By Elizabeth Anderson
Two and a half years later.
Tika was fifteen. She was staying in the capital city, Yahvsin Tevoe, in hopes of work.
It’s hard to be a refugee from your hometown. Tika missed her brothers and father far more than she could have thought. Yet she wanted, no, needed to get away. She’d never have a successful life if she stayed in Tvarnaer. She’d never be happy, never feel like she mattered.
Of course it was odd for a young girl, scarcely past puberty, to live alone in a large city like Yahvsin Tevoe. Tika was very cautious, and stayed only with families and women, moving on after a little while so people would not find out her true situation. She’d find people who needed a runner and would run for them, taking their goods from place to place. A few times, a route took longer than she thought it would, and she’d be out after dark. She was lucky, though, and nothing bad had happened yet.
A week or so before the Winter Solistice, Tika was staying at Seree Mirin Yai’s. Mirin was in her late thirties, a respected woman with three children. Her eldest daughter was known locally for her beauty; she had gotten married over the summer to a wealthy man. Mirin’s second child, Kaeei, was a year older than Tika. The youngest of the family was eleven-year-old Twon, who was a very mischievous child. Mirin’s husband had died two winters before, but she had no shortage of help around the house.
Kaeei seemed to take an immediate interest to the little brown-haired, tough, hard-working visitor. Evening comes early during the winter in Rhetia. On Tika’s second day there, Kaeei convinced her to sneak up to the attic with him, where they had a long talk. Tika found herself confiding to her new friend.
“It was like…I was always an outcast in my village, my family wasn’t respected,” she explained when Kaeei asked her why she was a migrant.
“Oh. Do you know why?”
“Quarrels. My mom and her family.”
“Ah, I see,” Kaeei said. “Silly rules we have, yes?”
Tika grinned. “Yeah. Also, my mom died, and all I had were brothers, and I didn’t know how to do all the girl-chores. I was the runner for the village, so some people were nice, but most saw me as incapable.”
“You don’t seem incapable,” Kaeei said, leaning closer.
“Thanks,” Tika said with a shy grin.
Even though Tika enjoyed talking with her new friend, she knew she’d have to move on before the Winter Solistice. She didn’t want the neighbors gossiping that the new girl had nowhere to go for that special holiday. Even though it was the dead of winter, Tika had decided that she’d stay in the caves up on Mount Mavi, near what had once been the Leader’s House.
Strange events were happening in Rhetia, and, as a runner, Tika heard many of the stories but understood few. She’d never really understood Rhetian history and government; they were far too complex. Someone new was the leader; rumors stated that she was a foreigner and many Rhetians believed that she should not be running the country. Others said that the winds were against the old leader; the new one would bring good crops and prosperity.
Crops had been tough for four years before that year, but this year, they were finally good. Still, it was hard for Tika to afford a decent amount of food. Seree Mirin was feeding her in return for helping with the housework, but of course Tika needed to secretly buy food for Holiday. She also wanted to buy more blankets; she carried around with her the ones from her village, but she was worried she’d freeze.
Tika said a long and close goodbye to Kaeei before she left. He wished her luck and told her that he hoped to see her again sometime in the future. Tika made no commitments. She had no idea where she would go after Holiday. Seree Mirin wished her luck and told her to have a safe journey back to her family. Tika had told most people—everyone except for Kaeei—that she would be staying with some of her family.
“Maybe we’ll see you sometime!” Twon called cheerfully.
“Maybe,” Tika whispered. She did like Kaeei, and hated to leave him. She would have to sometime, though. Men of good standing didn’t bring in ugly little migrant girls; they found wonderful women who could take them into their homes. Tika didn’t have a home.
She headed towards the main shopping area of the district nearby, where few, if any, would know her. She bought food and blankets, finishing up almost all of her money Tika waited until night to head up the mountain. It was unlikely that she’d be caught, and no one would really care, but she felt a sudden urge to be alone, and where not a soul on Earth knew where she was.
It was dark by the time she left all human habitation. The stars shone through a slightly cloudy sky. Although the bright moon shining on the snow helped light her way up the mountain paths, Tika almost wished the sky was cloudier to keep the night from becoming too cold. It was already very cold. At least it wasn’t storming.
Eventually, she was too tired to walk any further. It had been dark for a long, long time. Tika carefully took the top blankets out of her bag, and a piece of bread. She ate the bread and some snow, cuddling up in the blankets a short ways off the path. She could only hope that the snow surrounding her would insulate her enough from the cold to keep her from freezing to death. Not that anyone would care. Even Kaeei would just guess that she’d moved on. Maybe he was sad to see her go, but she knew that he’d find someone else within a few months. It would probably be better to never go back there, to never know the pain of seeing him with someone else.
She woke with the first faint rays of the sun. Tika got her bearings and started walking up the mountain again. During the summer, it would have been an easy journey, but in the dead of winter, the snow made it very difficult. Too soon, she was tired again. She tried to eat some food, but it was frozen. She needed to find a cave and some decently dry branches to make a fire. Just keep walking, she told herself.
By midday, she’d gotten close enough to the caves that she knew she’d get there by nightfall. She was just a small, grey spot in the thinly forested mountain pine woods. The air was thin and cold; even Tika’s strong lungs were having difficulty.
She collapsed mid-afternoon, much too tired to go any further. She should have told Seree Mirin that her family lived too far away, and asked if she knew of a place to stay during Holiday. Of course, she would not have wanted to impose herself on the Yai’s. Most of all, she missed Kaeei’s warmth and chatter.
The only way that she was able to get herself to get up and keep going was to remind herself that she needed to get to the caves by night to find what she needed and start a fire. Old, scary stories began going through her head. She felt a little dehydrated, even though she’d been eating snow all day (she knew this was a bad way to get water, but she had no choice). She wasn’t extremely cold—her warm clothes took care of that.
At last, she was there. It was starting to lightly snow. Tika broke off some branches from the trees and went into one of the closer caves, the one that seemed the most inviting-looking. She searched through her bag until she found the fire-starter, two crafted pieces of metal she’d stolen from the village when she’d left. Tika still felt guilty about stealing, but knew that what she’d taken was worth so little value that the Tvarnaer villagers would never care. It wasn’t like she planned to return, either.
She scraped the pieces of metal together. She’d started fires before, and she was able to get a spark quickly and easily. It kept burning for a couple seconds, long enough to give the cave a little light, and then burning out. The wood was too wet from being out in the snow.
Tika was going to die.