The wicked heroine, p.22
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       The Wicked Heroine, p.22

           Jasmine Giacomo


  A week later Meena and Sanych rode into Hostown, set slightly up a rise toward a wildly green collection of hills. It possessed a grand view of the low river plains between Hostown and the distant sea. The weather Sanych saw as they rode though the bustling markets was looking rather dire. Her eyes flicked back and forth as if reading a page that wasn’t there, and she turned to Meena.

  “We can’t stop; if we don’t stay ahead of that storm, we won’t make it to Vint in time!”

  Meena sighed; she’d been looking forward to a heated bath and a night on a feather mattress, but it was not to be; destiny called.

  They passed through Hostown without pausing for more than a few items of food, then rode straight out the North Gate. The high road would lead them northeast for several days, edging away from the Southern Sea. Then it angled north through the kingdom of Hardyk, to their final destination of Vint. How much the storm would delay them, Sanych could only guess.

  “Equinox is in less than four weeks, Meena,” said Sanych worriedly, as they entered a dank forest where the cold air clung to them and spread low beneath the still-bare branches of thousands of leatherbarks.

  “How long would you expect it to take us to get to the Temple without the storm?”

  “Approximately twenty days, judging by how long it took me to get down to Hostown.”

  “Approximately? What, no books on horseback riding?”

  “Not between Highnave and Hostown, not explaining the terrain in between and how a horse might travel across it.”

  Meena looked over and sighed. “Sanych, can you imagine how much more useful you’d be if you got out more?”

  Sanych frowned, unsure if that was a compliment.

  Meena’s sharp eyes spotted a stand of sempergreens off the trail. She wordlessly grabbed Sanych’s reins and led her to them. Once in the sheltering space beneath the trees, Meena suggested they bundle up.

  While she was changing her clothes, Sanych did not notice what Meena was doing. When she finished tugging on her second wool tunic, Meena held out her oilskin duffel, now partially unstitched.

  “Wear this; it’ll keep the ice from freezing in your clothes. You’ll stay much warmer under it.”

  “What about your things?” Sanych asked, as she took the oilskin.

  “I’ll stow them somewhere.”

  “What about you? You only have the one duffel.”


  Meena began finding places for the belongings she had carried in the duffel, tucking them here and there amongst their other bags, on her person, or her saddle.

  “Meena?” The Shanallar had not answered Sanych’s question.

  “We’ll eat and rest here a little.” She smiled over at Sanych. “Quit worrying. We should travel any time the weather lets us, Sanych, day or night.”

  “I agree.”

  “I want you to take the lead. I can deal with the cold, but it’s all I can handle at one time. You’ll see.”

  Sanych frowned slightly, but nodded. She was the one who knew where they were going anyway.

  After resting and eating, they rode on. The storm began with an icy drizzle, strengthening into a freezing rain. With no leaves above their heads to block the frigid precipitation, they were pelted with fat drops that eventually froze anywhere they could. It felt like being gnawed on by rats with teeth of ice.

  Meena gave her reins to Sanych, then pulled a woolen hat onto her head beneath her cloak hood. She assumed a relaxed pose, eyes closed. “Sanych?”

  Sanych looked back. “Yes?”

  “When we stop, and you build a fire, don’t put me anywhere near it.”

  “What?” asked Sanych.

  “Just do as I say. Please.”

  There was a ‘please’. “All right,” said Sanych doubtfully, hoping she could understand later. It was the best she had come to hope for, traveling with such a closemouthed, mysterious person. It was enough to drive someone who craved knowledge, as she did, stark raving mad.

  Meena was quiet again, as Sanych started the horses into a brisk walk. At least they would not freeze; they were doing all the work. Meena was likely doing something with her healing ability to keep herself from freezing. That left Sanych to feel like an idiot, wearing a dismantled duffel on her head and shoulders.

  Night fell, and still they rode. For several hours, the distant crashing of the sea on unseen rocks echoed through the slumberous forest. Eventually, dawn began to illuminate the eastern clouds. After waking from a doze with a jerk that threatened to topple her onto the ice-coated road, Sanych worried that if she did fall off, Meena wouldn’t awaken, and they’d not find each other in time to get to Vint by the equinox. She began looking in earnest for a place to stop and rest.

  Finally Sanych saw a large enough clump of sempergreens to house them and their mounts, and she turned her horse toward it. As she dismounted, she realized she felt relatively warm and dry. The oilskin had helped immensely. Sanych’s eyes flicked to Meena, and she gave a shriek of fright.

