The Dead God danced in the sky. Thiah lay alone within the forest, on a bed of wet grass, watching the emerald mist spill and curl across the evening heavens.
She’d left the village six hours ago, so time was surely growing short. Her father’s hunters would track her down soon enough, but for now she enjoyed the solitude. She needed the silence, the peace away from her father’s warriors, to dwell on her choices.
She wasn’t going to marry No-Foes-Remain. That much, she knew for sure.
“It will bring peace,” her father had insisted, a hundred times and more. Thiah still wondered if he actually believed that. He was a vicious man, and a rough one, but not without intellect. It seemed strange for him to cling so fervently to such an obvious lie.
Peace, she thought. Peace with the Maur. And on that day, the Dead God would walk the world once more. No, come the turning of seasons, when winter gave way to spring’s thaw, she wouldn’t be getting married. Especially not to one of the Clan That Fled; her father’s wishes be damned.
The Dance of the Dead God shimmered in the sky above the woods, winding and drifting faster than any clouds could fly. She told herself she wasn’t scared, that she was of the blood of warleaders, but silent bravado was cold comfort. This was only the third dance she’d seen in all her nineteen years, and the first she’d witnessed while alone. While the wind toyed with the trees, the rustling of leaves and branches never came in time to the heavenly display. The dance obeyed its own rhythm, swirling in the sky, as the Dead God’s ghost writhed in remembered pain.
She wasn’t surprised when she heard footsteps. Thiah made no attempt to run, nor did she bother to move. The limit of her interest was to wonder which of her father’s hunters had found her this time. The figure trod lightly upon the ground, its passage unmarked by the telltale creak of leather and hide. Instead, she heard the rustling whisper of silk and cloth.
Thiah smiled. “Hail, Wastelander,” she called out.
A figure crouched next to her, dark against even the surrounding darkness. She didn’t glance at him, but she saw from the corner of her eye how he touched his fist to his heart, then his lips, before opening his fingers in mimicry of speech. His voice was gentle without being soft. He spoke as if forever trying to be careful.
“Greetings, little pagan princess.”
She wasn’t a princess, and he knew it well. Still, the name always made her smile.
“I’m surprised my father sent you.”
“He didn’t send me.” The Wastelander made himself comfortable at her side, one knee down on the grass. His concession to the cold was a thick cloak of heavy wool, which he always preferred to the furs of Thiah’s people. He didn’t speak of what brought him out here to find her. Instead, he followed her gaze heavenward, at the misty light weaving across the sky.
Thiah turned her head to him. Beneath the hood, his dusky skin was charcoal-dark in the evening’s half-light.
“Does the Dead God’s ghost dance in the skies above your homeland?” she asked.
His smile was a flash of white teeth in shadow. “No, Thiah. We see them far, far to the south some nights, but there’s nothing divine about them.”
“If you say so.” She looked back, where the great spirit shone in the sky – an avatar of pale mist, formed of green and gold and white. “If this isn’t the Dead God’s ghost in the heavens, then how do your people explain it?”
The Wastelander’s gaze fell to her. “It’s difficult for me to explain in your tongue. Our philosophers and scholars speak of such things.”
She scowled at the words. “Your what?”
“Sages,” he said. “Wise men who spend their lives in deep thought.”
“Oh. Are they crippled? Can they no longer make war?”
The Wastelander smiled again. “No. They merely have no interest in making war.”
“They sound crippled.”
“Please let me finish.”
With an amused dignity belying the fact she was lying on her back in the wet grass, she gave him a magnanimous wave of her gloved hand.
“Please,” she said, “do go on.”
“How generous of you. Our scholars speak of these lights as natural things, born from a different dance, as our own world turns in the Great All. We name them the aurora, the northern and southern lights, and they ride the skies due to the force of the sun’s fire meeting our world’s grip. It’s a matter of magnetism.”
Thiah understood none of what he was saying. She wondered if he was making it up. He was gifted at telling stories.
“Your people are very foolish, Wastelander.”
He chuckled at that. “We have our moments, My Lady.”
