Green Skive. The first time I saw her I gave chase, but I did not yet know her name, nor did I know that she was leading me. I was not pursuer, I was prey.
I knew, however, that she had assaulted the caravan of which I was a part, during a long, slow slog up a near-impassable road. Snowy Kalughnor was far from the place that had been my home. I was twenty-two. Eight years had passed since the Lonireilians took me from my parents’ farm, and one since I’d finally escaped their army.
The caravan carts, heavy things with banked sides and arrow-slits cut through the black whorled wood, covered overtop in steepled sailcloth to keep out the damp, were up to their iron axles in the snow. It was light, powder, but there was so much the oxen bellowed and shoved and farted their way up while we, the newest of the mercenary company, pushed behind, our gloved hands and shoulders sopping and freezing, pressed up against the backs of the carts. Our tevkas, the senior members of the mercenary company, called a ululating rhythm for us to heave by. The man beside me stank, as did we all, unwashed, unshaven for a week and sweating even as we froze beneath layers of skins and foul hides. His beard was covered in ice crystals from his breath and his own snot. He was Lonireilian, called Estevo, and I had first met him outside my family’s home while he smoked, when his company destroyed my home and my life.
We heaved in time with the singsong, rough shouts of the tevkas, driving our feet into sliding snow, forcing our shoulders against the wagon. Behind me, more than fifty men and five other wagons did the same. Their task was made somewhat easier by the trail we had left, trampled snow and churned earth and ox shit.
“If I had known,” I said to the Estevo, “that we were being hired as packbeasts instead of guards, I might have stayed in Lonireil.” I was lying, but he laughed anyway.
“If we’d stayed in Lonireil,” he said, “we’d be far worse off than packbeasts.” Estevo grunted as he slipped and I pulled him back upright.
“If you fall, I’ll actually have to start pushing,” I said. He laughed, but his grimace was all too plain.
We heard a cry, a new cry. Warning, a bell, a horn. We stopped and backed away, the cart very nearly sliding onto us, but the oxen surged and held it on the steep hillside on the snow-covered road. Exhausted, gasping, Estevo and I and the others spun at the warning bell and the new shouts and our hands went to spears, to axes and bows. I heard a pistol shot as I turned. That would be our leader. Only he had a powder weapon.
The hill below us was a mess, five other carts, thirty more shaggy oxen, fifty mercenaries and dozens of the weak traders who paid us. The air was filled with the steam of breath and sweat. All this stretched below on the vast bright hill, snow so white that it, truly, harmed the eyes. It made some men blind. The others, Kalughnorians speaking the grating tongue I barely understood, joked that my pale eyes would burn out of me in a week and indeed, they felt as if they might.
To either side of us stood dense black forest, tiers of trailing white on glistening coal-colored trees with short needles. The snow blew from them in streams like glinting edges on blades of wind. Among the carts below were men and horses and hump-backed ghanavocha, huge creatures, squat and brown, with hair to the ground and tall, gently curved pointed horns. Then, flying and cutting through it all, I saw her. I saw her for the first glorious moment and in my mind that moment stretched into the infinite.
Love at first sight is for poets, and though I name myself one, I have also said that I am old and have little time for falsehoods or embellishments, trivialities or nonsense. I did not love her then. I did not lust for her. I was exhausted, stinking, frozen through from sweat and ice, the kind that rakes your face with hot needles, rasps at every exposed inch of skin. I did not love her or want her, but the moment was perfect and I treasure it. It was looking on autumn leaves drifting over a stone cliff into a desolate gorge. It was a single thistle, dry, thorns covered in frost, standing against the bitter wind.
She rode like an icebreaker ship through the mercenaries on the back of a ghanavocha, carrying a glaive in one hand, the long, edged blade blinding. She swung the haft in a wild arc, perfect in its savagery, and three of the mercenaries, my tevka and two others, fell in gouts of crimson that sang on the frozen air like rubies. She directed the beast and it plunged amongst the others, waving its horned head. Silver caps decorated the tips. Silver bells jingled on its reins and tack, and green and silver embellishments and saddle blanket caught the too-bright sun.
We ran to surround her, but she was elemental. She dismounted in a whirling leap, her green greatcoat dancing. The beast fended off my company while she raced to the nearest cart and, in one blow, smashed open the side with her glaive. I felt the impact, truly, through the earth and snow. A gout of wind blew up. Snow fell from the nearby trees.
She seized something from within, a bag, and spun it over her head as a weapon in tandem with the glaive. In two steps, she cut down another of us, leapt to her ghanavocha, plunged into the forest. The remaining four tevkas cried out and our master, the rasakonova, gave chase on his ghanavocha. We chased as well, shouting, shrieking, and the woods took us.
I ran, me and my brother Estevo, for this was the chance. Whoever took her down would gain her ghanavocha and her weapon and armor. There would be no more pushing and stinking in the ox shit behind the cart. My breath came out of me as if dragged, clawing, but in the dark of the wood my eyes hurt less. Estevo fell behind, and with him half of our paired ambition. As the other mercenaries fell behind me as well, fell gasping in the snow, I ran on. Each of them that fell gave me hope. Each was one less rival. I stole their breath, their strength, for I’d none left of my own. I passed men on horseback, tevkas on snorting ghanavochas. I raced over rock, slipped, plowed through snowbanks, dodged black tree trunks. I raced on because I saw her. She slowed, turned, looked, brandishing the sack like a prize.
Her eyes were green, greener than the banner streaming from her saddle, her face hidden by an embroidered scarf that was the color of new mezakh shoots after rain in spring. Her eyes burned straight through me and then she turned and rode on and I followed. The prey, chasing the hunter.
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