  In the dim dawn, ice gleamed on the Shanallar’s hood and wool hat and froze across her cheeks. Her chin had a long icicle hanging from it. Sanych ripped off her glove and reached out her hand. Meena’s skin was ice cold.

  Galvanized into action, Sanych dragged Meena off her horse; her body was stiff with extreme cold, and very heavy. Sanych lost her balance and they toppled all the way to the needle-strewn ground. With a half-sob, Sanych wrenched herself out from under Meena and turned the woman face-up. Her eyes were iced shut. Sanych pulled her other glove off and melted the ice away with her hands. She listened for breath; watched Meena’s chest to see if it rose and fell.

  There! Or had it? Sanych abandoned her thoughts on personal space and put her ear to Meena’s chest, listening for a heartbeat.


  More nothing.

  “Folly’s bastards!” cursed Sanych, tears in her eyes from a gamut of emotions. “Beat!”


  “Oh, Wisdom, yes!” Sanych gasped. Her next thought was of a fire, but Meena’s words came back to her, and she abandoned the concept. One of the horses whickered softly, as if in quiet complaint to not being taken care of yet.

  Sanych quickly covered Meena in needles, then saw to the horses in an insulting rush, or so they seemed to tell her with their large brown eyes.

  Then she made a larger nest of needles for her and Meena, sweeping armfuls over them both. The insulation worked; in a few minutes, her shivering stopped, though her nose complained of the pitch-scented dust.

  Exhausted and warm, Sanych fell asleep.

  “Whmmnn?” came a groggy voice, sometime later.

  Sanych opened her eyes to see Meena staring at her. The woman’s green eyes looked around slowly in all directions, then back at Sanych.

  “Sanych?” Meena’s voice came slowly.

  “Meena.” The relief in Sanych’s voice was evident to the groggy woman.

  “Sanych, I’m only going to ask this once. And if I get the answer I want, I’ll let you live.”

  Sanych tensed; she hadn’t built a fire. Meena was still a little too groggy for Sanych to tell if she was kidding or not. “Yes?”

  “Am I naked?”

  Sanych burst into relieved laughter.

  “I mean it, girl, because I’ve got a sempergreen needle poking me in–” Meena gave up trying to talk; it was only making Sanych laugh harder. Finally she struggled to push Sanych away and sit up in the nest of needles. She found that she was in fact still wearing her substantial winter smallclothes.

  “How far did we come? How long has it been?” Meena asked, as she noticed the sky was dimming into dusk.

  Sanych reined in her mirth and sighed in happy relief. She summed up the night’s travel, and her frantic attempt to save Meena’s life when she realized the woman was coated in ice. “Meena,” she begged, “what did you do to yourself?”

  Meena could see things had not gone as she had planned. “I fig
ured you’d do what I’d do if I found a cold body.”

  “Which is?” Sanych frowned, mentally examining the options.

  “Never mind. As long as we ride in the ice storm, this will happen to me. When I warm up again, it has to be on my own. I know, it sounds backwards. But the more warmth around me that isn’t my own miniscule body heat, the longer it takes for me to warm up.”

  “Other warmth inhibits your own body’s processes?”

  “Sure, if you want to get all detailed.” Meena waved a dismissive hand.

  “How…how quickly does it take you if…”

  “If no one helps me? Half an hour. Sometimes less.”

  “Could…” Sanych’s face had gone pale, “could the fire, if I’d built one, could it have hurt you?”

  “Yes. If I was dragged from an underground river into a hot desert at midday, rewarming would kill me, probably several times.”


  “Never mind.”

  Sanych sighed through her nose. “You might have wanted to mention this thawing ability. Just for reference. Maybe for my sanity.”

  Meena considered briefly, then nodded. “A fair point. Far be it from me to make you panic and abandon my corpse before I can talk to your Magister. After all this time, it would seem such a waste.”

  Sanych took a moment to decide whether Meena was being serious, then snorted into laughter as she saw the smirk threatening to turn Meena’s face into a full-blown smile.

  “I did warn you, I haven’t been with people for some while. It’s hard to start tossing details of my life around. Even to you.”

  “But I’m the one who came and found you! If you can’t trust me, who can you trust?”

  “Exactly my point. I’m working on trusting you for that reason. But I can’t just jump back into a civilized realm and pick up where I left off. I live in that cave for a reason.”

  “Time you have, Shanallar,” Sanych murmured. “The rest of us aren’t so lucky.”

  Meena’s expression was unreadable, and she did not reply.

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