My Lady. Another of his many titles for her. When he first used it upon his arrival in her father’s village five years ago, she’d wrinkled her nose. ‘I’m not your lady,’ she’d replied, as a girl of fourteen.
‘A sign of respect,’ the dark-skinned man had assured her. ‘Nothing more.’
The chill wind pulled her back to the present. “Are my father’s hunters far behind?”
The Wastelander settled his slender weight. “I’m sure they will reach us soon enough. I wasn’t travelling with them, for I wished to speak with you alone first.”
“We are speaking.”
“You barbarians are so delightfully literal. I meant that I wished to speak of something specific.”
She grinned as she went back to watching the lights drift across the sky, veiling the stars. “I know what you meant. I’m listening.”
Despite half a decade in the north, the Wastelander still shivered at night, and he still carried more than his fair share of curses against the wind.
“How can it be this cold?” he asked now, as politely as he ever asked anything.
“Here comes the familiar lament,” Thiah said, still watching the heavens.
“Your Dead God must hate me. Mark my words, a wind this harsh will leave a man infertile. I think my teeth have turned from ivory to ice, and when spring finally comes, they’ll melt from my mouth.”
Thiah shrugged. It felt no worse than usual, and her furs kept her warm. “If your mad dream ever becomes truth, we have a new surgeon in the village. He can give you new teeth.”
“What you have, Lady Thiah, is a failed carpenter who hammers wooden pegs into people’s gums and declares himself a dentist. I try never to even yawn in his presence, for fear of what he might do upon seeing an open mouth.”
Despite herself, she chuckled. “Enough, Talmey. Tell me what you wanted to say.”
“Ah, how rare it is, to hear my name. One becomes so used to Wastelander.” He took a breath, seeking the right words.”The arrangements for your coming betrothal make no sense to me. I will never understand the way your people treat the maidens, mothers and crones among you. Have I ever told you, among the Taleesh it’s a sin against morality to sculpt the feminine image in anything less than marble or gold?”
Thiah raised a blond eyebrow. “You have great quarries of marble and gold in the desert? That sounds like a lie.”
“It’s no lie,” the Wastelander smiled again. “Not all Taleesh settlements stand astride the Dry Sea. We do, however, have many more statues of men than women. They’re all made from base metal or cheap stone, in keeping with old customs.”
Thiah watched the misty colours dancing above, not sure what to say. “No more lectures about the great wisdom of the Taleesh. It doesn’t make me feel any better to think there are countless other people living better lives than me. Whatever your people do in the Big Dust doesn’t matter. They’re there. We’re here.”
He abandoned his crouch to sit next to her, angling his curved sword so it didn’t touch the ground. “You’re in grim humour this eve,” he said.
She finally glanced his way again, noting how he held his sword. “Why do you always do that?” she asked.
“Do what, My Lady?”
“That. With your sword.”
His dark eyes flickered down, as if noticing the habit for the first time himself. His hesitation was subtle but telling. Many of his people’s customs shouldn’t be shared with heathens.
“A blade,” he said, choosing his words, “must only ever touch the earth with the death of the warrior wielding it. It’s considered the foulest luck to let a weapon grace the earth, and is one of many Taleeshi traditions you just said you had no desire to hear.”
“It’s very hard to hate you,” Thiah eyed him carefully, “but you’re making me want to try.”
The Wastelander froze, his reply unspoken. Even his breath stopped steaming in the night air. His eyes met hers, a question in their depths.
Thiah nodded. She’d heard it, too. With the silent grace of one born in the wilds, she rose to her feet and drew the iron hatchet hanging at her belt. The Wastelander stood with her, his hand on the pommel orb of his sheathed tulwar. The sound came from the east, while Thiah’s village lay to the west.
“Someone comes,” he said.
Thiah narrowed her eyes as she watched the treeline. “Not someone, something. You’ll always be a shit hunter with ears like that, Talmey. Four paws on the snow. Listen.”
“I’ll take your word for it. Should we run?”
She grinned in the night. “You can, if you like.”