Everyone thinks the Goddess of the Hunt can find anything, so they expect me to find one person with only a county as a clue. I can, of course, but Tibet is a large place. This might take time, and frost girl’s uncle did not have time.
Khione demanded to know why I had taken them to a fabric shop in Nagqu, so I left her in the front. In the back, Dujom told me what she knew of unexplained happenings in the mountain villages. She was secretive around those she did not know and would not have trusted strangers with her people’s rumors. Everyone here was more guarded than I remembered.
This modern woman in stylish clothing wove tales of winged creatures, mysterious disappearances, unexplained illnesses that left people depleted of all energy, and other unusual circumstances. They all were reminiscent of the horrors in the forests of Michigan, but none were exactly the same. I was certain these events were connected when I brought out the feather. Dujom did not say she recognized the faint scent. She may not have been consciously aware of it, but her pupils dilated, and she became agitated. After putting the feather away, she helped me narrow my search area to a smaller section of the mountain range using the rumors.
Khione stood in the corner scowling while her friend Aspen seemed to be having a marvelous time chatting about the outfits she could make with every piece of fabric in the store. Aspen was a delight to be around, so I bought her a few yards of beautiful material. This made her happy, gave us a reason for being in the store, and seemed to irritate Khione, which pleased me. That wasn’t fair to a woman worried about her family, so I tried not to be satisfied. Still, I smiled at the expression on Khione’s face when I let them know we would now be traveling by yak.
“I thought we would have a sherpa,” Aspen said on our way up a mountain.
I laughed. “You have seen too many movies, girl.” The more people in our party, the more chances of something going wrong. I don’t want to give the harpy extra targets if I don’t have to. Aspen accepted my answer, but Khione mumbled under her breath.
She also mumbled under her breath when the first place we looked did not produce her uncle. “You gave me very little to work with. Hunting takes patience and requires that we search,” I tried to explain patiently.
“We don’t have time. My uncle is in danger. Did you not grasp that?” she bit back.
I had seen this many times, so I counted to ten before speaking. Something had deeply wounded this woman. No good would come if I responded to her bait. “I understand, Khione. I do, but I’d rather not split up as there is dreadful cell reception in the Himalayas.”
I thought the frost on her face started to recede, but when Aspen giggled, the frost thickened.
On the second and third set of caves we explored, I found Aspen to be a huge help. She had experience tracking. We were able to scout ahead in two directions at once. She was hungry for knowledge and encouragement, so she learned quickly. Aspen spotted odd marks on the ice above the path, which most people would have been too focused on the ground to see. I ported up the side of the mountain to get a better look, and as soon as I started falling, I ported back to the ground and then up again. This gave me time to examine the marks on the ice and amused Aspen so much that I repeated the process a couple more times.
“It looks like wings brushed the ice, and there is a crack as if something hit the wall. The feather marks are larger than any bird in this area,” I explained to Aspen. “I also detected the same scent from the harpy’s wing,” I said to Khione. I handed Aspen the reins to my yak and told her to move the group forward while I followed this lead.
“Oh. Don’t bother asking the expert in ice to have a look at the wall of ice,” Khione muttered as I handed Aspen the reins.
My tolerance for the comments under her breath finally broke. “If I were confused on whether or not that was ice, I would ask you, but since I am now tracking a winged creature, I am sure I can manage,” I snapped back.
“Sure, you let her lead and boss us around like I’m inexperienced in the mountains?” Khione said, confusing me. I could not understand why she always found something to gripe about. “Aspen’s doing a better job than you are, finding marks and trails, and she’s mortal. All you’re doing is sniffing feathers,” Khione snipped and gestured so emphatically that she startled the yak and nearly threw her off balance.
Laughter escaped from my lips before I could hold it back. Honestly, I don’t know how hard I tried to stop it. “Let’s just focus on finding your uncle.”
“Why should I believe you’d have my best interests in mind? I don’t think you’d care if my uncle was alive, as long as you find what you’re searching for!” Khione yelled while trying very hard not to fall off the yak and land in her precious snow.
