us higher still. We're flying over the first camp before I know it, nestled between two peaks in a valley that's shielded from the wind. A herd of caribou looks up when our shadow falls over them.
"That's promising!" Yu calls. She sounds back to her normal self. "You'll have to string a few extra bows for us, Xuku!"
The second camp rests on a north-facing cliff - it looks viciously windy but a wide lake sparkles less than a mile away. "Maybe if it's a mild winter," Hey reasons when we stop to rest, quenching our thirst and passing around late summer strawberries. "From the Empire," Hey explains, but only after I've already taken a bite so I don't refuse them on principle.
I almost don't recognize the third spot as a place where anyone could make a camp: it's a hillside studded with rocky, steplike formations that rest like layers, protecting the levels below from the cutting wind at the summit. "This one's my favorite," Yu says as we land, to which Hey quickly supplies, "Only because you were born there!"
We break at the third camp the longest. Yu groans, massaging her aching shoulders, and complains that she's out of practice. Night is falling and I eye the flying machine warily - I grew used to it over the course of our journey, but I wonder about our navigation back in the darkness. But even as I'm staring, I notice tiny pinpricks of light in the distance.
"That's the Ptarmigans," Yu says, following my gaze. She points out to the east. "And over there are the Ermines, the ones you were chasing. The Terns are somewhere north - we almost never see them unless we spot them flying. They're always on the move."
"Are there more?"
"Plenty. Those are just our closest neighbors."
"You only see some of your closest neighbors when they're flying?"
She laughs as though I've told a joke rather than asked an honest question and doesn't elaborate.
Hey gets to his feet first and Yu lets him pull her up by the hands. He reaches for me next. "We should get going. It's a shorter trip back but it's already so cold. You up for it, Xuku?"
I am. In fact I'm grateful for the fading light for hiding the excitement from my face. The guilt from our earlier argument still has a few lingering hooks in me and I'm eager to finally leave it behind in the snow. The ground rushes away from us when we take off and I swing my legs in the breeze.
The route back to camp takes us closer to the tree line, far from any looming peaks that might lurk in the darkness. I could feel the temperature's drop on the ground, but up here the wind whips with a knifelike edge and I snug the high neck of my coat tighter. It's a beautifully clear evening despite the vicious chill and I'm just settling in to enjoy the view when I hear Yu's gasp from above.
"What is that?"
The machine heaves as it banks and I cling to the frame, any words of protest forced back into my throat. "What is it?" I choke out after we level out again, twisting desperately for whatever caught their eye.
"Stars!" Yu says it on a sigh and I'm about to snap that they see stars all the time, there was no need to give me a heart attack over it. But then I see it too.
Beyond the foothills and across the plains, great bursts of light erupt from within the Imperial City walls. I know the telltale flames of a siege, and these aren't them. The light trails like comets in sparkling streaks, arcing upward over and over, their glittering tails intersecting in a golden lattice. I know what they are and I know who created them. A thousand questions crowd my mind, but relief outshines them all.
The Ermines bring the news two days later. I'm a knot of stress until they do, and on multiple occasions Hey and Yu have to drag me away from the camp's cliff edge so I don't keep waiting for another blast of fireworks to literally write the answer in the sky for me. Desperate as I am for the news, I hang back from the throng that greets the Ermines: the thought of being recognized as one of their attackers, even bundled up in fur like everyone else, churns my stomach. Yu acts with her usual delicacy.
"Remember this guy?" She pulls me forward and yanks my hat off with a laugh. My head's not shaved anymore, but there's no hiding the Denborn tattoos that creep up the back of my neck and disappear into my newly regrown hair. I snatch my hat back and jam it back on my head, gasping for any words that could possibly communicate my regret, but the Ermines burst into laughter before I can speak.
"The one that fell over the edge? Lucky break!" One of them steps forward and claps me heartily on the back. I cough at the force of it. "Your friends weren't very kind, you know," he goes on without half the seriousness he should. "Didn't have enough time to get more than one flying machine in the air, so most of us scattered and had to signal the Terns to pick us up. Left behind a perfectly good catch. A couple of us got hauled down to your Den and they came back smelling like smoke and sulphur - how do you stand it?"
"We're lucky your kind don't do so well in the snow," a second adds goodnaturedly, then looks me over. "You seem alright, though."
I don't fully trust the Ermines' report on the war's end. They're way too easygoing about the attack on their camp - that kind of delusional optimism doesn't make for a reliable retelling. Plus their story borders on the ridiculous: the Imperial Twins' chance reunion in the Den, the Forest People doing anything but lying in hammocks, full pardons for the Denborn insurgents - so many details are beyond the stretches of my imagination. A few others I dare not picture at all. The Counselor's betrayal. The Chief's daughter and the prince. The Chief's death. A fleeting thought for whether Diyu was involved needles at me and I turn away from it.
And Calthi. The image of her bowing to Counselor Yoren can't take shape in my mind and I'm fiercely grateful for it. Yoren wouldn't have the sense to want her, much less recruit her. Too young, too loyal, and too unproven to join his coup. His loss. I'm bouncing on the toes of my shoes, itching to fling myself down the mountain and find her, whether in Den or City, just to be certain she's okay.
"The kingdom's united now," the first Ermine sighs with satisfaction when he finishes the tale. "Down there, anyway. I don't think either side thought much for us, save for the few that delivered the princess off the peak. They're still down in the city being heralded as heroes or something. Can you imagine?" He laughs. "Even after they dropped her straight into the forest!"
United. That doesn't make sense to me either. It sounds like something only an Imperialist would say, as though declaring it loudly enough would make it true. The Herring camp feels as far from that as it did from the war. It's an odd and familiar comfort. An inviting reassurance.
Hey and Yu both look at me.
"Lock your legs in like this."
"You are out of your mind, Xukuthel--"
"I'm telling you, it's fine, we've done this a hundred times--"
"You're such a liar!"
"Fine, they have, but they've never dropped anyone--"
"Just the one time," Yu teases, and I laugh at the way Calthi blanches.
"How do you even grip anything in these mittens?"
"Use your arms. Do you trust yourself at all? Do you think you're stupid enough to let go? Just get up there."
Calthi's already shaking as she clambers into the rungs. Her bow is still strapped to her back and for a moment I see myself stubbornly working my way across the snow towards an unfamiliar camp, dragged along by two incomprehensibly committed snoweaters, bow and quiver at the ready for a threat that will never come. I wonder what hunting from the air might be like. I swing up behind her.
"Ready down there?" Hey's leans over to check, his goggles dangling precariously from his neck. "You'll want to button that higher, it's gonna get cold."
"Come on, or we'll miss out on the sunset!" Yu gives her overhead bar a tug and the wing twitches in shared anticipation.
Calthi shrieks as we lift off. The patterned mosaic of the Imperial City plaza becomes a tiny square of color beneath us as solid ground falls away. I lift my eyes to the peaks on the horizon.