It took all I had not to knock her off the yak. “I wouldn’t have known your uncle’s life was in danger unless you had told me. You came to me and asked me for help. Help that I am giving you!” I yelled back and stomped up to her. “I stopped a search I was on, a search that was important to me, just to help your uncle so you can stop wasting my time with your petty bullshit. If you care about your uncle, you will follow the mortal, who is certainly doing a far better job than you, and let me do my work.”
Before she had a chance to respond, I ported back up to the wing marks and hung onto the cliff wall. I found foot and handholds and scaled the wall, losing myself in tracking. My anger could be dangerous, so I took my time.
A few hours later, I strolled into the camp they had set up in my absence, much calmer and ready for dinner. “Nice camp, Aspen,” I said as I greeted my yak. “Thank you for keeping my girl safe.” I nodded at Khione.
“The trail leads to a set of caves a few miles north. In the morning, we will go in together to get your uncle. Let’s get to sleep early. Tomorrow could bring battle.” I said.
In the morning, I suggested we leave the yaks behind and port to caves. This set frosty off again. “It’s about time we leave the stench behind. Maybe you can smell the way better.”
“That is enough,” I said and walked up to Khione. “You asked for my help which I am giving to you, and yet you clearly wish I was not.” I lowered my voice and got close to force her to look me in the eyes. “If you have something to say to me, say it now before we go into battle. What have I done to make you so angry and distrustful of me?”
“What did you do? Seriously?” She went off on me. “You’ve managed to forget that not only did your damn arrow go through me and kill my friend’s mother, but you also nearly killed me and took away any and all chances for me to have another child. That’s what you did!” Khione’s eyes turned dark blue and swirled. Snow fell and started to swirl around her.
I had been ready to fight this woman but froze in horror. What was she talking about?
Khione grabbed her abdomen as if it hurt, and her eyes glistened with tears. “And no one even cared to find out if I survived your deadly arrow. They were too distracted by Chione’s death and who would raise Autolycus and Phillammon, your nephews.” The tears fell. “But I missed the chance to raise my only child, and I’ll never get that chance again.”
No, no, no. A memory from long ago floated up to the surface. There was a gathering of some sort. The old memories could take their time unfolding. I saw a young Khione dressed up for the evening and looking as annoyed as I had grown to know her on this trip. Someone had been picking at me all night, so my temper was short. It had always been short in those days. What happened that night?
Khione had lifted her shirt to show me my arrow’s scar on her abdomen. She now clutched her stomach in grief, and angry tears froze on her face. The snow swirled around us, threatening to freeze me, but I could not move.
I did not want this to be true. They had been joking, taunting all of us. The last joke was about who was more beautiful. Was that right? I cared not for beauty or others’ opinions. A realization crashed over me then as I remembered a time when I did care for such things. Back then, I was just as selfish as the rest of them. That was why I started staying away as much as possible, because I did not like who I was around the family.
I had always been happiest and most comfortable alone or with animals. Alone in the woods or on a hunt, my path was clear, and I knew who I was, but I could be provoked so easily when around the taunting insults. I never cared to be beautiful for anyone, but as soon as someone told me someone was more attractive, faster, a better shot, or more of anything, my competitive nature kicked in, and I had to teach them a lesson.
This could not be happening. I hated that part of myself. I’d fought so hard to learn to control my explosive temper, to stay the person I was proud to be rather than just react to insults. The second part of that memory came back, and I dropped into the snow.
I had been so angry that I had shot at the crowd. My arrow found this innocent woman. It must have been one of the poison arrows I used back then to leave her barren. I had spent a lifetime protecting women. It was my focus, my job, and my calling to help women. I had helped in countless childbirths. It was my favorite thing, yet I had taken that from Khione.
I looked up at her and had no idea what to say.
She looked devastated, which pulled me out of my selfish thoughts. I had seen that look on the faces of countless women who had been abused and tortured. Just because I was to blame this time made no difference in what I had to do. Well, I was not going to hunt myself down, but the rest of it was the same. I was who I was back then, and there was no getting past that.
I pulled myself up and stood in front of her. Snow clung to my clothes, but I made no move to brush it away or warm myself from the flurry swirling around us. “I apologize for my actions, Khione,” I said to this wounded creature as softly and directly as I could. “There is no excuse for what I did to you, and I know I can never understand what it cost you.”
I let her absorb my words, prepared for whatever reaction came. “I would like to try to help if you will allow me.”